authonomy: One writer’s experience

by Mary W. Walters

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Update Sept 8, 2012: Four years after this post was written, it appears that very little has changed on autonomy. A reader of this blog recently wrote me to ask if things had improved, and since I rarely go over to authonomy any more, I decided I would ask the people who still did. Click on this paragraph to read the responses and watch me get sucked into yet another authonomy flame war.

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In theory, authonomy is a perfect way for writers to get their book manuscripts read by editors at a major publishing house without the intercession of an agent.

After reading about what authonomy is intended to do and why, a writer might decide that if her manuscript isn’t good enough to get the kind of positive reception from the other writers on the site that it needs to rise through the ranks to the top five (aka the Editor’s Desk)—where it will at least receive professional feedback from one of the finest editors in the English-speaking world, and at best be snatched up for publication—perhaps it isn’t as good as she’s been thinking that it is.

But is that a logical conclusion for her to draw when after several months on the site she does not, in fact, reach the Editor’s Desk and realizes that she probably never will?

For the benefit of other writers who may be weighing the same questions that I considered six months ago when I decided to post my novel, The Whole Clove Diet, on authonomy, I here offer a summary of my experiences and observations so that others may be better equipped than I was to assess the potential value to their writing careers of participation in the site.

What authonomy is

authonomy (the “th” is pronounced as in “author”) is an on-line community of writers that was established in 2008 by HarperCollins Publishers. Although the site is based in the U.K., HarperCollins offices around the world participate in evaluating manuscripts, and the site is open to writers, published or unpublished, living anywhere—as long as their manuscripts are in English.

On authonomy, participants read excerpts from books by other writers on the site, and they “shelve” or “back” the ones they find of merit. They are also encouraged to provide the authors of the books they read with some feedback in the form of comments. Those with the most backings (subject to an algorithm that recognizes users’ reviewing experience on the site) rise to the top and when they reach the top five, they are read and provided with an evaluation by a HarperCollins editor.

The authonomy site is still in beta format, but as of this writing it has more than 3,000 users–each with at least one and sometimes as many as three books posted on the site. Some users are very active (a recent forum question was “How many people spend more than five hours a day on authonomy?” and several people actually raised their virtual hands, albeit a little sheepishly). Many writers spend at least an hour or two a day on authonomy, reading, critiquing, commenting and sometimes contributing to the forum. Other writers show up only occasionally, and still others have not been on the site in months.

HarperCollins (HC) states that the purpose of authonomy is to “flush out the brightest, freshest new literature around” and on the last day of each month, authonomites gather around to see which five books will be whisked away for review by the HC editors. Approximately one month after starring them for selection, HC editors deliver critiques of the five top manuscripts to their respective authors. These evaluations ideally include suggestions for revision and some indication as to whether HC might be interested in seeing the manuscript again after the author has worked on it.

A word or two about the Golden Goose

The hope of almost all of those who officially join the site and post a book is that that HC will recognize their work of fiction, non-fiction or (less frequently) poetry for the masterpiece it is and want to publish it. Subsidiary hopes include that, as it is rising to the top but before it actually reaches the top five, the manuscript will be discovered by an agent, another publisher or even HC itself. This has, in fact, happened once or twice–although it hasn’t happened very often. Nor, to my knowledge, have any books that have actually reached the top five yet been selected for publication by HC.

Since getting an agent or a publisher is pretty much a crapshoot in this day and age no matter how you go about it, a more significant problem than the dearth of publications from the site is one that anyone can see who reads the HC editorial responses to books that have reached the Editor’s Desk in the past. (This feedback is almost always posted by the authors who’ve received it, although they are not required to make it public.) The problem is that while some of the editorial feedback is constructive and helpful, even insightful and brilliant, some is next to useless. The site administrators have said that HC editors for each book in the top five each month are selected on the basis of its genre or subgenre (young adult, for example, historical romance, or literary) and the location of the writer—but clearly, some HC editors are better readers and feedback-writers than are others.

I have read HC evaluations on authonomy that were little more than summaries of the excerpt. Others have contained errors that could only have been made if the editor had not read the submission very carefully, or had not consulted the “pitch” which is also a required part of the submission. Several comments from HC editors have been marred by typos and even grammatical errors, which seriously undermined their credibility.

After waiting months and months to obtain feedback from the powerhouse publishing giant that is HarperCollins—which is one big dream of a lifetime for many—to  receive a less than professional evaluation on one’s excerpt is more than discouraging. The recipients of such evaluations are upset when this happens, and so are the other authonomy community members who have also read the excerpt. Contributors to forum threads disgustedly point out the flaws in various HC reviews every month, sometimes out of loyalty, but often also on the basis of solid evidence.

My authonomy history

I joined authonomy in February of 2009, posting my novel in its entirety (at the outset) on the site. The Whole Clove Diet rose steadily albeit slowly toward the Editor’s Desk, garnering many positive reviews along the way. In the first few weeks I learned from comments left on the forum by site administrators and other users that by the time I reached number 50, particularly if I also maintained some visibility on the forum, I could feel fairly well assured that HC had seen my novel. If they had not by that point contacted me by email, I could assume they were not interested in it.

By then I had begun to appreciate how hard it was to reach the Editor’s Desk/top five and how small the advantages might actually be to getting there. I decided that if HC and other publishers and agents were trawling the top 50 on a regular basis, I would set my sights on reaching the top 45 or so.

In fact, I only made it to about 110 before I quit. Although I developed some rewarding on-line friendships at authonomy in the four months or so that I was a regular participant, and received some useful input that was helpful in the revision of my novel, and discovered a few writers who I really think are going to make strong literary contributions in the future, the experience of being on the site nearly drove me crazy—several times. And so I removed my novel, although I am still a member of the community and enjoy popping in from time to time to exchange comments on the forum with my friends and colleagues (and fellow-sufferers) over there.

authonomy intention vs. authonomy reality

authonomy has been described as a “do-it-yourself slush pile” in which readers (mainly other writers) do all the work for HarperCollins by finding the best books on the site and pushing them toward the top. This is fine: times are changing and most writers are willing to do a little work in order to attract professional attention to their manuscripts.

The only problem is that the way the authonomy system works does not contribute to finding the “best” books, no matter how you define that term.  It appeared to me that at least 90% of the writers on the site have joined with one goal in mind, which is getting themselves to the Editor’s Desk. (The others insist they are there only to receive feedback from other writers that will help them improve their work.) This means that the primary motivation for most people who will read and back other people’s manuscripts on authonomy is not to find good books for HC to publish—but rather to find other people to read and back their own books.

If a writer who joins the site decides to stick to the stated guidelines and her own ethical principles, refusing to back other people’s books if she feels they are not very interesting or well written (or worse, if she points out such major defects in her comments on those books), the writers of those other books are not likely to be inclined to back her book in return (are they? Remember that we are dealing with human beings here). The new writer quickly learns that in order to get a backing on your book from someone else, you really need to give that other writer a backing first.

As a result, on authonomy you can almost never trust a backing to mean that someone likes your book, since almost everyone on the site backs almost everything. The books that rise most quickly to the top are not those that are the best or the most fun to read, but rather those whose authors spend most time on the site, networking with other people, raving over everyone else’s books, backing everyone in sight, and thereby attracting hundreds of backings in return. The more quickly the determined writers can read and back an excerpt, the more they can read a day, and these speed demons may sometimes be accused (and sometimes are) of skimming only a few paragraphs before passing judgement. And the judgement is almost always favourable.

authonomy is not about excellence in writing. It is about becoming as popular as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, and ironically, rather than a supportive writing community authonomy can often seem to be a dog-eat-dog arena where you can’t trust a soul. Those who aren’t showering you with false praise are slamming you for your reviewing tactics.

Getting to the top 120 is the easy part. After that it gets much harder—mainly due to those algorithms I mentioned earlier. Trying to get to the top five requires hours and hours of commitment every day. On average, to get into the top fifty or so and not fall back again within a reasonable period of time (four months, let us say), you have to start by reading about three or four excerpts a day, commenting on them, and backing them. (I read about two excerpts a day, three chapters each, almost every day. After three months, I had not yet reached the top 100.) Those who have risen higher than I ever did have reported that when you get into the top ten you have to read eight or ten excerpts every day to get into the top five and stay there. At about 45 minutes per excerpt, this means that for at least a month out of your life, and probably more, you are doing little else but authonomy readings. If you happen to go away for a week, you start sliding backwards. Before long, rather than looking for the best books, you reach a point where if you find a book you think is terrible you are heartbroken because it means you are either going to have to lie your head off or give up the possibility of getting a backing in return.

In the race for the top, honesty flies out the window.

Nasty, nasty

In order to be visible and attract readers on authonomy, most participants find it useful not only to read and comment on other people’s excerpts but also to participate in the forum. As is true of most writers’ websites, there are several very witty and knowledgeable people there, and the forums can be great fun. (I found myself inclined to read the books of those who impressed me on the forum—they didn’t need to plug their actual books to me; their forum comments made it clear that I would be interested in what they’d written. I was rarely disappointed by such hunches. By contrast, some people never do anything on the forum beside promote their own books: the number and character of some of the “shameless self-promotion” threads grew so nauseating that I put several of these authors on a mental blacklist and never did read their excerpts.)

Unfortunately, the forums are not always fun. People can be nasty, small-minded, offensive, arrogant, self-serving—even racist. If you begin to work very hard on getting to or staying in the top five, you are likely to start attracting verbal abuse on the forum. As Ambrose Bierce once said, “Success is the one unpardonable sin against our fellows.” Some people have found the comments against them so demoralizing that they’ve left the site even as the summit came within their sights.

There are also huge multi-participant battles—mainly at the end of the month when tensions start to run high and those who don’t like the tactics of the writers who have made it to the top five start trying to overthrow them. At other times, writers have what has come to be known as “authonomy meltdowns” from all the stress of trying to get to the top five and stay there: they go verbally ballistic.

While I was there, it seemed to me that most of the battles (and there were several) concerned how the authonomy site itself either works or does not work. Almost always you can find at least one active thread discussing the mechanics of authonomy and how the operation of the site could be improved. One day one of the forum participants started a “backing” thread that encouraged authonomites to back as many books as possible by people who were also on the thread within a specified period of time. The instigator did this as a protest against “the system,” but many others on the site clearly leapt at the chance to get ahead of others without having to do all the work of reading excerpts. Still others protested loudly about the lack of ethics of those participating in the backing thread (I was, of course, one of those. Taking the ethical high ground, and voicing my opinion when doing so can only be compared to shooting myself in the head? That’s me every time). Mayhem ensued.

Feedback from other writers

You will get some good feedback about your writing from several people on the site. I made hard copies of all the comments I received, and several of them were very useful when I did my final revisions. However you will also receive many comments that are utter drivel. (You can see examples of good comments and totally useless ones by reading any excerpt on the site, and then reading the comments under it.)  In general, many of the compliments are hollow and meaningless, posted only to attract a return read. Some people come up with the equivalent of a boilerplate response and post it with small variations on every excerpt they “review.” Others tailor their remarks more carefully, but still lean heavily toward the positive to ensure their own survival. (Some on the forum insist that they really did love reading almost every book on the entire site and would buy them all in an instant if they had the chance. I think those people are dishonest. Either that or they have no standards and are careless with their money.)

It is certain, at least to me, that those who insist on being honest with their evaluations ultimately pay a heavy price. There are of course many writers on the site who appreciate constructive criticism, but there are many others who do not. The latter group will call down those who have criticized them–usually on the forum rather than privately–and will even occasionally attempt to organize counterattacks and boycotts. (authonomy can be instructive to those who wonder how well meaning human beings ever get involved in wars.)

Once I realized how the authonomy system works, I stopped taking any of the compliments and rave reviews I received seriously, although they were nice to get. I also ignored comments from people who clearly had no idea what I was doing with my fiction (many are reading outside their genres and don’t understand or like what they have to read in order to move ahead. Threads that pose such incisive questions as “Why do writers have to use big words?” and “Conflict… or not?” often make for illuminating and amusing reading.) In short, the people who say they are on authonomy for the great writing advice they get from other writers, and insist they aren’t interested in getting to the Editor’s Desk at all, are for the most part in the wrong place as far as I can see.

How to survive on authonomy – for a while, at least

  1. Set your sights for the top 25 or 50, not the top five. A few writers who have made the top five have said that they were approached by agents once they reached that stage, but if I were a canny agent visiting the site, I’d be scanning the top 50, trawling for the best books on a regular basis—not leaving it until the writers of the best books were on the Editors’ Desk and likely to be scooped up by someone else. Once you reach your initial goal, you can always decide to continue if you want to, but my best guess is that you reach maximum benefit from the site when you reach the top 45. (If you can hang in there that long.)
  2. Read enough of others’ manuscripts before you make a call on them that you’ll still respect yourself in the morning, even if others aren’t playing by those rules. I felt it was only fair to other writers to try to read at least three chapters of their books, or the equivalent. Despite my initial determination to back only books I felt were publishable, ultimately I did find that in order to survive, I had to play the game and back almost everything that was not truly awful. My standard for myself became that I had to be able to find at least one thing in the excerpt on which I could genuinely comment positively; if the writing was so bad that I could not do that, I would not back the book or comment on it. Instead I’d pretend I’d never seen it. (Please note that I admit to having high standards: I have been referred to often as a literary snob.) Sometimes in addition to the positives, my comments included suggestions for a change the author might want to make to improve the first three chapters, always keeping in mind that I was reading only the first few chapters, and that the book could get much worse or much better after the section I had read.
  3. When you really do like an excerpt, say so clearly — or the author won’t be able to tell your kudos from the garden variety he or she receives every day from everyone. When I loved a piece of writing, I really raved about it in my comments—being very specific about the strong points and saying, for example, that the book was sure to find its way into print (I never said that if I didn’t mean it). I also created a thread of my own where I listed my favourite books, which was fun.
  4. Say “thank you” when someone backs you or leaves a comment.
  5. Forget the “friends” option and ignore invitations to become friends with others unless you have a very good reason to accept. This has nothing to do with politics or human kindness, but only practicalities. On authonomy, you get emails from the site administrators if you get a comment on your book, but not if someone backs you. You have to watch your “news feed” for that information. You also see your friends’ activities in your news feed (“Writer X backed Book Y,” “Writer A commented on Book B,” “Writer F revised his book”). If you add too many friends, you will get so many notices in your news feed that you may miss a notice that someone has backed you. You don’t want to miss your backers, because they deserve a thank you message and you may in fact want to consider backing them. So adding friends can cause problems. There is no real advantage to “friending” someone anyway, as you can send everyone messages whether they are friends or not.
  6. Remember that all messages on authonomy are public.
  7. Make a list in a notebook somewhere of who has backed you, and who you have backed or decided not to back. By the time you get to 50 or 100 reads, it gets really really difficult to try to remember whose excerpts you’ve read and whose you haven’t. A lot of people on the forums say, “How I wish I had started keeping track at the beginning!”  By the time you start forgetting who you’ve read and who you haven’t, it is almost impossible to go back and make a list. I recommend keeping track from the outset. (And if someone changes a title of a book you’ve already read, which happens surprisingly often, make a note of that as well.)
  8. When people I didn’t know from the forums sent me a message suggesting we trade reads, I usually ignored them. Some people send out such notices in spam-like quantities. I therefore don’t recommend sending such messages to others. Like the shameless plugs on the forums, requests for reads can rapidly grow tedious and irritating and turn people away from you rather than attracting them.
  9. Don’t post the whole book. I posted my entire manuscript when I first went on. Then a few people on the site warned me that some agents and publishers avoid books that are posted in their entirety on-line, believing (erroneously) that this contravenes copyright or (even more erroneously) that everyone in the universe will read it on authonomy and no one will need to buy it. So I took down most of my novel. However, I made a big mistake when I did this. First I took down all but the first three chapters, and then I added back a few chapters. While I was doing that, my word count fell below 10,000 and when it did, I lost my position on all the shelves and watchlists I’d been on. That set me back a couple of weeks at least. So after you’ve posted your manuscript don’t ever let it drop below 10,000 words again unless you are sure you want to lose your ratings.

Not an entire waste of time

authonomy has its benefits. It is a good way of keeping your manuscript “out there,” building an audience for your book, and getting to know a few more writers. You will get to know some of the authonomy regulars, several of whom are characters as diverting and eccentric as those you’ll meet in their (or anyone’s) fiction. (These include: a writer who appears to deliver intelligent pronouncements from a horizontal position on a couch—he maintains he’s dead, and as under-appreciated as Chatterton, after whose post-mortem portrait he has modeled his own avatar; a man with a blue face who expounds literary theories and criticizes others’ approaches to writing while maintaining that he never reads a book; at least two divas who’ve been on the site forever and pop by with witty or snarly comments from time to time; a hot young lawyer who is swooned after by most of the female writers on the site; and several young women who keep taking more and more clothes off their avatars in an apparent attempt to attract more readers. There are lots of warm and welcoming people on the site who will go out of their way to make you feel at home, and there are several insular cliques. Strangers conjoin on authonomy in unexpected ways: I watched with amusement one evening as a thread involving three apparently quite drunk authonomites devolved into highly graphic cybersex; unfortunately the posts weren’t well-enough written to have made my voyeurism the least bit titilating. Also unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, after about noon the next day I was no longer able to send a link to the thread so that a few of my non-authonomite friends could have a laugh, because it had been taken down. There are also a surprising number of wiccans on the site; be forewarned: you do not want to mess with wiccans. :) )

While you are on authonomy, you may indeed be discovered by an agent or a film company. There is always the possibility that the authonomy system will actually work in your favour–that you will reach the Editor’s Desk and, despite the odds against you even at that point, be offered a contract by HarperCollins. All of those things are possible, if unlikely.

In the meantime, if you are in it for an evaluation as one of the top five, eat your Wheaties, give up either your day job or your family and social life, and prepare for a long, disorienting haul from which it may take you several months to recover.

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66 responses to “authonomy: One writer’s experience

  1. All fair and balanced! Can’t argue with any of that. I’m sorry I missed the cybersex thread but I guess it’s more honest than the cloaked stroking and flirting that constitutes the business of reading and backing books in there.
    Funny you didn’t mention The Event once. That was a “meltdown” on a global stage.
    “One of the unpopular ones” :)

  2. Mary:
    This was very helpful since I’ve put up 13,ooo words of my novel on Authonomy. I will definitely be on the lookout for these things you warn of.

    Thanks for such an informative blog.

  3. What a totally fabulous post! Wish I’d read this before I went onto Authonomy. But I shall take your advice and remove some of the novel from the site…..and shall start taking notes too. Huge thanks, Jane

  4. Mary I love you! You are brilliant! I agree with everything you’ve said. i am guilty of not leaving comments and “pretending” I never read something that I found awful. I once gave a negative crit. And the poor soul took his book down the following day. I never did that again.

    Dare I say I’m complimented that you helped me to succeed?

    And yes I took my clothes off. I won;t justify my actions, because I am now aware that a number of female members of the site were annoyed that I did that.

    One thing I can say about Authonomy is this: I’ve made some incredible friends. I finally had people who didn’t know me read my work, and many of them were delightfully honest. These I cherry picked.

    I wrote something controversial. It had a point to it. About debasing yourself for approval and “love”.

    I now have a star. I gave up my life for months to do it. Through sickness and in health. I married Authonomy.

    If I’d known beforehand what i was getting into. I wouldn’t have even tried for the top 100. But the hunger to get noticed in such a competitive market, becomes all consuming.

    What did it teach me? It taught me that the slush pile is brimming over with exceptional talent. And that rejection doesn’t mean mine isn’t good enough. The publishers are spoiled for choice. And it is a case of “what is hot in the market right now?” Because the site is filled to the brim with hundreds of books in each genre. many of them so superior that I felt daunted 99% of the time.

    Thank you for this blog. You are a treasure!

    **hugs** – it made me tearful seeing it there like that – in black and white.

    Poppet

  5. Great post, Mary. Honest and informative.

  6. Very accurate! I’ve been there since the beginning and it’s mostly fun if you don’t take it too seriously. I’ve made some great friends – done some reciprocal full ms reads offlines and learned a lot.

  7. Mary, I agree with the vast majority of what you’ve said. I’ve only been there for 2 months, but I have seen some of the behaviors that you describe and have even participated in some of them. But I can’t say that I agree with the statement that “almost everyone on the site backs almost everything.” I will admit that I see several people shelving just to get return backings, but I also see plenty of comments that do not follow with backings, and I leave comments without backing, as well. It depends on whether I would read the book OR if someone I know would enjoy the book. I don’t particularly care for literary fiction in the classical, character-driven sense, but I know good writing when I see it, so I’m likely to back it. It may seem like I back almost everything (not that I am), but it certainly isn’t because I’m expecting others to do the same with mine.

  8. Hello Mary,

    Always interesting to read your posts!

    I found Authonomy (frustrating) much the way you have described it. I think I topped out at 75 my first month. When I put too much effort into the chase for the Editor’s Desk bad things happened in my ‘real’ life.

    It was when I branched out from the site that I got the most benefit. (Watching your experiences was very educational – as in ‘school of hard knocks.’) Along the way I got the help I needed – and some genuine encouragement from unexpected sources. It was after I gave up chasing the elusive agent, and buckled down to querying publishers in my genre, that I made progress.

    I would, add for the benefit of anyone who is curious about the site, Authonomy is a gateway, not a destination.

    More can be learned by backtracking other members to their home sites than from the ‘comments’ posted to any specific work. (There is enough bs on the site to grow a market garden.)

    It is up to each person to take what they can use and leave the rest.

    Best!

  9. Very astute analysis.

  10. Well done Mary. Read with interest and found most of it correct and insightful.

  11. Mary, I agree with much, but not all of your take on the authonoverse. I’m sorry you got so turned off by the shameless pluggers. HC encourages the “shameless plugging” by creating thread folders specifically geared for this type of self-promotion. Many people who plug also contribute to the site in other ways — reading and promoting others, taking time to give thoughtful reviews etc. The pluggers who “don’t contribute” in other ways, seem to be a very small minority. Your conclusion that one may indeed be noticed by an agent or film company, while true should come with the proviso that the chance of this happening or of its leading somewhere is more than “unlikely.”
    Despite the tackiness and absurdity of the contest, you admit that you did receive helpful comments. Many writers can attest to receiving enormous help from their peers. While there are plenty of people who don’t want criticism, I’ve been thanked more often than not for offering useful critiques and have seen other writers grow enormously during their time on the site. At times it’s been very rewarding for me to feel that I’ve been a part of that.
    One use of Authonomy that you fail to take into account is as a launching pad or promotional tool for independently published books. I have purchased three books that I first read excerpts of on authonomy – an excellent historical novel, Harbour by Paul House, a non-fiction treatise, Dorkismo—The Macho of the Dork, by Maria Bustillos, and one of the finest examples of a magical realism novel by an American – The Legend of Jimmy Gollihue by George LaCas. HC isn’t making a dime off of those books, but isn’t it delightful that these rejected authors are able to subvert this slush pile for their own purposes?

    • Mary W. Walters

      Some of the shameless plugs are creative, interesting and fun — which is what writers should be learning how to do. My blog posts, forum comments and book reviews (http://marywwalters-onbooks.blogspot.com/) are all part of my self-promotion efforts. They don’t have to be “read my book.” “Read my book it’s falling.” “Why won’t anyone read my book?” Why hasn’t anyone read my book in three weeks when I’ve backed all of theirs. Blah Blah Boring! Interest me! Hook me! Promote yourself.

  12. So…yeah…what they said.

  13. Mary, this takes too much time to read – I could have backed three books by now.

    Seriously, a thorough and honest assessment.

    I do agree with Marion that the community can be useful in building an audience for self-published works. I have both Dork and Jimmy in my library and if I decide to go the self-pub route with Small Fish, I know where I’ll start my marketing (after F&F, obviously).

    • kevin armstrong

      Pete,
      I’m new to the self-epub bracket (or racket, I suppose). So, a query: who did you mean by F&F?

  14. I so agree with all you’ve said. I set out to give honest, constructive views – if a book needed editing, I said so, if the story was a bit slow, I said so. (If it was good I said so)
    I got slammed for my honesty, was abused and treated like sh*t.

    Maybe some of these authors ought to say to themselves – “perhaps my book hasn’t been accepted by an agent or a publisher because it isn’t very well written.”

    If you really want an honest unbiased critique – go to Hilary Johnson’s Literary Service.

    Frankly authonomy is a mutual mas****bation society. You rub mine I’ll rub yours.

    And yes this is a rant. The way I was abused for given an honest opinion sickened me.

    Betty

  15. A mostly accurate assessment. I’m not sure I agree with the opinion that to get to the top five you *have* to back everything, or leave positive comments on everything, as long as your comments are constructive. I think people who shy back from saying ‘negative’ things do other writers a disservice. One of the things I find most depressing about the site is the mindless praise.

  16. I think that for too many people, authonomy is the first writer’s forum that they find. They aren’t ready for honest assessment because all they’ve ever heard IS mindless praise.

    My first experience with an honest critique was on Forward Motion. It is currently mostly fantasy writers, and has some very young writers on it, but I got one heck of an education there.

    I had to change my attitude about my work. Especially if I intend to publish, I must be willing to edit. Just as I had to edit all those documents I typed in the Quality Control days.

    BTW I am willing to help anyone who wants to form a critique circle.

    There are free sites like Forward Motion where there is private posting space if three or four people want to get together. There is also email.

    It is a big commitment, but I know for a fact it’s a great learning experience.

    I looked at the Critique Circle site, it is interesting, I’m going back for a second look.

  17. Mary, great comments about authonomy, and thanks to you, I have kept a detailed list right from the beginning.

    I’m currently in the #1 position on the Editor’s Desk. Whether I can stay there until midnight on August 31 remains to be seen.

    I do realize that my position on authonomy has little or nothing to do with the quality of my work, and more to do with the amount of time I have spent there, reading, commenting on, and backing books, many of which are nowhere near publishable quality.

    My current position might also have something to do with the controversial nature of my novel and the fact that it is commercial fiction (at least, I hope it’s commercial!) I’ve noticed that some very fine literary novels don’t reach the Editor’s Desk.

    You might say that I’ve been a whore in the authonomy brothel because I’ve shelved books “to encourage [the writers] to continue improving their novels.” I hope this means that I’ll only spread my legs so far.

    I chose to devote a few months on the site since no one would be hurt by my devotion to the cause of getting my novel to the Editor’s Desk…I work part-time and have no kids or husband/boyfriend (the no kids is permanent; the no boyfriend is probably permanent as well, although I’m open to the opportunity to meet someone, of course (you can call me at 555-1234 if you’re interested.)

    I do try to give constructive feedback most of the time, and, yes, I’ve been criticized for it, but only three times. The rest of the time people have thanked me for my feedback and have subsequently backed my novel. A few have been honest enough to let me know that my themes aren’t their cup of tea. This is fine with me because I know I can’t please all the people all the time.

    I think it was Ray Bradbury who said that writers must learn to “accept rejection and reject acceptance” if they wish to become better writers. This is my mantra, especially on authonomy, where kudos are far too liberally given.

    However, I have received some very constructive feedback. Right now, I’m revising the novel based on that feedback, plus incorporating some outstanding revisions of my own, so that the novel will be the best it can be, whether or not it stays on the Editor’s Desk this month.

    Will all this effort have been worth it? If I’m lucky and get a good editor on a good day, at the very least I’ll have some specific advice from someone much closer to the market than I am, advice I can use to strengthen the novel. If I’m unlucky, I’ll get a useless review. But is this any different than elsewhere in the publishing business? I don’t think so. We all know that many excellent novels never find a home, and many less than satisfactory novels achieve economic, if not critical, success. It’s a crap shoot.

    Excellent writing is a journey without a final destination. We’re fortunate that the journey is so magical.

    Cheers,
    Sheryl

    P.S. For an hilarious look at authonomy feedback, read Night of the Earwig on authonomy.

    P.P.S. Rather than shamelessly promote my own novel, I’ll recommend Tnuth (with an ‘n’) by C.P. Hoff. I think it’s guaranteed to make you smile and the writing is wonderful, but that’s my opinion and it’s subjective.

    P.P.P. S. I have not received a single inquiry from either an agent or publisher to date, but since others have, I’m concerned that my novel is not as ready as I think it is. But surely that’s something I need to know.

    • Mary W. Walters

      Well said, Sheryl. You’ve done exceedingly well and I hope you stay on the ED all month! Yours is useful information for those just starting the climb, and your aside with the (fake) phone number made me LOL.

  18. Authonomy is strangely addictive. I was only on as a reader and eventually I had to go cold turkey and walk away. God knows how people who are watching the progress of their little arrow cope.

    As a tool to subvert Publishing As We Know It, it’s pretty ineffective. As a form of online gambling, where people get hooked in to compete for a prize, it’s fiendishly successful.

    • Mary W. Walters

      It’s great to see your voice, Osiander. We’ve missed your sanity on the site. Well, I have at least. :)

  19. The critical question is, what does (or do, if you’re English) H-C get out of Authonomy?

    Good books? Surely not, for many of the Top Five are weak as well water, and I suspect this tendency continues into the top 45 or 50.

    Certainly the number of offers they’ve made, and the casual nature of some of their reviews, indicate a less than eager interest in finding potentially successful writers.

    I see two things—a chance to sell some advertising, and the opportunity to publicize some of the books they have chosen to publish.

    But I might be wrong. Let me know if you think so.

    R E (Rupert Evel) Bunnie

  20. I “joined” with the intention of posting a novel for teenagers, but first I watched to get the feel of the place. I came across a few good books that maybe should be published, a few that would do well if self published and many that were, well, let’s say they need re-writing.

    most of the crits are by people who are wannabe writers – so they are not experienced. They have no idea of POV change, author’s voice, sentence beat etc etc. Moving a , or a . around is not going to make the slightest difference to a story at this stage (that is what a copy editor checks) what is important is the writing technique. But sadly, I have observed that to tell a writer they need to do some extensive editing on the above points will only result (usually, not always) in a tantrum from said writer.

    I have to admit I still don’t know whether to go for the ego-boost & post up my work – but this
    is what worries me …. so many wannabes are spending hours reading not all that good work on here and are not reading published, quality fiction instead.
    In other words they are saturating on a junk food diet and not feeding the brain with nutritious food. To appreciate good writing one must read good writing.

    And yes the site is all about advertising for HC. It is not about helping writers to get published.

    Get a freelance editor if you really want to get to the top or a have a professional critique. (I’m a freelance editor!)

    Or if you want free help and feedback by all means come on here, but ask for (and give) honest opinions only and do not even attempt to get to the top – if your book is good enough it’ll get there anyway.

    Now, do I take the plunge & follow my own advice or not…..?

  21. Pingback: Sunday Wash-Up 9th August « Shack's Comings and Goings

  22. Inteersting post. I havn’t used authornomy, and I’m not sure I want to, based on this post.

  23. Hilarious!

    One of the threesome has commented. But she didn’t comment about that particular debacle..

    I remember it well though. fucking outrageous.

    Fantastic blog Mary.

  24. I remember being thrilled to receive an invitation to join this great new venture. I posted in good faith thinking it would be like a critique group I had worked with. I was also under the impression (who knows why) that HC would be skimming through the submissions themselves. Then all these funny numbers started showing up. My personal and book related numbers seemed to head in the right direction for a while (I thought) but then the flood gates opened. This is exciting I remember thinking. Then I noticed those funny numbers shifted (in the wrong direction I think) and I also noticed that many of the new members all seemed to know each other. Were they all visitors from some other dimension or part of some vast club I hadn’t been invited into? Who knew but even I could see the impact their familiarity made upon the site. I am now one of those you mention who hardly pop in. It’s not because I’m bitter or resentful. I just felt overwhelmed. How could I keep up with these social rabbits whose comments and threads bred like the aforementioned bunnies. I know have to admit giving up hope. I’m not a networker. I love to write and to read the work of others but not at the kind of speed you’ve so clearly indicated is needed. It’s probably time to up stakes and vacate before I’m evicted for taking up valuable cyber real estate.
    It’s comforting to know that I wasn’t alone in seeing these trends.

    • It’s interesting, but I’ve rarely participated in the forums because I know that I get addicted too easily.

      My failure to participate doesn’t seen to have affected my backings…still #1 on the Desk, and revising like crazy between now and the deadline on Monday.

      Keep your collective fingers crossed.

      Mary, if you’d like, I’ll post my HC review here on this thread (and may look the fool depending upon what HC says because I’ve been quite honest with my feedback over at authonomy.)

      Cheers,
      Sheryl

  25. A joy to read, Mary. Honest, witty, sensible.

    I’m a fan of the site despite the one glaring cancerous imperfection.

    What a fascinating community of far flung and disparate folk. So many highly talented and friendly writers (and readers) mixed, of course, with the deluded, the feckless and the gaming vote-junkies. Bless them all.

    I agree that the Ed’s desk becomes evermore like a frenzied popularity contest. The untempered freedom to cast votes (every eight seconds!) makes the ranking Game more of a social experiment than a story telling Olympics. Human nature, eh. Oh HC, oh Rik. Oh dear.

    Didn’t follow the reasoning for NOT posting a complete MS. The reasons against doing so are, you say, “erroneous”? Personally, I’ve done so just to prove that the thing is indeed complete. Whatever happens with The Book, its writing has benefited hugely from the opinions of several dozen well-informed and thoughtful members of authonomy. May peace and publication be upon them.

  26. Loved reading this Mary. Your observations are spot on.

    I joined Authonomy in August hoping to get some constructive critisicm.

    I got some extremely good and helpful advice from members and decided to take my book down from Authonomy after only a few days.

    I have just completed a full revision and have arranged for a professional critique to be carried out in order to get an honest, unbiased opinion.

    I now read and comment on books on the site without fear of retribution (although my nature is such that I do restrict myself to mostly positive remarks).

    The whole swap read thing is a problem. I am trawling through pitches every day and reading what catches my eye and ignoring swap read requests but do realise that those who ask are only trying to promote their work.

    If HC encouraged “non-writing” readers who had no book of their own to push I think they would end up with with a far more credible top 100.

    Good luck with your writing.

    John

  27. Interesting post! Thank you so much for sharing your authonomy experience. I’ve considered posting some chapters there myself, but I’ve been afraid that if I get too involved, I won’t actually have time to, yanno, write.

    You’ve definitely given me some things to think about!

  28. Dear Mary,
    A lovely, incisive piece of writing. On target both in terms of HarperCollins, their reviewers, and the (largely) meaningless “readings.”

    The coup de gras was the latest posted HC review and the dawning awareness that the majority of readers had not read past 1 chapter and some even less. Utter nonsense!

    Thank you for exposing the sham.

  29. I saw your forum post at autho. I cam here and read your post.
    #9 about copyright- when you print out a hard copy of a completed ms it has some copyright protections. If someone is about to steal, you can get your ms registered quickly. When registered, you can sue for infringement.
    I did upload a book. The drawings aren’t there.
    I am not trying for the ed desk.
    My book is online and that is what I want.
    I don’t expect magic.
    There are many ways to do things on autho.
    This is a lot better than mailing out submissions to agents.
    Compared to a lot of other jobs I have done, this is so easy.
    If someone doesn’t believe in their book, then they will indeed fail.
    If someone asks me to read their book, I do so and send a message that I will read it.
    I don’t ask people to read my book. it is an oddie on the site because it is for four year old girls. There are NO four year olds on the site and anyway, an adult would have to read the book to them.
    I don’t let that stand in my way.
    You can look at autho in one of two ways. Either it is BS or an opportunity.
    For me, it is a grand opportunity and a lot of fun.

  30. Hilarious! Who are the 2 divas? I was half expecting you to tell your Sock Hunter story.

    I’m glad you made it cold turkey. I last 2 months and then fell off the wagon when I got broadband again. I might try to give it up again, though.

  31. Very good insight! I agree with a lot of the points made on here. I for one could care less if I make the Editor’s Desk or not. I just wanted my book to be “seen” and get help on making it better. In some aspects, I have. Others, not so much. But I figured anyone who took the time to comment (or even backed without comment) got a thanks from me anyway.

    I have seen writers on the site (even as recently as last night) have total fits over ‘honest’ crits, so I can see why people would be hesitant to do such. This saddens me, because personally, I don’t mind them. I find all of them–both good and bad–helpful to a degree. I guess I’m more thick-skinned than some people, who knows?

    As for commenting and backing, if I like something, I’ll say so. If I don’t, I’ll say so. If I REALLY like it, I feature it in my own blog so others may enjoy it too.

    It’s like any other site…you get out of what you put into it.

  32. “but rather to find other people to read and back their own books”

    Duh. ( people vote = popularity contest. How is this not obvious?*head/ desk* )

    You knew that’s what you were doing with your book, but it took you (how long ???) to figure out everybody else was doing the same thing. Why did you expect everyone else to be have differently than you.

    Bet you’re still proud you made 110 even though that number has no reflection writing quality.

    And imagine in the hours you spent networking how many queries you could have sent out? Publishers don’t ban you from querying them directly.

    You: “But because agents I don’t have a chance.”

    Me: “Yes, agents do have the upper hand because they often know the editor or someone who knows the editor. It’s called networking.”

    You: ” But it’s unfair to me and my great literature. If it wasn’t for agents my manuscript would be published.”

    1. Great literature is debatable.
    2. How is it that you can social network to promote your novel is good, but agents social networking to promote novels the represent? ( That’s rhetorical question. The reason its wrong is because your novel isn’t being represent. If you could find an agent, you’d be flying the other flag… Exactly how many agents have you queried anyway? Anything less than a hundred is pure laziness.)
    3. You make a grand assumption that if agents didn’t exist that:
    A: There would be fewer authors queering
    B: Your book would get to the editors desk quicker
    C: They’d be more likely to accept your book.
    (What makes you think if agents didn’t exist the slush pile on the editors desk would be any better than it is now? Wouldn’t editors receive more queries and the slush pile be bigger?What makes you think your book would stand out in that hypothetical slush pile, when it’s not standing out now?)
    4. How many publishers have you actually queried? I don’t /not many because they don’t accept “unsolicited manuscripts or I don’t/not many because agents make it impossible, isn’t a good answer, but it is lazy. If you really editors will want your work and the agent is the only thing in the way, then why aren’t you trying harder?

    Again rhetorical question. Answer A: I’m a winy self important hypocrite who likes to bitch. Answer B: Editors don’t want your manuscript either. Answer C: All of the above.

  33. Susan, your comment is barely literate. Really. But I give you 7/10 for snark.

  34. An authonomer straight to the marrow
    Don’t call me a falling red arrow
    I am asking you please
    To return all my reads
    I’m a read swap return kind of fellow.

  35. Mary, I wish I’d read this two months ago. You’ve encapsulated the whole experience perfectly and given me some much needed therapy.

  36. I joined Authonomy with the vague idea that I would get some fresh eyes on an MS I’d written some years previous and was completely unprepared for the chaos I found there. You have pretty much summed up everything I hated about the place. The only thing you have missed are the people who tell you how you are “supposed” to use the site and who berate you for things like giving an opinion.

    While I did find a couple of good books, I scan-read a heck of a lot which had rave comments but which I thought were dross. I want a secret authonomy website where only sensible people go.

    Even two hours a day on the site is ten of our English pounds if we assume payment at around the minimum wage. Compare earning money to pay for a profesional review vs the amount of hours you need to spend on authonomy for the same result.

    I had a vague thought of logging back in, but having noticed my message board has two messages berating me for having nothing on my shelf, that account is staying iced. Meat world people berate me plenty, I don’t need web ones as well.

    Great blog post, anyway – it made me feel a little happier that I’m not the only one who noticed that the system is made of Fail ;)

    Good luck in your endevours

    Theo

    • Thank you. Good luck to you, too. And if you ever find an Authonomy site for sensible people, please let me know!

  37. Mary, I found this post on the Wikipedia link. It confirms much of what I’ve learned in the last two months. I’ll keep my book on Authonomy until it ceases to be fun. A snippet from my recent blog post:

    I haven’t been playing the game very well. Each book has a ranking, based on the number of people who have recommended it by placing it on their bookshelves. You can back up to five books at a time. I wasn’t sure how it worked, until another writer let me know:

    “A good tip–you can back any number of books and if you take one off your shelf to save space it loses no points.”

    I thanked him for the tip and got a further explanation:

    “I’m afraid it’s a bit of a game on site here, the more books you look at, the more people are likely to look at your book. The better ranked a person is that backs your book the more points you get.”

    I replied that I thought the point of looking at books is to provide constructive criticism. His reply:

    “HC would love you to read whole books and make weighty comments. But I’d only get through 2 or 3 books per week. And that’s not going to compete with someone who’s apparently reviewing twenty books a day. I usually judge on one chapter plus the pitch. I honestly think that’s enough.”

    I backed his book, even though it’s not the type of book I’d normally read. It was well-wriitten.”

    Thank you for this invaluable analysis. I wish I had seen it back in November.

  38. Hi there, first of all, thanks for the blog post. I’m published so didn’t know too much about Authonomy and now I do – enough to know that if I was looking for publication I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. It struck me that for the time and effort required, you’d really be better off re-writing, paying for professional feedback, joining a critique group and doing some more re-writing.

    I notice a lot of US writers who blog seem to take the line that if you plan properly you don’t need to re-write and that’s the professional way.

    Well, I’m a professional writer, have been for 20 years first in non-fiction, now in fiction, and I re-write like crazy. My first novel was 16 drafts, my second took 26 (things are improving, my last book was only 3 major re-writes).

    Okay, that’s my take on it and I know for sure that I’d be more productive if I didn’t re-write, but on the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have hit the bestseller lists and be published in 14 countries.

    I’m part of a critique group with 3 others, and have another friend I swap work with. So that’s getting me honest feedback from 4 others. Some of their comments I act on, some I don’t, but I know that all their feedback is made with the best of intentions. I’d also recommend professional feedback – I used the Hilary Johnson feedback service someone else mentioned here for my first novel.

    I’d say don’t use Authonomy, if it’s good you’ll get picked up by an agent or publisher anyway. Instead spend your time more wisely: read lots, write lots, re-write even more and get networking. Good luck!

    • Mary W. Walters

      I LOVE this comment. I rewrite like crazy too, and have been thinking that I should instead just dash off novels and send them out. But I get such pleasure in rewriting and revision — it is from that part of the process that the book emerges, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’ll write a Militant Writer post about revision. Anyway, thanks!

  39. Pretty much on the mark.

    I gave up when reaching 400 too much running to stand still and I liked most of what I read.

    One person asked to swap reads and then said couldn’t back it because it was sci-fi? So why did you ask to swap then?

    My favourite comment was someone who had read the start of my book then complained about all the things I had got wrong with planets and was not going to read any more until I had fixed them.

    The problem was if the person had read enough then they would have realised that their assumptions were wrong (it’s not set on a planet). Perhaps I do have things wrong, but the complaints were for the wrong reasons.

    My other favourite comments where when people worked out what was going on and you could see the lightbulb light up in their comments, which was what I was aiming for.

    Did that last sentence make sense?

  40. As an aside, TheNextBigWriter is the opposite of Authonomy. It’s “competition” strives for a package of editing and on-demand publishing. Unlike Autho (with its meaningless feedback), TNBW is a desert of feedback. For example, as of today, consider the number of views I have and number of reviews.

    Views Reviews
    105 9

    That is less than 1%.

    Authonomy: Much ado about nothing.
    TNBW: No todo leading towards nothing.

  41. I’ve recently joined You Write On–the quality and timing of the feedback is much better than either authonomy or TheNextBigWriter, in my opinion. You don’t feel rushed, i.e., you can more or less go at your own speed, the reviews are assigned and you’re given guidance on what elements to deal with, etc. You will receive the occasional overly critical and way off-base review, but since you can delete your worst review of every five, this isn’t a problem.

    Every now and then, I check out authonomy–the authonomite reviews are so unhelpful these days. Unfortunate–they really should change the system.

  42. After reading these comments, thanks, but no thanks, I’m not joining this site. It seems to me you’re better off spending your time writing and perfecting your craft. Of course, networking is also a great idea.

    My book was almost published by Kensington Publishing. At the end, in spite of the backing of two fantastic editors, Marketing and Sales decided against it. They couldn’t come up with a marketing plan that would prove profitable to them. My opinion stands: publishing is about profits. If you have a name, you can write drivel and it will be published. Why? Well, you have a platform! And that means? You are well connected; your fans will buy that book, so why, then bother with the little guy no matter how good the book is?

    Do I know what I’m talking about? Yes. I got this information from a former editor at Simon & Schuster.

    Aida L. Irizarry
    aidalirizarry@yahoo.com

  43. Thank you Mary for such a revealing post. You convinced me to not join the site.
    Writing: authonomy.com

    I have long suspected that the Nike slogan of “Just do it!” echoes what Stephen King said in his book On Writing: writers write. Anything else is a distraction.

    Hopefully if one writes, when one gets “lucky” (luck is when preparation meets opportunity), one will be ready.
    Amanada Hocking: indie author goes viral

    Best of luck in your world. wb :-)

    • Mary W. Walters

      Thank you! I had read your blog post yesterday when Google sent me a note to say I’d been mentioned somewhere in the blogiverse, and I admired your thorough and scholarly (i.e. properly footnoted etc.) approach to the subject.

      I am just reading Stephen King’s On Writing now — and he makes some good points. I also suggest you check out the website of Dean Wesley Smith who has some good tips in his “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” section on how to “improve” your luck. As my son says (and to echo you), “Luck is for the unprepared.” :)

      http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=860

      I’ll repost this on your blog so your readers can access the Smith stuff too.

  44. Thanks for the tip on Mr. Smith. An excellent read; an interesting gentleman.
    Writing: Dean Wesley Smith

    It may seem like a trite thing to say when one may be facing the daunting task of writing (Or doing anything for that matter!), but I somehow think that the sports company Nike managed to successfully distill the essence of the challenge in their three word slogan: Just do it!

  45. The one site that’s really been helpful to me so far is reviewfuse.com On RF, you don’t beg others to give you reviews, nor is it a ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ trade site. Instead with RF, you, well, trade them. But trust me, its different.

    First you post a chapter or poem or whatever type of work you want to the website (as many as you want).

    Next to each item you submit is a Get Critiqued button. When you click it, you are asked to review 4 works from others and, in return, you will receive 3 reviews for your piece of work. Once you’ve done your 4 reviews, you can resubmit the same item or different items as many times as you want, no limits. 4 for 3 every time.

    This is all 100% FREE and I did this for probably 3 months and got lots of great reviews that really helped my writing.

    If you upgrade to premium, the main difference is that instead of having to do 4 reviews to get 3, you only have to do 2 reviews per 3 you receive. But again, there’s no need to ever upgrade if you’re willing to take the time to read and review 4 for every 3 you get.

    To prevent people from spamming out reviews to get more reviews for their work, there is a whole rating system. When you review a work, your review is critiqued by the author of that work.

    And if your reviews are rated poorly, then the reviews you receive are also from people who’s reviews are rated poorly, so all the spammers sink to the bottom. And since there’s no promise of book deals or anything like that, the bottom isn’t really a useful place to be.

    I tend to be very critical in my reviews, that’s what they want their work reviewed,right? Of course some people don’t and they give me low scores, but most people absolutely love it.

    All I can say is, I LOVE THIS SITE. If you know of anything similar or better, I’d love to hear about it. But I just wanted to post this because I think it’s a huge asset for any writers looking for real, unbiased, unbribed feedback.

  46. Authonomy was my first port of call when I started out on the road to self-publishing (the road that took me to KDP). I ended up HATING Authonomy. I hated the shameless plugs, the self-promote spams, the horrible competitiveness. In the top five at the time was a book that ultimately won but wasn’t published. It was obvious why: the book was appalling. It was so badly written it made me ashamed to be a writer. So why did this woman get to the number one spot? She had the sympathy vote – cancer, age, and a MASSIVE following of friends. It was this that turned me off Authonomy for life: I’m sure there are competitive writers out there who would enjoy the hard push to the top. But you know what? The woman who won that particular month – she ended up self-publishing anyway.

    http://alterspacefleet.wordpress.com/

  47. Thanks for your article. I, also, was considering dumping my first completed novel on the site. I think I will continue writing the sequel and go looking for a literary agent for the first, instead.

    Thanks Again.

    Mick

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