Somebody told me on Facebook today that Harper Collins is shutting down its online slushpile, Authonomy, on 30th September 2015.
Authonomy. That brought back some memories.
Harper Collins started the site in 2007/8 and soon thousands of aspiring hopefuls swelled the ranks of members. Authonomy expected you to load up at least ten thousand words of your manuscript to enable other members to read and review your work. If they liked it, they would place the book on their virtual bookshelf, effectively one vote. The idea was that the five books which had accumulated the most votes as at the end of a month would be awarded a gold star, and would receive a ‘professional’ review from the HC editors, with a possible view to getting an HC contract. You can see why we all signed up with stars in our eyes.
At first, it was a wonderful website. I met many of my writer friends there. The late MM Bennetts was one. She helped me to hone my historical novel, To Die a Dry Death – and wrote the sonnet for Jeronimus, that being beyond my skill. Although she has left the planet, her wonderful wit, wisdom and knowledge of history stay with us at her website. Do take a look.
Diane Nelson was another. She published my first science fiction romance, The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy, through her now defunct publishing house. She’s now my good friend and editor – as well as being a talented writer under the pen name Nya Rawlyns. I met and worked with Gemi Sasson Brickson, author of a wonderful Robert the Bruce trilogy and a heap of other books since then. Elspeth Cooper, who has been runner up for the David Gemmell fantasy award, was another.
I never won the gold star. But then I don’t think it ever did anyone any good. Sure, HC published a few books plucked from the slushpile. But I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that by the time you got into the top ten of any genre (which I did), the talent scouts would have had a look. Winning the gold star wouldn’t make any difference. At first, the race for the leader board was polite. I’ll never forget one memorable month when Pete Morin (Boston lawyer) and Charles Utley (London lawyer) both had their books hovering on the fifth spot. Each supported the other in a sportsmanlike manner, urging their own followers to vote for the others’ book. In the end, I think Pete’s got the gong first. The next month it was Charles’s turn. Or the other way around. But it didn’t matter – neither received an HC contract.
But it was too good to last. Pretty soon the gamers moved in. They realised before the rest of us that for HC it was never about the quality, always about which book was most likely to sell. People began to trade shelves. “I’ll back your book if you back mine.” Actually reading the book was an optional extra. One fellow clearly watched the screen showing who had just joined. He would soon “review” and back their book. The thing was he never read more than the blurb. I suspected as much when he reviewed To Dry a Dry Death, mentioning things that never appeared in the book, but are alluded to in the blurb. He was caught out when somebody wrote a blurb on a book that contained nothing but a few words, repeated over and over and over. One woman went even further -she backed the book as soon as it was loaded, and sent a message saying she would review later. Of course, both these people sent messages reminding you if you didn’t reciprocate quickly. The messages feature became an inbox for spam, with people offering swaps, or urging members to ‘back their books’. The forums, which had been lively places to exchange views and have some fun (while doing a bit of marketing) became a bear pit of accusations, vitriol and back-stabbing.
The final straw, for me and many others of the old guard, came when a REAL gamer joined Authonomy. This fellow had a following of thousands in the online gaming community. He had also written a book. He created a Youtube video, explaining to his game followers how to join the website, and how to then back his book. His book soared into the top contenders virtually overnight. We were scandalised. Most people reached the top of the tree through real hard work, reading and reviewing at least the first chapter of hundreds of books to increase visibility in the hope people would reciprocate. (Mind you, as people neared the top, it was known for some to back every book they opened. After all, the prize was in sight.) Quite a few of us, muttering oaths about ‘fairness’, resigned then and there, and repaired to Facebook to lick our wounds. Many of us, now bitter and twisted, signed up with small presses, or self-published. Really, looking back, we were naive. The race was always about popularity, never about quality.
Still and all, I enjoyed my time on Authonomy. I met many friends all around the world who are still my friends, and I became a better writer. I learned a few lessons, such as don’t take advice from everyone, especially people who do not read your genre. Even then, beware of false praise. And beware of people who can do nothing more than spruik the “rules of writing”. I cringe when I think of some of the “advice” I offered. It was all with the best of intentions, of course. But nowadays I think advice is a bit like magic – given sparingly, if at all. There are other sites around. I joined a few, but none were ever like the Authonomy of old. These days I meet my friends on Facebook. If I need a critique, I ask a few trusted friends whose opinions I value.
Thanks for the memories, Authonomy. It was fun – but I won’t miss you.