Friday, 22 January 2010


I put my book on Authonomy in the hope of constructive criticism. The basic deal there is simple enough, there is a complex and invisible algorithm driven by which books other site members like, by which books rise up the charts. If you get into the top five at the right time then Harper Collins will look at your book. With about 5000 books on the site I’m not sure I regard the odds as particularly good. Other people have blogged about how it has become a sort of swap fest, you read mine and I’ll read yours. To get into the top five you obviously have to put in a lot of hours reading and commenting. Not made any easier or quicker when the site prevents you reading offline and its refresh time in clunky by modern standards.

If only five triumph, what is in it for the other 4995 books and their authors? Precious little I would suggest.

I’ve had getting on for 40 comments and almost all of them tell me what a great book I’ve written. I tried sending a letter to random people who seemed to be online a lot in which I asked specific questions. Do you think chapter one is too dark? Did the issues raised put you off? Does it start too slow? The response I got was pretty much the same. It’s not too dark, too slow, or too detailed.

What do agents say? Those who have rejected it so far say things like:- ditch chapter one - there is too much exposition and it’s too dark, so no one would pick it up in a shop if they read the beginning. Get into it much quicker and get to the real crime. Um it’s a medical thriller and there is no actual crime, but never mind – you get the picture.

Nothing said in any of the comments from writers on Authonomy was aimed in the same direction as the agents who have rejected the book so far.

So is there any point to Authonomy? The vast majority of books will not be improved by the comments they get and the chances of being picked up by Harper Collins become more and more remote as the site goes on. Of course all that reading other people’s book and pitching to get you own read chews up time when you could be writing. Slowing up the rate at which writers crank out books that would never be published may be what Harper Collins was really aiming at.

That might seem bad, but in some ways it gives us a hint of a more optimistic picture, not for publishing but for life in general. Given the chance, even perfect strangers will not say bad things, or things they think might hurt. To get any criticism that might push you towards change, you have to pay. In the case of agents, mostly you pay with your time, plus printing off the double-paged versions of three chapters and the stamped addressed envelopes. The other alternative is to pay for critiques from folk like Stephanie Hale or Cornerstones. The latter are more expensive, but they don’t take 15% of whatever you earn eventually. To be fair any word beyond ‘No’ that an agent says is on their own time and costing them money.

One could argue that agents should have an interest, in a general sort of way, in promoting better writing, and hence should share their views. On the other hand book publishing is a competitive business; if all the writers got better there is no evidence that customers would suddenly buy more books. As Fred Hirsh once said. ‘If everyone stands on tip toe, no one sees any better.[i] From there you could argue that the less agents say, the easier it is for them to pick possible winners.

So there you have it, we live in a society where you have to pay for insults or unpalatable truths and if you talk to perfect strangers the chances are they will be nice to you. Of course that means Eastenders has got it all wrong, but surely we knew that anyway.

[i] Social Limits to Growth Fred Hirsh, 1976 Harvard Press

1 comment:

  1. I'm critical on Authonomy when I notice obvious flaws in an extract - though I didn't get thanked for my last two critical comments. I felt they were unwelcome. That's one reason why I seldom comment these days.

    I was contacted by an agent when my book reached the top twenty a year ago, and I know other people have been, certainly in the early days of the site. Whether agents still look now the chart is a mess I don't know.