Authonomy: Good Or Bad

Eoin Purcell

The time has come to take a stance
There has been some discussion, some of it on these pages (seems an odd yet apt expression) by guest-bloggers and much, much,more of it out in the wider blogosphere, about Authonomy. Given that much of the comment has edged towards the critical and negative I thought I’d offer some perspective, for what it is worth.

But first, times are tough
Before I pass a judgment it would be worthwhile sketching the numerous ways that publishing (globally) is changing. I’d spend sometime doing that here, except that it is done much more elegantly and with feeling here in The London Review of Books by Colin Robinson:

My boss ended our meeting with a reflection on the state of book publishing today. She said that two words sprung to mind: General Motors. She then accompanied me past the newly installed poinsettia display to Human Resources on the 11th floor. When I asked whether he was having a busy morning, the HR director told me that, yes, a number of other people were being ‘impacted’.

Go read it. It strikes quite the chord.

The list below is unordered and absolutely not exhaustive but it certainly runs the line over most of the major issues facing publishers as we approach the second decade of the new millennium (I think that may well be the last time I call it “new”):

    An appalling economic climate
    Weak terms from our major customers
    Dreadful value perception of books versus alternatives
    Poor mid list sales
    Weak retail sales
    The power of the Blockbuster
    The threat of digitization
    Returns

If I have left anything out, let me know!

Change does not always come easy
Sometimes change does not happen the way you would expect. Newspaper publishing is undergoing a painful transition to a digital environment, one in which the very core of newspapers offering, solid, dependable investigative journalism and beat reporting is under serious threat from massively reduced revenue and exploding competition. The cost of providing these services is outstripping what people seem to be willing to pay.

The music industry faced similar problems; downloads from pirate sites were slaughtering CD sales, costs were rising and the price of breaking new bands was getting too high. Eventually major music labels capitulated to Apple’s iTunes and iPod. At least it created a revenue stream that produced money, costs could then be realigned and tours and endorsments could provide revenue to fill the gaps. It’s not foolproof but it seems to be making some sense.

Movies have been saved a great deal of pain by the relative cost in time and money that downloading a movie requires versus a song. That may change as bandwidth in the final mile to the home increases (alternatively it may be held up by the slow roll out of faster broadband) and Apple and others slowly and surely roll out their Movie offerings. Again, like music, these new downloads at least offer a revenue stream and crucially indicate that the audience still want the product and are willing to pay.

Publishers have not been blind to these changes, nor have the been complacent. That’s a contentious position of course, there are those who think Publishers as a body have been too slow, too old fashioned and too complacent by far but I think that is unfair. For one, most publishers have made efforts to at least try the new methods of distribution and marketing that digitization and the internet allow. Most if not all publishers have embraced POD at some level for instance and there are few who do not understand the value of e-commerce and who are not seeking ways to sell content online and reach readers the same way.

Obviously this is all broad stroke stuff and shouldn’t be paid too much mind but it does serve as a way to consider what come snext.

Where does Authonomy fit in this picture?
From my unaffiliated position Authonomy sits nicely into this milieu. Publishers are deluged with unsolicited material. The web offers a way to organize, filter and sort that ocean of stuff. Authonomy was an effort, legitimate I think, to try and start learning what the web could offer a publisher on the commissioning side of things.

It is not and was not perfect. In fact, I would have been surprised if it had been. I’ll be surprised if it ever is. It suffered and possibly still suffers from the flaws one would expect in a project that was a) novel (for a large publisher) b) open, in a corporate culture that is generally closed* and c) involved the hopes and dreams of thousands of earnest would be authors.

The slush pile, as it currently exists, is a cruel thing. This is especially true in bigger houses, though the form letter or e-mail is as hard to take from a small publisher as from a hard. The illusion of Authonomy was that it could make the slush pile process easier for the want to be author. It was a never a reality.

The process might be faster, more open and hopefully more transparent (though given b) above that was not guaranteed), but rejection would be a bitter a pill whether it was offered by a single unknown commissioning editor/editorial assistant or the System that ran Authonomy. The only beneficiary was likely to be HarperCollins. But then that was the goal.

Ancillary benefits would accrue to some authors as they gained a readership they might not otherwise have but they were as likely to fail through Authonomy as through the old system if only because there were no new publishing slots and more rather than less applicants to fill those slots.

So an outburst against Authonomy was to some extent inevitable. But the idea that there has been some kind of underlying plan to exploit the system (other than a desire that after funding it, Authonomy should at least help HarperCollins) either as a route to POD or something else is misplaced.

Authonomy is, I think, an authentic effort by a large publisher to harness the web to its advantage. Rather than tear it down because it has dissappointed some, I’d urge the participants to view it more as an experiment and a noble one. There is, I suspect, some room for and openness to change (though I don’t know for sure). As for Harper I think there is much to be praised. It strikes me that they might have created something pretty wonderful but the path ahead is a rough one and I wish them luck with it.

If that’s too middle of the road for some, then I am sorry, its what I think!
Eoin

* By this I mean the culture of any large corporation. Sharing information other than that which is essential is often viewed skeptically by corporations and regularly is teh reason why that corporation profits. Changing that culture is hard and is not always desirable.

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6 comments

  1. Hi Eoin, thanks for the round up. Nobody, least of all authors, would deny that it’s a challenging global environment for publishers. Nevertheless I think the choices HC have made in managing Authonomy have been out of step with the author expectations deliberately fostered by HC in their original marketing and positioning of the service.

    Regarding your comment: “rejection would be a bitter a pill whether it was offered by a single unknown commissioning editor/editorial assistant or the System that ran Authonomy. The only beneficiary was likely to be HarperCollins. But then that was the goal.”

    This is the kind of statement that makes writers cynical about publishers in the first place. It implies that people unhappy with Authonomy are upset because they were unsuccessful in getting published, not because they felt they were sold a concept that was different to what they got.

    I work with thousands of authors at all different stages of professional development. Most writers serious about achieving professional success are all too aware of how difficult it is, of the changes occurring in publishing, of the increasing competition for shrinking publishing slots.

    From what I’ve read of the comments and discussion around Authonomy, most users have found something of genuine value in their participation in the site. But I think HarperCollins failed to understand what that value was. Members have spoken of the supportive relationships they’ve developed with other authors, the value of getting critical feedback on works in process, the importance of focusing on craft and editing, the motivation and emotional boost they get from the encouragement of other writrs in the same boat as they are. That says more about the importance of social networks around communities of interest than it does about publishers using the web to acquire new titles.

    The value of Authonomy isn’t in building a long-term following online and could never have been. The value isn’t in creating a budding readership for writers’ work. Authonomy is an online community of writers talking to other writers. It cannot provide any meaningful indicator of the potential market for a book any more than Project Greenlight tells a movie studio whether people will show up at cinemas to see a film.

    I agree wtih you, I don’t believe there was any “underlying plan to exploit the system” but their offer to some Authonomy members to go down the POD route was a serious misstep. It demonstrated that they either didn’t understand or didn’t really care why authors were participating.

    Everything in your summary of the state of publishing is correct. Times are tough. But it’s 2009 and I think we’re past the stage of patting publishers on the head for experimenting with something new online. Authonomy is an online community. Its success for HarperCollins depends on the social investment of its members. If the only one with time and money on the line was HarperCollins, then we can afford to be generous about a “noble experiment.” But HC’s experiment depends on writers’ investment of time and effort as well, and for this they owe members a better alignment between expectation and action.

    1. Hi Kate,

      Great comment some of which I agree with!

      Firstly I can see the viewpoint as regards being sold a dead duck and I think that is a perspective I need to spend some more thought on. I’m tempted to say that writers do need a certain degree of cynicism when it comes to publishers and vice versa, but that is not the way forward!

      As to the role of Authonomy as a community of authors this is a noble idea that maybe HC should have pushed less (they after all were hardly going to benefit greatly from that). I agree too that it’s not just HC with an investment in the site and that needs to be considered!

      Where I have to disagree is that its too far along in the process to be patting publishers on the back for this kind of move. Publishers have worked in a world of paper books for centuries, the real opportunities for digital products (and many of them are still ethereal right now) have only seen light for a decade (perhaps two).

      Even where those opportunities have shone, they have failed to show where they might provide sufficient money to replace the revenue from paper books. Until that becomes some kind of a reality or until publishers decide to shed much of themselves (a terrible process that will much like the newspaper industry begin to happen soon enough) and pursue these digital opportunities, any effort that suggests they are vaguely aware of the potential seems a laudable case to me!

      But then, I’m no revolutionary!
      Eoin

  2. I read your piece on self publishing and couldn’t disagree more. Writing is a business. Spending time, in the lottery, of submitting to agents, publishers is a waste of time. full stop. You have as much chance winning the real lottery as getting a book published.It is far easier, I am a designer I know, to get clients/bookshops to take a book sale or return, much easier than getting some editor in a cosy office eating chocolate hob nobs to consider your work.
    You love your work you have one thing to sell.They don’t. Publishing is a business – making money – do it yourself. You are the best saleperson for your work. regards from sunny Normandie.
    Ps like the blog

  3. Hello Alex,
    I like your attitude!

    I think you have a degree of truth on your side as well.

    The reality though is that modest results are often the best that can be hoped for from self publishing.

    I won’t deny that some people will strike gold through self publishing and create fortune doing so. But just as only a few will do so through traditional channels, it is a limited few who do so through self publishing.

    Even now, an author who goes traditional has more chance of success and less risk of failure if only because publishing companies take most of the risk on themselves in the process!

    Eoin

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