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Overnight, Authonomy site administrators posted a response to the criticism on the forum:

This will be another free feature of the site. It certainly isn’t about exploitation. It won’t be compulsory. It is part of the authonomy toolkit. Like forums, messaging, RSS feeds, watchlists etc., we won’t be forcing anyone to use these features, but if you want to, then they’ll be there. For you.

Read the whole post here.

My initial thought is that if HarperCollins really are introducing the POD option simply as another feature of the site which adds value for its members, why bother to go to the expense and effort of building your own solution? Why not simply partner with an existing service, such as lulu.com, which is bound to be more efficient and less costly?

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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?

JamseedJamseed is the first official “coolest thing I’ve seen all year” for 2009.

 

I found out about it via this short essay on the Harvard Business blog by Soft Skull’s Richard Nash.

For most of human existence the output of art could never keep up with the demand. I believe that is now changing, and that’s why we’re seeing the great intermediaries in this process–record labels, movies studios, book publishing companies Borders, etc.–start to shrink, or even fail. They relied on demand being so pent-up they didn’t really need ot work very hard ot match tastes, to connect artist and audience. But now that demand can in fact be sated, their lack of connection to either artist or audience may doom them.

So given that the great intermediaries can’t match-make, what’s an artist to do? For the last decade, many artists have used the web, and subsets of the web like MySpace, to connect with their fans. But the more intimate a connection, the more powerful a connection can be forged. Intimacy is a quality that was lost in the drive towards ever lower marginal costs of reproduction and distribution, but now that the price reductions are close to over, since the marginal costs are reaching zero, reaching back to the past for the personalized, individually-crafted art object is what can distinguish one artists from another, or rather one artist-fan relationship from another.

Oh hell yes!

So then I trundled over to Jamseed. What is it? An easy and effective web platform to help musicians reward fans with personalised stuff.  Now my brain is busting out with ideas for how this could assist authors. Hooyah.

Map of Australia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jess Haberman has been musing about where to base herself as a publisher. I find this fascinating because I live in a large Australian state that is very decentralized.

Quick geography lesson: Australia is about the same size in land area as the continental United States, but with only six states and two territories. This makes most of our states extremely large, but Queensland (my state) is the second largest. In fact, at 1,852,642 km2 Queensland takes up one quarter of the total area of Australia. It is further from Brisbane to Cairns, cities both in Queensland, than it is from Brisbane to Melbourne, three states away.

Despite being the third most populous state, we are also decentralised. In nearly all other states and territories a high percentage of the population (65% or more) is clustered in and around the capital cities, such as Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. In Queensland this figure is only 45%.

Quick publishing industry lesson: Similar to London and New York, Australia’s publishing industry is concentrated in one major city, Sydney. At least, that’s how it is for the major trade publishers, the big six: HarperCollins, Hachette Australia, Pan Macmillan, Random House, Allen and Unwin and Penguin. By extension, that’s also where most of the literary agents are.

But here’s something interesting… some of the most innovative and energetic publishing in Australia is taking place outside of Sydney, and outside of traditional industry networks. At the mid-size level of the industry, a swag of publishers are really performing above and beyond what might be expected for their size, particularly UQP (Brisbane), Scribe and Text (Melbourne) and Fremantle Press (Western Australia). Melbourne is also the locus of a vibrant, exploding small press scene, with small independents flourishing in every other state, such as Small Change PressTiconderoga, Wakefield Press, eatbooks and Pulp Fiction Press.

There are any number of conclusions you could draw from this spread of the publishing map. For publishers, I would suggest that it doesn’t matter if you are located close to the hub of industry activity or not. There are now few if any barriers to publishing damn fine books wherever you are. Jess Haberman offers good arguments for not being based in the city at all, adopting a friendlier small town lifestyle which is likely more supportive of small businesses. But more than this, I wonder if the evidence in Australia demonstrates you’re actually better off not being situated in the swirling vortex of the publishing industry at all. If the publishers listed above are anything to go by, perhaps the distance lends some kind of perspective or inspiration for excellence and new innovation.

For writers, I think isolation is a tough burden and geographical isolation in Australia can be acute, especially in Queensland. Writers don’t need to be physically close to agents and publishers to sell a book, nor do they need to be physically close to other writers to participate in vibrant social networks. They just need a reliable internet connection (that’s a whole other story)

But I’ve seen the lightbulbs go on over authors’ heads when they attend a seminar or panel with publishers and agents and hear directly from industry professionals how the business works. I’ve seen the spark of new connections and relationships. I wonder if the mushrooming of small publishers in regional towns across Australia could, in turn, further support the development of writers in those communities.

What are your thoughts? I’m keen to hear from publishers and regional readers on this one.

[Note: Here’s some bonus material on the Australian tourism debacle that inspired the title of this post]

Recently the friendly-looking team at HarperStudio asked a question on their blog, The 26th Story, about whether to invest in a full-featured website or keep up the blog. Since they invited input, I weighed in with an oft-quoted phrase in the industry: “The author is the brand”.

The general idea (which someone else much smarter than I had a long time ago) is that customers don’t walk into a bookstore and ask for the latest HarperCollins or Macmillan. They seek out their favourite authors and genres. Readers want to buy the next Alexander McCall Smith or Stephen King or the latest crime thriller or epic fantasy.

In this context, there doesn’t seem much point in investing a lot of money in a publisher website with a lot of bells and whistles, unless you can master the challenges of searchability in order to drive attention to your authors and titles. Instead it makes more sense to invest in communities of interest around topics or genres, such as the Spinebreakers or tor.com sites, or individual author brands.

But then I had a quick look through the HarperStudio blog and static pages and was pretty charmed, actually. When was the last time you saw a publishing company website with candid photos of the publishers? Open, humorous bios with real human details? There aren’t a heap of publisher blogs that are more than publicity channels for the books they’re putting out. The Penguin blog is funky and well written with a diversity of voices, but these are still disembodied voices emanating from an opaque corporate behemoth. The 26th Story is one of the few blogs where I feel like I’m actually engaging in a conversation with the real people behind the enterprise, instead of being fed marketing copy. 

Perhaps that will change as HarperStudio signs more authors and has more titles to manage and promote. Perhaps it will change when they create their new site – although I note they’ve decided to stick with a blog platform for now, using WordPress (good decision!) – but for now I like the small team feel of the blog, the sense (however idealistic) that I could take an elevator to the 26th floor of the HarperCollins digs and find Bob & co sitting around the table much the same as they are in their photo.

And all this got me thinking… is the author the only brand? Isn’t it possible, however unlikely, that some publishers could create an identity so strong and a community so vibrant that audiences seek out their books because they trust and like the people producing them? It’s hard to imagine of the multinationals, but not so hard to imagine of the quirky independents who have well-known identities associated with them, such as McSweeney’s (Dave Eggars) or Small Beer Press (Kelly Link).

Of course, even a wildly successful publisher blog is unlikely to generate the kind of audience that would shift books in the quantities required to make the ROI worth it. Then again, when you look at blogs like Boing Boing it’s quite clear the awesome power of conversation and community. The publisher as brand may not be something to write off just yet. Perhaps publishers just haven’t worked out how to do it well in the new paradigm.

I’ve got some thoughts about author sites and branding too, but this is getting to be an awfully long post already so I’ll hold that over for next time.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s worth publishers spending the time and resources on their own brand identity?

P.S. Keep up the cello practice, Bob. It is the most sublime of stringed instruments.

There are pretty tried and true methods of getting a publisher to look at your book manuscript. There are only so many pathways. You write a manuscript and either take your chances in the slush, find yourself an agent, or more rarely, leverage a contact or referral that gets your manuscript in front of someone who can do something with it. Regardless of which pathway you find yourself on, the method of presentation doesn’t change much. A pitch or synopsis and some sample chapters for a novel. A proposal or outline for non-fiction.

What about digital? If you’re a savvy author with a great pitch for a digital publishing project, how do you talk to a publisher about it? Who’s even listening? Can innovative digital projects only be conceived and driven by publishers or specialist companies like 4th Story Media which is doing The Amanda Project, or are publishers interested in hearing ideas from authors themselves?

Quite a few authors I talk to these days are already thinking ahead to digital channels as they develop their manuscripts. For some, this is marketing oriented and they make plans for promoting the book in various online platforms. But for others, their story is digital native and the online channels are integral to the telling of the narrative.

We need new protocols that assist authors to start the conversation with foreward-thinking publishers who are interested in input from all kinds of places.

Arts Research Monitor notes two recent reports relevant to authors and publishers. The research is from the Canadian industry but is of general interest.

Book publishing industry
Statistics Canada has released its most recent summary of the Canadian book publishing industry, noting that total revenues were $2.1 billion in 2006, down 1.2% from the previous year.

The Impact of Digitization on the Book Industry
The title of this report is self-explanatory. Commissioned by the Association of Canadian Publishers, the report recommends strategies for Canadian publishers to stay abreast of the changes wrought by digitization and adopting emergent best practice.

There are some strong recommendations, not all of which I agree with, but then I’m more author than publisher. There is some quite detailed discussion about rights, acquisition and ownership of digital files, as well as some interesting thoughts about the challenges of contract negotiations and balancing the needs of publishers and creators.

I think it’s odd that the ACP report doesn’t touch on DRM at all, nor Creative Commons. It is telling that the report is made available for free only in a web-based PDF viewer (one that you can’t search), yet can be purchased on the ACP’s website for $75. Definitely worth a read, especially by authors and agents looking for clues about what publishers are thinking about rights.

I’m truly bummed not to be able to go to National Young Writers Festival (NYWF) this year. Instead, I’ll be heading west with QWC’s Programming Director Julie Beveridge, with Neil Diamond on the iPod apparently, visiting the fine citizens of Roma, Cunnamulla, Goondiwindi and Toowoomba to present QWC events.

That road trip is going to be fab and I can’t wait to see what the writers of those towns are working on. But having just checked out the NYWF program on their site I’m really sorry to miss it. This is exciting stuff, and despite the name, is a festival that any one of any age would enjoy and be stimulated by. There’s a killer line-up of guests including Marcus Westbury, Mark Davis, Amy Barker, Lisa Dempster, Simon Worthington, and Michael Webster. NYWF also presents the kind of events that seem to be mostly absent from the mainstream writers festivals in capital cities, events such as Web2Pod how-to workshops, StreetSpoken, a spoken word tour of Newcastle’s hidden locations and Get Lost! (with me), an interactive art adventure combining photography and storytelling in public and private spaces around the festival.

In every nook and cranny of the festival program there’s something to do, say, create and participate in, a much more energetic and active focus than writers festivals where the emphasis is on listening and observing. That’s not a criticism of the major capital city festivals, but more an observation that the audiences are different, and I don’t mean that NYWF is targeted at young people. The audiences are different because NYWF is aimed at writers, makers, producers and curators, rather than readers and the general public. Or, looked at from a different angle, NYWF assumes its audience wants to write as well as read, create as well as consume.

So, while I’m dodging kangaroo carcasses on the Moonie Highway singing along to Sweet Caroline (thanks, Jules), I hope you will be at the National Young Writers Festival making your own zine and remixing some lit.

Bob Stein has published a brilliant piece over at if:book about the paradigm of the book in a networked world, and the role authors/ readers/ editors/ publishers can play in generating and curating ‘book’ content. I place those quotation marks deliberately because Stein interrogates the notion of the book as artefact, whether print or multimedia, and discusses how this concept has changed as we’ve evolved into a networked society. 

GavinBell

Image: GavinBell

“Reading and writing have always been social activities, but that fact tends to be obscured by the medium of print. We grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in his garret. The most important thing my colleagues and I have learned during our experiments with networked books over the past few years is that as discourse moves off the page onto the network, the social aspects are revealed in sometimes startling clarity. These exchanges move from background to foreground, a transition that has dramatic implications.”

This is essential reading but Bob is also encouraging comments and discussion.

Link to article: A unified field theory of publishing in the networked era by Bob Stein
Visit the Institute for the Future of the Book

Cory Doctorow (Photo by Bart Nagle)

Cory Doctorow Photo: Bart Nagle

Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother, has written an elegant analysis of micropayments and the intangible costs they could impose on writers hoping to skip all the intermediaries and sell direct to readers.

When you take money directly from someone, they become your customer, a relationship that’s fundamentally different from the “writer-reader” relationship that you get when the reader is the publisher’s customer.

 

Cory’s argument is made in the context of an earlier essay about digital distribution. Rather than trying to sell a gazillion digital works for a tiny amount each, focus instead on making it easy for people to give you a decent amont of money when you blow across their path. Except, he said it prettier, and with a dandelion metaphor. Go read it.

[via Boing Boing]