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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?

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?

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]

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.

I was sure that I wrote a blog post about Penguin UK’s Spinebreakers website when it was launched, but a quick search of the archives reveals I only dreamed I did. Nevertheless, I’ve been meaning to write another (first) post for a while. The site has been operating for more than a year now and it has really grown into the lively online space for young readers that it always promised to be.

Here’s what I love and admire about Spinebreakers:

  • it’s an online book community for teenagers… run by teenagers. The editorial team is aged between 13 and 18 years and clearly changes and refreshes regularly. I’ve seen at least one call out for new contributors and editors since I’ve been following the site.
  • Spinebreakers welcomes your content, instead of just talking at you about books. The site is chock full of opportunities to contribute content, whether it be writing book reviews, submitting video poems, making book trailers,  or writing an alternative chapter for your favourite book.
  • The editorial team are fantastic curators. This not a my Space-style social network. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we have plenty of them already!) The Spinebreakers Crew of more than 30 teenagers keep up a constant stream of quality author interviews, writing tips, book info, short stories and, yes, commentary. I have the RSS feed in Google Reader and would probably get more than a dozen items a day from Spinebreakers. It’s fresh.
  • Spinebeakers is an experience not just a website. The best part of all (except for me living in Australia) is that Spinebreakers have branched out into live events such as author talks and writing workshops. The first Spinebreakers Live, on July 25th, was a muster of more than 50 teenagers who worked with mentors on film creation, music production and creative writing. (As I so often do these days, I found myself whingeing “they didn’t have anything that cool when I was a teenager!”)

I wrote a while back about deep niches and the potential for publisher-driven sites to realise the value of vertical channels. Spinebreakers, along with the new Tor.com website, are examples of exciting initiatives in this direction. Of course, I can’t know if or how Spinebreakers has impacted on Penguin’s book sales of YA fiction but I do know they have attracted a loyal and active audience, including me!

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

My apologies to all the eager people who found this post because they plugged “How to get published” into a search engine. Hopefully this can be regarded as a Community Service Announcement:

The third thought is about rights, yep, that old nugget again. If I sound like I’m harping on this topic it’s because I’m coming at these issues mostly from an author’s perspective and the rights are the basic unit of tradable property from which authors’ incomes derive.

The current rights debates do not stop publishers digitising their processes they merely stop them being able to realise all the possible opportunities. However, at a time when the digital market is not established, for many, this may be a huge leap into the dark.
Link to Martyn’s original post.

The point about realising the opportunities is the key for authors here. Has it occurred to publishers that the ability to digitise in order to realise commercial opportunities is one of the services they have to offer authors who retain digital rights? If publishers move toward fully digitising their pre-press processes, as Daniels suggests, and can create format neutral content, then they could sell these formats back to authors as a service. When put next to their ability to provide marketing and branding oomph to the ‘author as brand’, it reinforces the idea that publishers, as intermediaries between author and reader, could be reconfigured to be author-oriented services companies rather than content producers.

So yesterday I attended a meeting in Melbourne of various industry types to discuss the need for/benefits of an Australian industry-led taskforce for digital publishing. It was interesting.

First up, it’s worth noting the breakdown of attendees. The meeting was jointly hosted by the federal government arts agency Australia Council for the Arts (Ozco) and Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), which for our international readers, is the Australian collecting organisation for copyright licence fees. Prior to this meeting they had jointly funded research into Australian publishers’ attitudes and perceived information needs in relation to digital publishing. (Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find this report published online yet, I hope it will be at least included in Ozco’s new online research hub which is being released soon) Of the 17 people who were there, Ozco and CAL were more than 30% of the group.

The next biggest group was publishers, with four publishers plus the head of the Australian Publishers Association. The spread of publishers was really good. There was one large trade publisher, Macmillan, plus three independents – Spinifex, MUP and Sleepers, with Zoe from Sleepers also representing the Small Press Underground Collective (SPUNC). From retail, there was an independent bookseller, a representative of the Australian Campus Booksellers Association and the CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association. Bringing up the rear were authors with just myself and a representative of the Australian Society of Authors. I was not initially invited to this meeting, but requested to be included when I read about it in Weekly Book Newsletter. I found this distribution particularly odd after the Director of the Literature Board of the Australia Council had declared that she sees this as the writing industry not the publishing or book industry, and that everything stems from the writing. One would perhaps have expected to see more writers in the room. Notable absences were libraries and at least one representative of the Australian Literary Agents Association. I’m unsure if that’s because they weren’t invited or were unable to attend.

Okay, so now you’ve met the players in our little drama, here’s how it unfolded. Ross McCall from CAL outlined the background to the meeting, and an Ozco representative gave a summary of the ‘desktop research’ they’d done into the digital publishing scene so far. We then broke into groups to discuss the opportunities, threats and questions of setting up an industry-led taskforce to support and drive knowledge transfer, new digital publishing initiatives and collective efforts to fund innovation.

The discussion was robust and I think there was a healthy level of honesty in the room, but that left me feeling a little depressed also because some of the ‘honesty’ delivered aloud was an observation of the lack of trust and openness in the Australian publishing industry.  Everyone agreed that digital is huge and most publishers seem to be tackling it on their own terms, which I felt kind of missed the point of us all being in a room together. The booksellers seemed a bit down about the prospects for their part of the supply chain. And I sense I made a thorough nuisance of myself by being bolshie on behalf of authors. One of the best points was made when it was noted there is little if any collaboration or discussion between publishing industry organisations and other digital media companies, such as games developers, telcos and mobile content publishers.

Overall, I think we got to a positive endpoint, which was an agreement that there is scope for more cooperation at a national industry level and that the next step is to have a “blue sky” discussion about what’s possible and desirable, before narrowing down to what we’re committed to achieving. There’s a ways to go, but for a first meeting I’m optimistic we could eventually achieve something relevant and meaningful.

Do I have any concerns? Yes. I am a little worried about an entrenched culture of “everyone in their foxholes” undermining the process and I was guilty of this too. I boldly claimed that publishers aren’t talking to authors about what they’re doing with digital, and was roundly disabused of this notion by the publishers in the room. Yet my scepticism remains because, while publishers may be having these discussions on an individual basis with authors, especially when it comes time to negotiate rights and contracts, I don’t believe there is a general awareness among Australian writers about the digital innovations publishers are planning.

That could be a problem for publishers long term in a number of ways. First, it makes it harder for authors to get excited about assigning their digital rights, because they don’t have information about the creative ways publishers may want to commercialise them. I think publishers will have to compete for authors’ digital rights in future, and I would think you’d have a competitive advantage by demonstrating what you know and what you can do, the way Penguin UK has been doing for examaple. Second, it means they could be missing the writers who are producing the most innovative content which will help them succeed, who are very likely not to be book authors. Finally, I think writers are capable of innovating and commercialising on their own and have a lot to offer publishers if there’s a collaborative and sincere way of working together for the profitability of both.

But of course, these are the questions that a taskforce can address. Perhaps it can’t pose definitive answers but it can certainly prod, educate, nurture and moderate. Bring on the next step!

On the Jellicoe Road

Most writers I know would like nothing more than the financial independence to give up work and write full-time. I’ve never felt this way. I love my job passionately and even if I had the opportunity to give it up to write, I think I’d prefer to keep working, however hard it may be to keep a balance. There are joys I get from my job that writing could never provide. I’ve always admired authors who (at least in my imagination) are successful enough with book sales to write full-time but instead choose to keep working. I imagine they too love their jobs and do it for passion and fulfilment, just as they write for the same reasons. After all, it’s very hard to make such a deliberate choice. It means never quite having enough time for anything, and it means producing books at a slower rate.

But then I read books like On the Jellicoe Road by Mellina Marchetta and my position is instantly reversed. Why, oh why, can’t she give up her pesky time-consuming job as a teacher to concentrate on delivering to me more novels as fine as this? Why must I wait so long between each of her books? I will surely die before having the pleasure of the next one. It cannot be borne! How could she consider spending her time on anything else when she is so very very good at writing?