Is Authonomy authentic?

January 16, 2009 · 149 comments

Bren MacDibble alerted me on Facebook to  some grumblings about HarperCollins’ Authonomy site.

Authonomy participant, Alexander McNabb, fought his way to a top 5 ranking on the site, spurred on by the promise that each month HarperCollins would read the Top 5 ranked manuscripts. What he got was not what he expected.

But the HC review of my book (next to the gold star on the book page) was slapdash and odd. And many other writers who’d got to the top of the ‘greasy pole’, as some called it, got the same feeling. Now, over 25 chart-topping reviews, five months, into the exercise, HC has not asked for ONE full read from a writer whose book reached the top, let alone taken anything further to any degree.

Yesterday, HC sent me a note offering me the chance to put my books up as POD (Print on Demand or Publish on Demand) books on authonomy. Soon, according to the email, all books on authonomy will be available as POD books but for now only ‘a few early adopters’ have been offered the opportunity – and a ‘gift’ of the first 10 books free.

For those who’ve not discovered it yet, Authonomy is HarperCollins UK’s social networking experiment for authors. Authors can upload all or part of their manuscripts to an online community. The best ranked submissions, based on the community’s votes, are read by HarperCollins editors. Members also have  chance to converse and swap critical feedback.

I’m not a member of Authonomy and am certainly not in a position to judge whether Alexander’s account is accurate. But regardless of whether HC editors are reading full manuscripts or not, the move toward POD sales of members’ books is disquieting.

My best friend‘s favourite adage is “It’s all about managing expectations.” HarperCollins have clearly encouraged certain expectations among aspiring authors flocking to the site.  Authonomy’s tag line is “Beat the Slush” which holds out to authors the promise of catching the attention of publishers who are seeking fresh new talent. In the original media release that accompanied the announcement of Authonomy, HarperCollins stated:

For aspiring authors the site is both a new route to publication with a leading publishing house and a genuine base from which to build a long-term following online.

Authonomy also reinforced this expectation on the site itself, both in the FAQs and in its own “HarperCollins response” thread on the forum:

We thought this would be obvious, but perhaps we need to spell this one out: Our editors _do_ browse the site looking for manuscripts that meet their requirements and if we like something we follow up directly. (To pre-empt the sceptical who seem to doubt everything we say – yes, we’re in dialogue with a number of authors from authonomy).

HarperCollins have at no point promised any author any outcome at all, other than to read the most popular content posted to the site. But all of these messages create a very strong expectation: that Authonomy was set up as a pathway to publication for aspiring authors.

If it’s true HarperCollins will now be offering members the opportunity to sell their work to the community via print on demand (presumably for a fee, or by ceding some rights and sales revenue), members would be justified in feeling their expectations have been betrayed. Many Authonomy members have posted their own reactions on the site’s forums. Here are a few:

“Authonomy has moved from potentially innovative to concretely exploitative.” Richard P-S

“Slow-moving slush pile is one thing… but captive market and preying on our desires to be published is another thing. It’s just cruel. Lulu already exists… and at least you know what you’re doing when you sign in there.” macdibble

“If I wanted to POD, I’d have gone (as I think Diane said) to Lulu by now. I don’t. I thought that, no, was led to believe that authonomy was a genuine effort to create a peer-reviewed, community based filter for publishable writing. And by publishable, I don’t mean POD.” alexander

I will emphasise not all responses from Authonomy users on the forums are negative ones. For balance, I recommend you read through the threads yourself to assess what the reaction has been, but to me it appears the majority of users (at least those bothering to voice their thoughts on the forum) are feeling misled.

At the heart of this anger and disquiet in the Authonomy membership is HarperCollins’ failure to understand online communities. Authonomy has all the trendy social networking bells and whistles. It’s got well-trafficked discussion boards and user-generated content. But social networking platforms at their most vibrant cede control to the community, they don’t (in fact can’t) hoard it for the platform developer. (Which is why Facebook is having trouble monetising itself) Authonomy users came to the site because of an expectation they were sold by HarperCollins. Having built up a successful community, those users don’t now wish to be told by HarperCollins to do or be something else especially when it’s transparently about making money for HarperCollins. Or, as put by an Authonomy member:

‘Hidden agenda’? How about a rollout plan that hasn’t been shared – an intent to create a site in phases without sharing with, or consulting, the people that populate that site? How about misrepresenting the site to those people as you do your rollout? What does that make you? alexander

I wonder what HarperCollins’ answer will be?

{ 12 trackbacks } » Blog Archive » links for 2009-01-16
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