Anatomy of Authonomy

I recently discovered the website Authonomy, a writer-focused site owned by publishing giant Harper Collins and supported by a vast community of writers desperately hoping to be noticed among all the other writers desperately hoping to be noticed. It’s really something.

For those who don’t know — in other words, people like the Adam Armour of two weeks ago — Authonomy allows writers to upload large portions of their manuscripts to the site, after which members of the community will, in theory, read and comment on said manuscripts. If these readers like it enough, they can give it a star rating. If they really, really like it enough, they can give the manuscript one of their precious spaces on a small virtual bookshelf, which gives people who like that person’s writing a chance to see your work, too. Manuscripts are given ratings based on how many people have rated, shelved or added them to watchlists. My ranking is currently 5,322 … I ain’t doing so hot.

Eventually, if enough people check out and like a given manuscript, its rating will reflect its popularity and the thing will end up in the slush pile at Harper Collins, giving its author a chance at the elusive fortune and glory that all traditionally-published authors have obtained.  It’s a neat and somewhat fascinating concept. I’m also not fully convinced it works the way it’s intended.

I signed up for the site last week. Please allow me to describe what I’ve learned.

First thing’s first: When you sign up for the site, in addition to all the usual crap like name and address and that little box you have to click on so that the evil masters of the Internet don’t send you a billion emails a day, you must upload a fairly large chuck of writing. I’m talking, at least 10,000 words. Now, supposedly, the more you upload, the better. People who read your manuscript — and people WILL read it, sort of — will have a better idea of your story and writing ability if there’s more to see. You also have to upload it in chapters, which kind of throws off any novels with unusual structures. Something like Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, for instance, which doesn’t have any chapters, would be royally screwed.

You also have to give your manuscript a cover image. If you don’t have one, Authonomy has a bunch of generic ones from which to choose. I took ten minutes to toss one together using a Godzilla toy, two tiny pieces from The Game of Life board game and a piece of blank paper for the background. Here it is:

After you’re done admiring the hot piece of awesome that is your cover art, you create what’s called a “short pitch” — a twenty-five word slug meant to draw readers your way like candy in the hand of a van-driving pervert. Here’s mine:

A mountainous pile of living trash, a neurotic monster hound, several hundred golem-like creatures and one misanthropic sniper all walk into a small town…

You then follow that up with a “full pitch,” which is essentially the kind of thing you send to a literary agent: two-hundred words that should make your novel sound like less than the trash it is. If you scroll down this page, you’ll find my query letter; that’s’ essentially what I used.

After you’ve posted all that to the site, you’ll categorize your book and add a few tags so people can find it and then you’re essentially done with all the technical crap. Now, it’s time to sit back and let people find, read and hate your work. Oh boy!

OK, that last part is sort of untrue. If you really want your manuscript to be read from all the billions of other manuscripts available on the site, you need to promote. Hop over to the site’s forums and start plugging the crap out of the thing. Comment on other people’s books, they’ll visit yours and return the favor. Really, getting people to look at your writing is relatively easy; getting them to do anything beyond the perfunctory glance is the difficult part.

Which brings me to what I dislike about Authonomy, at least initially. While I like the idea of a cool writers-only community — after all, all writers like to talk about writing, but no one wants to hear about writing but other writers — Authonomy is more of a food-chain kind of deal. I uploaded about a third of “Strange Beasts…” because I wanted to get some feedback from other writers. I, quite honestly, don’t care much about moving up the ranks and having my manuscript wind up in the hands of a slush reader at Harper Collins. Sure, it would be neat, but I’m fairly convinced what I’ve written isn’t really marketable in the normal sense.

Sorry, you’re probably imagining that I typed that last statement while wearing my haughtiest expression, but I’m not. It’s good to be easily marketable. I totally understand why agents and publishers only want things that are easily marketable. I just didn’t want to write that kind of thing. I’m not saying what I’ve written is better than anything by a aspiring children’s book author, or youth fiction writer, or chick-lit author or anyone like that. It’s not. I just didn’t write that kind of stuff.

My goal, more or less, was honest feedback about what I’d written. I thought it would be neat to have some opinions from complete strangers while my beta readers suffered through the full manuscript. Authonomy seemed like the place to get that.

Almost immediately after signing up and uploading a manuscript, the Authonomy user is bombarded by spam messages. Apparently, the site has its own little messaging system and also apparently this is used for nothing but comments like, “Hey man, saw your name. It looks cool. Your book looks cool. Monsters are cool. If you like monsters, be sure to check out my top 200 ranking book, ‘For the Love of a Centurion. ‘ Thanks.”

According to the site’s “newbie thread,” these kinds of messages are acceptable because they solicit readers, and that’s the goal of the site. To be read…by any means necessary. The thread also encourages the Authonomy user to “trade reads,” i.e. agree to read someone’s book if they’ll read yours. It’s kind of like “playing doctor,” only more boring and without the awkwardness a few years later.

The thread also suggests commenting on the forums because that will generate reads. This is true, actually. Taking this advice, I popped into a thread for a book I genuinely thought had a cool title and posted my thoughts. Three hours later, the author had read my 46,000 uploaded words, commented on my book and asked that I read hers. Kind of neat.

This also highlights one of the fundamental problems I have with Authonomy: People aren’t reading your book because they’re genuinely interested in the subject matter; they just want you to read what they’ve written. It’s like engaging in a conversation just so you can hear yourself talking when the other person shuts up. Although this commenter was nice enough to say she thought my writing was good — a compliment I always enjoy — she also seemed to have read through the uploaded chapters so quickly that she mixed several distinct characters into one and thought any chapter that was used to set a scene rather than specifically move one aspect of the plot forward were wasteful. She didn’t understand who the main character was because each chapter switched perspectives (there’s a few main characters) and that a novel should be paced like a movie. I’m really not sure why. I like novels that take a little time to get going. A slow burn, if you will. Not everything needs to be a 200-page, high-octane thriller.

I’m not saying she’s entirely wrong about any of this, of course. My book is, admittedly, kind of slow in parts. But if she’s going to remove entire chapters full of setting and character development, question my pacing and use of multiple protagonists, she should at least have the courtesy to figure out that two distinct characters with entirely different names — Madam Reyes and Lily Hume —and personalities who, as far as I can tell, have nothing in common other than location and sex aren’t the same person.

She also thought the entire novel should be set in Japan, like the opening scene. Suggestion noted.

Another “reader” commented that he enjoyed my writing style (thank you again) and really liked the first chapter but didn’t think the whole novel should be formatted like a textbook unless it’s funny, which it isn’t. Only the first three pages of the book are formatted this way, by the way. It’s the introduction.

He then told me he would eventually read more, but he had a lot to read right now and would I please visit his book and read it thank you.

I wanted to be a part of a cool writers-only community. These aren’t the droids I’m looking for.

See, I think I can relate to the problem with Authonomy. Years ago, I…ahem…acquired a bunch of Super Nintendo roms from the Internet. Yes, yes…save your speeches. I know. Having access to so many fantastic games was so awesome, but also completely overwhelming, in a way. You see, because I could pretty much play anything, I didn’t spend any time getting to know any one particular game very well. If a game didn’t strike my fancy in the first few seconds of booting it up, then I’d move on. After all, I have umpteen billion other games I could be playing. Why settle?

Here’s why: Sometimes, things take a while to get going. For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer season one kind of sucks. After that, kind of rules. When I look at a book in a bookstore and consider buying it, I’ll read the back and the first page or two, I’ll flip to the middle and maybe read a little more. If anything in there strikes my fancy in the least bit, there’s a good chance I’ll either buy it, make a note of buying it or pick it up from the library. I’m willing to give that thing a chance.

But, like a bunch of illegal roms sitting on the hard drive of my Fujitsu laptop in the early 2000s, Authonomy presents its users with more options than they know what to do with. Commenter #2 read one chapter, liked what he read except the novel’s format that isn’t even really the novel’s format and then moved on. After all, there are thousands of other free books out there. And the more books he reads, the more people will read his book, which ties back to the first problem I have with Authonomy.

Nobody gives a shit what you’ve written — only what they’ve written. To me, that makes the whole community thing collapse in on itself. The site is supposed to be about writers helping other writers. Instead, it’s a self-promotion machine.

No sir, I don’t like it. Or, at least those aspects of it.

Anyway, I’m done talking. Thanks for reading all that, if you did. If you’d like to check out some of the sample chapters, here’s the link to Strange Beasts in a Small Town.

You don’t have to sign up for the site to read, but please drop back by here and give me some feedback. I’d genuinely love to hear it, good or bad.

That is, as long as it’s earnest.

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2 thoughts on “Anatomy of Authonomy

  1. Pingback: Slush Pile Snark | Chazz Writes

  2. Pingback: I Had An Idea. | I'm Trying to Write.

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