Imagine for a moment that you’re a publishing house. You’ve been putting book deals together for decades the old-fashioned way. You have agents you know and trust doing the heavy sifting for you, plowing through countless query letters from eager new authors. You have in-house editors working with a stable of developing and established authors, packaging titles for developing and established niches, and leveraging copyrighted content across developing and established mediums. You know, down to the last penny, what it costs to print a page, change a typo, or put a book on a shelf in any bookstore in the world.
And then the internet comes to town.
What do you do? Well, after a good bit of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, you would probably come up with something very much like Authonomy. (If you haven’t seen the site before, click over and take a look. You’ll ‘get it’ in about five seconds.) You might not do it as well as HarperCollins has done it, but you’d recognize the obviousness of the solution, and you would seize the opportunity.
By establishing an online community under the auspices of HarperCollins, and by promising members of that community a chance to get their work in front of editors at HarperCollins, Authonomy solves two persistent publishing problems in one fell swoop. First, it offloads part of the arduous and rarely-rewarding process of sifting through submissions — which is currently undertaken by agents around the world — onto an even less-demanding community. Second, it gives HarperCollins the appearance of being forward-looking, tech-savvy and internet-aware, when in fact they are simply replacing one system of mining writers with another system of mining writers.
Is Authonomy really a community, and if so, what kind of community? I’ve gone back and forth on this over the past few days, and what I’ve come up with is that Authonomy is a community not of writers, but of contestants. Yes, the contestants are all writers, but that’s not what binds them to each other and to Authonomy. What binds them is the promise of potential reward down the line, provided they meet the requirements of the dangling carrot that is unquestionably the main selling point of joining the Authonomy community.
Specifically, here’s what Authonomy members have a chance at:
Once a month, the top five books on the Editor’s Desk will be delivered to the desks of an editorial board made up of international HarperCollins editors. 10,000 words will be read, and those authors will receive feedback delivered to their authonomy profile.
Granted, it’s not a Bugatti Veyron, but in the publishing world this is actually a fairly nice prize. That deafening sucking sound you hear every day is being made by 500 television channels and an insatiable internet trying to find content. Books may be born, live and die in a cycle lasting less than a week, but the demand is still there. Consumers want new and fresh and they want it everywhere and yesterday.
So as far as it goes, I say hats off to Authonomy — on the condition that they not quote that little sentence fragment on the posters when Authonomy: the Movie comes out. I think there are plenty of writers who would welcome a shot at editorial feedback from HarperCollins, and in another era I might be among them. Which of course raises the question of why they didn’t do this before…
But back to the business at hand: why can’t Authonomy be viewed as just another fiction-loving online community? Well, the answer is not what you think. It’s not that HarperCollins is involved that’s the problem. It’s the fact that there’s a prize at stake, because that prize distorts every relationship in the Authonomy community. Everything that is said, or left unsaid — every comment by every member about every story — is at least potentially driven by how that comment affects the outcome of the contest, and that means those comments are not about the work itself.
And Authonomy knows this:
Isn’t this just a popularity contest, rather than a true judge of quality?
Just like the books market at large, there may be a few flutters and fads at authonomy. And in this day and age, there’s no denying you need to think about actively promoting your book to readers by networking if you want to gather a healthy army of support.
However, we believe quality of writing and book construction will be the ultimate test to sustained support and success on the site. When your book is assessed by the editorial board or by any visiting agent or publisher, quality of work is by far the most important consideration[.] (sic)
Obviously there’s some minimal test of writing competence involved, but after that, politics rule in determining who gets their books in front of those HarperCollins editors. And in a way that makes sense. Given that cocktail parties have often been as important as prose in determining who gets into print, what’s the big deal?
The problem is that Authonomy is trying to pass itself off as the kind of online community that most of us are familiar with. That is, a community brought together by a love of or interest in a specific thing. Those communities are not goal-driven, and the members of those communities are not trying to win any contests. Yes, you’ll find people sabotaging or supporting others in any group, but in a non-competitive writing forum you can dispense with concerns that things are being said about your work only to help or hinder your chances of winning a prize. On Authonomy, you can’t make that same assumption.
In most writing communities there’s simply no ‘system’ to game. On the Authonomy site, messages from members openly begging for readers in order to maintain or advance their standing are in plain view. The process of sifting through written works for good writing has been replaced by a process of politicking and begging — although admittedly much of this takes place via writing on the site. And since there’s no one verifying any of the biographical facts presented or even the images of the authors a good case could probably be made that the sum of it all is a valid test of fiction writing skill.
Having said all that, I think there’s a lot to like about Authonomy, and I think HarperCollins is as sincere as any corporation can be about trying to find good new writers. After all, that’s the publishing business in a nutshell: cast a net over and over and see what you can drag into the boat. If a publishing house can get people to do this work for free, instead of having to juggle and manage relationships with hundreds (or thousands) of agents, what’s the downside?
Chances are they will find some good writers, and they may welcome some of those writers into the publishing business as a result. In that sense HarperCollins isn’t doing anything wrong with Authonomy, it’s just not doing anything different with Authonomy. At the end of it all, writers who have the chops and the political skill to navigate Authonomy’s hurdles may find themselves sitting in front of the same desk that writers have always found themselves in front of, pen poised over the same contract that writers have always signed.
In the age of the internet, where the means of directly delivering content to readers is available to anyone, an internet contest which simply reinvents one aspect of the old way of doing business strikes me as something less than revolutionary. In fact, it strikes me as missing the point of the internet entirely.
Before I grumble on, however, I want to make a very serious point that you will not take seriously at all. Click on the link to take a look at the Authonomy FAQ, because for my money this is the best FAQ that I’ve ever seen. And I don’t say that lightly.
Every single question about Authonomy that came to mind was answered by that FAQ. Not sidestepped or equivocated upon, but answered as directly as the legal vetting process would allow. And I’m not joking. Do you know how rare that is? Most FAQ’s are epic failures, written by people who’s only aim is to drive additional sales or refuse returns on defective merchandise. (Ironically, some of the worst FAQ’s can be found in the software and hardware business, which originally gave rise to the utility of the FAQ in the first place.)
If there isn’t an award for Best FAQ out there somewhere there should be, and I would eagerly nominate and vote for the Authonomy FAQ. Whatever else HarperCollins may have going for it, somewhere within that company is a person or group of people who really understand what a fully-thought-out FAQ can do for a site visitor, and I think they should all be given an opportunity to have their fiction put before a board of editors, with feedback returned to them via electronic countermeasures. Okay, okay — that last part there was not sincere. But the rest of it stands. Read that FAQ and read it well, because you will probably never see another like it. (Leave it to the publishing business to get an FAQ right.)
So am I going to join Authonomy? No, I’m not. And not because I think I’m special, or because I think HarperCollins is really doing anything wrong. Honestly, I think they’re doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt.
For me the problem is twofold. First, the internet allows me to put my fiction online without anyone else’s help. Appealing to HarperCollins for salvation would feel like going backwards in that sense — although I’m sure I’d love to have a book deal with them right now, or tomorrow. I don’t know how to monetize online fiction, while HarperCollins does know how make money for writers and for itself the traditional way, but I’m still interested in learning what I can about how the internet has changed things. And how e-readers and digital texts will change things. Combine that with the fact that I’m not at all interested in the politics and shenanigans that were hallmarks of the old way of doing business — which have also been institutionalized in Authonomy — and I just think Authonomy has little to offer.
Second, no one should forget that HarperCollins is a corporate entity facing significant threats and hurdles from the internet. As with the music business, the leverage that publishers used to have is going away, and there’s not a lot they can do about it. And I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing, because just as the music business was legendary for its abuses, the publishing business has been home to a variety of practices that I don’t respect. Some of these practices are not illegal, but that only prompts the question of whose rights a publisher will be trying to protect when you do business with them.
The ultimate proof of whether or not Authonomy is a community, or HarperCollins a benign host, seems abundantly clear from this section of the Terms and Conditions that users accept when they register:
Changes to Terms and Conditions
We may modify this Agreement from time to time and such modification shall be effective upon the terms being posted on the Website. If you do not agree with such modifications you should cease to use the Website. If you use the Website after those terms have been posted on the Website you will be deemed to have accepted them. It is therefore important that you review this agreement regularly to ensure you are updated as to any changes.
What this means is that HarperCollins can amend the Terms and Conditions at any time, without notifying you of those changes, and that you will be bound by those changes the next time you come to the site and log in. Why is this a problem? Well, beyond the fact that it legally grants Harper Collins the right to change the rules in the middle of the game (figuratively and literally) without notice, there’s the equally obvious fact that HarperCollins could easily notify everyone registered with the site that the Terms and Conditions had been changed. Or they could announce that changes were being contemplated, and post those proposed changes on that killer FAQ. Or they could make the change, but force everyone to accept the new changes at their next login, thus giving users a chance to opt out.
But that’s not what HarperCollins has done. What HarperCollins has done is written into the legally-binding contract between site owner and user that HarperCollins gets to change the rules in the middle of the game without telling you. And that’s what a great big corporation that doesn’t really care about you or its own online community gets to do.
Again, just to make sure everyone is paying attention, here’s that last sentence from the quote above:
It is therefore important that you review this agreement regularly to ensure you are updated as to any changes.
If you don’t keep reading the Terms and Conditions, and those Terms and Conditions are changed in a way that you don’t like, it’s your own fault if that comes back to haunt you. Now, I don’t know about you, but comparing one long, boring, boilerplate text that was written by lawyers with a similar text that contains a few small changes — say, the word ‘not’ being deleted from the phrase ‘may not’ somewhere along the line — is no easy task. I’m sure HarperCollins has plenty of line editors who would catch that in a second — particularly if their jobs depended on it — but for your average reader or writer the change is probably going to slip through, even if they look for it. It’s not a typo, it’s not an error in usage, it’s just the Pinochet-like disappearing of a word in a long boring document, the effect of which may be to deny or revoke rights you thought you possessed.
Fortunately, technology can help solve problems exactly like this. For example, I ran across this program just the other day when I was trying to compare two CSS files for exactly the kind of itty-bitty discrepancy that we’re talking about here. It’s freeware, it works, and it catches even the smallest changes, so maybe you should download a copy and compare the most recent HarperCollins Terms and Conditions with the one from the last time you logged in, just to be on the safe side.
(Oddly enough, under the Fees section of the Terms and Conditions, HarperCollins acknowledges the fact that they would have to notify everyone if they decided to charge for use of the site, so clearly they have the means of contacting everyone if they need to. Then again, maybe that’s a different department with access to more sophisticated messaging technology — like, say, email.)
The point here is that this is what you get when you do business with a corporation that presents itself as part of a loving and supportive community. The facade may look great, the people on the payroll may all be wonderful and decent, but at the end of the day there’s a corporate lawyer making sure that HarperCollins holds all the cards — including the right to change the rules of the game without giving you any notice. That’s the nature of the game, and it’s exactly why some artists in the music business are passing on an opportunity to lock themselves into a relationship in which their partner employs a staff of lawyers whose only mission is to screw them as much as legally possible.
At the end of the day, if you’re agreeing to a document which says the other side can change the terms of that agreement without having to notify you of those changes, then I think you’re making a mistake. And that’s why I’m not going to join Authonomy. It would take little or no effort to inform members of the Authonomy site that changes to the Terms and Conditions were being made or contemplated, but HarperCollins can’t even be bothered to do that. And if they’re willing to put that right up front, that should tell you a whole lot about how much they’re going to be thinking about what’s best for you and your writing.
— Mark Barrett
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