Friday, June 26, 2009

Down East Drizzle- A Maine Author Ponders Authonomy

As an author on Authonomy since the end of January, I’ve had ample time to ponder the convolutions of the site. I believe—I HOPE—that the premise behind the creation of this HarperCollins website was a just and honorable one. That it was what it touted itself to be: a traditional publishing house looking to track down new talent in a non-traditional way. By having new authors submit samples of their work, by asking them to make public a portion of the products of their talent, the folks at HC aspired to have five almost-ready-to-be-published manuscripts handed to them at the end of each month. Manuscripts that had already been reviewed by other gifted writers; and then tweaked, proof-read, and edited by the authors themselves.

It seemed like an excellent idea. It certainly sounded good to me, on that very first day when I uploaded my YA novel, Grumble Bluff .

And then I took a look around.

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life. In the traditional manner of query letter to agent, or cover letter to publisher, I’ve submitted articles, short stories, anecdotes, and novels countless times over the years. I’ve played by the rules every time. I have the rejection letters and cards to prove it. My badges of courage, I call them. For it takes a whole truckload of willpower and nerve to continually offer up these pieces of my heart and soul to a callous and over-worked publishing industry employee. I understand that there are thousands of other authors just like me, who are waiting for the chance to tell their story. Hoping for their shot at a lucky break. I know the chances are slim-to-none that anyone in the industry will ever take the time to read my most excellent endeavor. And so, Authonomy seemed like a terrific alternative to the traditional route I’d been taking.

But, you see, we aren’t just conjurers of words. Writers are people, too. Human beings. Imperfect creatures who desire to have that end-of-the-rainbow title: Published Author. And because we ARE human, we sometimes act in ways that are not flattering to our race. Authonomy, because of the hope it tenders, has become a miasma where anticipation wars with integrity. The concept seemed sound. Have authors read manuscripts and honestly review and judge those books-in-the-making! Encourage them to make helpful suggestions and give thoughtful opinions. And if the reader truly, sincerely believed that the manuscript was publishable and/or showed great promise, then the reader would ‘back’ the book, thereby propelling it upwards towards the coveted Editor’s Desk.

Every author wants the same thing. A chance. Just one opportunity to be offered the deal of a lifetime. But, sadly, not all manuscripts are publishable. Not every story written is written well. And perhaps most importantly to a publishing house, very few of them have a commercial value. Regardless of these facts, books are very often ‘backed’ or ‘placed on a shelf’ simply to reap a return backing or to get a ‘favor’ from another member. Some members on Authonomy have literally placed their lives--and their writing--on hold while they stare at a plasma screen for hours on end, reading one t0 three chapters of a manuscript. They write a comment (or sometimes, they don’t!) often not longer than a sentence or two, and frequently with no useful words of advice—then ‘back’ the book, and move on to another. And yes, I’ve been disappointed to observe that some authors ‘back’ a book simply to make a ‘statement’, or out of spite for another author, or to receive a backing for their own book—and NOT because they believed the manuscript they placed on their shelf had what it takes to make it all the way. This ‘you back me, and I’ll back you’ negates the whole purpose of the site. And may very well snatch a publishing opportunity from a very talented writer who has too much integrity to sink to those same levels.

This is not ‘sour grapes’. I do not have a manuscript in the running for the ED. I’m not in this competition anymore, as I was fortunate enough to have a literary agent pick up Grumble Bluff. I’ve been reading for the pleasure of it, for the networking, and for the delightful experience of meeting other authors who are just like me. Men and women who have a story to tell. Kindred spirits who are facing the same struggles as I am, and who hope and pray for the same outcome that I do.

I understand frustration. I identify with desire. But this system is flawed, in my opinion. If HC truly wants to ferret out the freshest talent, this is not the way to do it. With the current Authonomy system, all HC will discover is who, exactly, is willing to bend and break the rules to get what they want. They’ll learn which authors have the ability to abandon all semblance of a ‘normal’ life, in order to devote every waking hour to promoting their books. Perhaps that is what they are looking for. A fellow Authonomite recently suggested that HC might very well be looking for those authors who are willing to give the marketing of their manuscript everything they’ve got--regardless of whether or not that manuscript exhibits great talent, imagination, mechanics or magic-making ability. Because an author who will promote a novel with religious fervor (which can be tweaked and re-worked by an expert until it is a viable money-maker) is an extremely valuable asset. I hope that’s not the case. I hope we all aren’t part of an anthropological experiment.

Because if we are, I think we’ve failed the test.

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