Publishers and the tangled Web: Guest Blog

** Update**
I’ve frozen comments because I think it’s getting a bit heated and I’m fairly sure that is not warranted. I’m also a little concerned about what is being said in some of them, so if they disappear over the next day or so, it will have been me removing them, feel free to e-mail me concerns if you have them.

Alexander McNabb*

Given the discussion around the web about Authonomy, I decided to invite Alexander McNabb to guest blog about his experiences and the ideal slushpile online! I was impressed by how forcefully he put his view across, I might not always agree, but I think you will find his views interesting at the very least. His bio is below and you can read some of his own material here!

Analogue in a digital world
The publishing industry is famously crusty, but when I first submitted an MS to the UK’s literary agencies five years ago, I was stunned to find them being quite so resolutely analogue. While the rest of the world was starting to experiment with Web 2.0, agents were insisting on printed MSs and SAEs or, in my case, international postal coupons. Not only would they not consent to respond by email, many sent quaint notes on compliment slips or photocopied rejections. One specimen arrived in a delightful copperplate hand on exquisite cream laid Conqueror.

Having found that most agents in the UK disagreed with my own assessment of my genius, I wandered off and wrote a second book. And so, two years later, I sent off another round of three chapters, slidebound, double spaced 12 point Times, indented paras; synopsis, covering letter, international postal coupon and self addressed envelope. This time around, a few agents accepted email queries, a couple even accepted the MS by email and a good handful had websites. This, then, was progress.

After that book went nowhere, I hung up my pen. I didn’t have the energy to sit down and write another one. Last year, I finally heaved my overweight carcass back into the chair and started to write again. I was 25k words in when a post on Boing Boing led me to Authonomy.

Discovering the internet
The publishing industry had discovered the Internet while I’d been away. Sites like You Write On had sprung up, literary agents and even publishing people actually had blogs. They might still be wearing tank tops and smoking pipes, but they were doing it online. I was, as they say, sore amazed.

And Authonomy appeared to be a piece of transformational thinking. The site, from mega-publisher Harper Collins, allowed writers to upload part or all of their manuscripts and then provided a forum for them to not only discuss writing and publishing, but also to promote (‘plug’) their books. Why? Because every member of Authonomy got five ‘bookshelf’ spaces in which to put books they liked. Very quickly, most people using the site appeared to reach a consensus that the standard they would apply would be whether they would buy the book in the real world. The more bookshelves you got, the higher up the rankings your book went. At the top lay the prize to end all prizes. A read and critique from a Harper Collins editor. At the end of each month, at midnight, the top five manuscripts (those on ‘The Editor’s Desk’) would be skimmed off to be sent to HC editors.

The rewards of Authonomy?
Now most writers know how hard it is to get feedback. After over 150 agent submissions, I had gained a few positive comments and encouraging words along with an awful lot of rejection slips. It’s lonely out there. And eny fule no that getting in front of a Harper Collins editor is nigh on impossible: HC doesn’t accept unagented submissions, for a start. Most would give at least a sizeable chunk of their left leg to put their book up for review. With its original taglines, ‘publishing contract anyone?’ and ‘Beat the slush’, Authonomy seemed to be a piece of brilliant thinking, disintermediating the gatekeeper agents and providing a peer-review website (you can never be sure, but I think I ‘coined’ that positioning) that helped to hone and select work for HC’s editors to review.

In Authonomy’s early days (I was one of the first few people on there after it went ‘public’, it had been through testing with a ‘beta’ community for a few months before) there were some pretty bad glitches. The first of these was the discovery that people would not only get friends and family to vote (something HC’s original FAQ for the site suggested people do) but that they’d actually rope in everyone they knew. The result was that books of questionable merit shot up to the top of the rankings. One example was virtually unreadable. The shame of this was that there were some good books up there too, at the time.

Power laws
HC moved quickly to deal with this and writers were assigned a ‘talent spotter’ ranking as well as a ranking for their books. This was increased if you ‘backed’ a book that subsequently rose up the ranks. Now the site was weighted – your mum only gave you a tiny little vote, while a top talent spotter could launch you up the ranks from wilderness to the top couple of hundred books. As for the rest, you had to convince people to read your book. And that was the fun bit.

The art of plugging a book on Authonomy was conceived as everyone realised that the only way you were going to get people to read your book was to promote the hell out of it. By now there were way over 1,000 books up there and competition to get to the top was getting fierce. Being active on the forums, thinking up new ways to drive readers over to your book, reading other people’s books and editing your work as feedback came in from readers was a frenetic round of activity, consuming considerable time. By the way, reading books onscreen is not easy. In fact, it’s a real pain in the eyes.

But I cannot for one second pretend it wasn’t incredible fun.

Much of the content on the forums came from writers wondering what Authonomy was all about: what HC’s intention was for the site. A number of us were of the view that it was a perfect talent spotting vehicle – a beauty contest that not only evaluated the quality of the work on offer, but that also selected the most talented and committed promoters and marketers. Writers that knew how to ‘do a Pratchett’, that would survive in the competitive, egalitarian world of the Internet and its communities.

There was great speculation about HC’s intentions and goals, but we all knew one thing. The entire rationale of the site was to provide a vote-based selection process for new talent. That’s all you could do on the site, all it offered. So it stood to reason that getting onto that desk, getting in front of that editor, was what the site was all about.

Trouble in paradise
It wasn’t. When HC announced, responding to a tide of criticism of the published editorial critiques, that its editors were scanning the site regardless of book rankings, many realised that there was something wrong in Eden. The next round of critiques (which included my book) sparked a furious reaction from a number of people on the site and was followed by speculation on the forums that twelve writers had been picked by HC for a ‘special project’. A wave of optimism followed this, even surviving the eventual realisation from those populating the site (we’re looking at about 2500 books uploaded by this time) that the ‘special project’ was sharing the book pitches with other publishers and agents to promote Authonomy.

By now, a number of the earlier adopters of the site had become less enthusiastic about it. And it’s hardly a wonder, either. A pattern had emerged that runs up to the present day, with HC’s announcement that Authonomy will support a ‘POD button’ through a tie-up with POD company Blurb.

The entire process of communication with the Authonomy ‘community’ has been one-way. HC has consistently either announced new features or responded to criticism. It has allowed constant speculation about the nature of the site, presumably not realising that this is actually a negative thing. That speculation existed because Harper Collins was not clear about its intentions and purpose in the first place and chose to manage Authonomy using ‘old world’ corporate thinking.

Many respected business analysts are now pointing to a new type of thinking in business, neatly encapsulated in the (sorry, it’s rather ‘fashionable’) book Wikinomics. That thinking is built around the idea that companies in the Internet age can’t afford to continue operating as silos. That research and development, for instance, is better off shared among a wider community of intelligences. That thinking also recognises that we are heading for a world where people are rewarded in different ways.

Take bloggers Perez Hilton or Arianna Huffington. They have never charged a penny for people to access their blogs, thinking that would be anathema to a newspaper proprietor, for instance, who has been used to charging for content. But both bloggers are now influential figures in their fields who can command a wide range of fees for other activities. Take Linux. IBM (my client, sorry) put $10 billion into Linux, an operating system that it does not own. Linux has been developed by a global community of committed ‘geeks’ based on an ‘open source’ license. Not one of those geeks is paid for working on Linux, which is free to the user.

Why would IBM put $10bn behind that software? Because it can make more money on providing the hardware, software and services around the software. And by being an active and sincere member of the Linux community, it carved a position of respect from that community and leadership in the technologies that the community develops. You see my point here? These companies have found new ways to use communities to drive their businesses in new directions. I’m restricted here by time and space and your attention span, but believe me there are thousands more examples out there. The Internet is changing the way we look at revenue streams in business forever because of communities.

So what has that got to do with Authonomy? Because Eoin asked me to write what I thought my perfect publisher’s submission/slushpile website would be. And I would answer today, Authonomy. The Authonomy I first went to was a great slushpile site, but I do not believe Authonomy was ever intended to be a slushpile site.

Authonomy had so much to offer. I loved the idea of a website that allowed readers, people like me, to have an influence on the types of books we’d like to see in the shops. I found more good books on Authonomy than I found in any bookshop over the three months I was active on the site. Quirky, different, challenging, dark, beautiful books. Many other members of the community agreed: there’s more good up there in that stack of 3500 (my, how it’s grown!) books than you’ll find browsing many a bookshelf. They’re not all rom-com chic-lit or uplifting novels of human fortitude. But I happen to honestly believe that if publishing is really coming down to that, then it needs to keep a very careful eye out for fat ladies.

The model that I suspect informed Authonomy is there and plain for all to see. The music industry was tired, flaccid and fat. Formulaic music churned out by cynical executives to an audience of listless kids. Knapster and Kazaa didn’t just provide free music, they provided diversity and choice.

Suddenly I can get music, loads of music, online. New music, challenging music, music I like to hear. The principal of payment was never under debate – iTunes is a phenomenon. Record stores are closing down by the day because we’re all off buying our music online. Brilliant online services such as Pandora are springing up, introducing people to new music from a new world of choice. YouTube is breaking new acts and revitalising careers: the Arctic Monkeys were discovered online, Alannis Morrissette’s flagging career was transformed by a single video. Suddenly music is alive, vibrant, diverse and exciting again. And we’re buying it. Only not from record shops. And possibly not from record companies.

The idea of combining a collection of pretty much every new writer in the UK (and beyond) with the BookArmy readers’ website is a smart one. You can see now how adding that POD button means that readers on Book Army will be encouraged to take a look at some of that new writing. How that could possibly make Authonomy the ‘iTunes of literature’.

That is why I believe Authonomy is a platform play from Harper Collins. But I think it will fail. I think it will fail because you can’t be insincere with a community and treat people whose content your platform depends upon with disrespect. I think it will fail because it doesn’t provide a rich enough platform to transform reader interaction with the writers and their worlds – integration to other social media vehicles, supporting blogging and other social features designed for readers, not submitters, to use. And I think it will fail because people will drift away from it as they realise that Authonomy is not what it said on the box (BTW, the title of my original blog post, put up in anger after I had received an email offering me ‘early adopter’ benefits for the POD scheme and asking me not to reveal this to other community members).

A site like that needs the active participation in the community of the organisation behind it. With sincerity that wins the trust of the community. You cannot run online communities, you have to be part of them. You have to accept the principle that you give up ownership in favour of participation. Putting up a patronising blog post every week or so from an editor, or the occasional forum intervention from an unnamed contributor in response to critical threads is not really what Web 2.0 is about, is it? Even the critiques on Authonomy are from unnamed editors. But then my argument is that it was never about critiques.

I suspect many of the people who have used Authonomy would have bought the idea of the platform play if it was laid out in front of them. I suspect many won’t now. And I believe that is purely and simply because a publisher failed to understand the new models of communication and participation that are being driven by the turbulent and marvellous revolution that is the Internet.

* Alexander’s Bio
Alexander McNabb is group account director at Spot On Public Relations, based in the agency’s Dubai headquarters. As a co-founder, editor and then publishing director of the Middle East’s leading technology media house (ITP Ltd), Alexander launched more than 20 publications into that market over a ten-year period and was editor and publisher of leading regional titles such as Arabian Computer News and Comms MEA.
He is a regular commentator on marketing and communications issues as well as emerging technology and communications trends and is a regular contributor to radio, television, print and web-based media. A columnist for Campaign Middle East, Alexander also writes for online media such as as well as his own blog.