Access. That's what the manuscript submission game is all about. Getting access to publishers. Getting access to literary agents. If you've been sending out your manuscript, you know what a grind it is. You've probably wished there were an easier way.
There's no shortage of services that offer to grant your wish, claiming to provide an alternative to the conventional submission process or to leapfrog you past the slush pile. Submission services promise to streamline the tedious process of research and querying. Manuscript display websites put snippets of your work online in hopes that agents and publishers will stop by and be impressed. Book coaches and literary consultancies offer to help you polish your submission materials, and to match you up with the right agent or publisher. All, of course, for an often-hefty fee.
Most services of this kind are directly sourced in the hopes and frustrations of the writing community, with entrepreneurs perceiving writers' desire for access, and marketing a service to (supposedly) provide it. Publishers see the problem also, however, and over the years have tried in various ways to address it--some successful, some not. A few examples:
- In 2000, Del Rey, a Random House imprint, launched its Digital Writing Workshop, which offered a peer critique system for unpublished writers, with participation by Del Rey editors and the possibility that top-rated books would be acquired for publication. (This workshop is now the Online Writing Workshop for SF, Fantasy, and Horror, and no longer associated with Del Rey. As far as I know, no books were ever acquired through the workshop.)
- In 2001, Time Warner (now Grand Central Publishing) unveiled iPublish, a project that promised to find new talent by allowing writers to submit unsolicited manuscripts, and using a reader rating system to pass promising works up the line to Warner editors. Launched in a blaze of optimism about the potential of ebooks (titles were to be published as ebooks first, moving to print only after they'd showed some momentum), iPublish foundered on the realities of the ebook market--and also, possibly, on the unpredictability of reader ratings. It closed its doors after publishing just a few titles. (It was also the subject of controversy for its author-unfriendly contract.)
- In 2006, Pan Macmillan created the Macmillan New Writing program, which does away with the "agented only" policy of most major publishers, and lets authors submit unsolicited manuscripts (the tradeoff for authors is no advances). Unlike iPublish, Macmillan New Writing is still alive and doing well.
- In 2007, Simon & Schuster collaborated with Gather.com and MediaPredict for three people's choice-style contests designed to discover promising new writers without the help of literary agents. (There's currently no indication that these contest initiatives are continuing.)
- Penguin had the same aim when it partnered with Amazon.com in 2008 for the Breakthrough Novel Award. (Will the Award will be more than a one-off? No word as yet.)
- Many major publishers run in-house competitions for unpublished writers, with a publishing contract as the prize--for instance, the Delacorte Yearling Contest, or the three contests for mystery writers conducted by St. Martin's Press.
Now comes the latest beat-the-slush endeavor: Authonomy from HarperCollins UK. Authonomy has been in private testing since last spring, and opened to the public in beta just this week. On Authonomy's FAQ page, Harper explains the project thus:
HarperCollins, like all publishers, is inundated with new manuscripts, and cannot hope to consider them all fairly. We don’t feel that our current, closed ‘slush pile’ system is fair to authors themselves – nor do we believe it is giving us the best chance of finding the brightest new talent. authonomy is a genuine attempt to find a better way to determine the books on our shelves – and it hands selective power to the readers who will ultimately be buying them.
Writers with book-length manuscripts can upload anywhere from 10,000 words to a complete manuscript for visitors to read and rate. Authonomy uses the number of visitor recommendations to rank the submissions; visitors are also ranked, based on how consistently they choose highly-rated books. Once a month, 10,000 words of the top five books are reviewed by what Authonomy describes as "an editorial board made up of international HarperCollins commissioning editors," which provides "feedback, comment and assistance." Authonomy also holds out the hope that agents and publishers will become part of the Authonomy talent-spotting community. And here's the real payoff: "HarperCollins hopes to find new, talented writers we can sign up for our traditional book publishing programmes – once we’re fully launched we’ll be reading the most popular manuscripts each month as part of this search."
Authonomy is free--for now. Its Terms and Conditions allow it to change that policy at any time. Otherwise, there are no "gotchas" that I can see.
Writers may wonder about the very large amount of material Authonomy members are encouraged to put online. Will posting big chunks of a work-in-progress, or even entire manuscripts, pose rights issues? Here's how Harper addresses that question:
We really see no particular reason why a manuscript that’s been showcased online should lose any of its value to an interested publisher.
Indeed, it’s central to the authonomy concept that a writer with a proven readership is often more valuable to a publisher, not less. Book companies now regularly snap up volumes from high profile bloggers and promising self-publishers with existing readerships. It’s a good thing to prove that you’ve the enthusiasm and the skills to help make your project a success.
While I don't buy into the notion that Authonomy can help writers build readership--a few hundred reader recommendations hardly constitutes a following--I agree that showcasing a manuscript online is probably not an issue, as long as it's not being promoted for sale. The notion that merely by posting your manuscript online you exhaust your first publishing rights dates back to the early days of the Internet, when the concept of electronic rights was brand-new and it wasn't clear what sort of competition they might present to print rights. I doubt that many editors these days would be greatly bothered. (A more relevant question, in my opinion, is how bothered they might be that you’d posted your manucript on a website sponsored by a rival publisher--especially if you’re currently submitting your manuscript elsewhere.)
So is Authonomy, at last, the new submission paradigm that unpublished writers dream of? Um, not really. Manuscript display, peer critique, reader rankings, potential publisher cherrypicking: Harper has put it all together very nicely, and given it a gloss of social networking, but really, there’s not very much that’s new here. Authonomy simply moves the slush pile online, employing a different vetting mechanism (readers rather than literary agents) but ultimately providing no greater access to editors--who, as in the offline world, only look at top-vetted manuscripts. It's certainly an interesting experiment, and I will be fascinated to see how it works out. But Authonomy doesn't change the basic equation for writers. It just provides an alternate field of struggle.