Avoid getting lost in the pile


Three authors have secured publishing deals after being discovered on internet ‘slush pile’ Authonomy. GILES NEWINGTONasks if this is the future for aspiring writers

‘BEAT THE SLUSH” – that’s the slogan, or the promise, of website Authonomy.com, aimed at writers whose unsolicited manuscripts would otherwise sit unwelcomed and unread for many months before, usually, getting the most cursory of glances from junior publishing house staff.

Set up last year by editors at HarperCollins as a means of democratising the publishing process (or of using the reading public to do their talent-spotting for them), the venture now appears to have borne fruit, with the announcement of five-figure publishing deals for three authors discovered on the online slush pile.

Authonomy is not the first internet initiative to offer hope to writers without agents or a track record. It does, however, seem to be a more serious, coherent and certainly better-designed effort than some of its precursors. (Youwriteon.com, funded by the British Arts Council, provides critiques and a self-publishing service, but has attracted criticism recently for the vagueness of its remit, while thefrontlist.com, an online “community of writers” selecting promising work for the attention of publishers and literary agents, is currently “not accepting new submissions whilst we clear a backlog of reviews”.)

It is apparent that Authonomy is fuelled by a degree of commitment from its contributors. Once writers have logged on (free) as members of the “social network for writers and book-lovers alike”, they are able to upload manuscripts of 10,000 words or more for the perusal, responses and votes of what looks to be an enthusiastic and growing band of amateur reviewers.

The website has been visited by more than 100,000 people in its first few months and at least 2,000 works, mainly novels, have been submitted. Along with their manuscripts, writers provide a synopsis, a potted biography and a list of favourite reading. Their work is then categorised by genre to help readers find books they might enjoy, and after opinions are swapped and votes cast, charts of the most popular works are compiled, with the guarantee that, at the end of each month, the top five will be given a detailed critique by HarperCollins editors.

It is also possible to attract the attention of other publishers or agents who choose to keep an eye on proceedings in the hope of finding lost pearls in the pile.

That’s the theory, but until a few weeks ago it amounted to little more than chat, and the website could have been seen as merely a device by HarperCollins to keep aspiring writers amused while washing its hands of unsolicited manuscripts.

Of the three titles for which the publisher has now bought world rights, one is a thriller, Reaper, by Steven Dunne (51); one a romantic comedy, Coffee at Kowalski’s, by Miranda Dickinson (35) (both on the mass-market imprint, Avon); and one, on real-lives imprint HarperTrue, a memoir by Melanie Davies of her life since being paralysed in a crash 30 years ago as a 15-year-old, co-written with Lynne Barrett-Lee.

FOR DUNNE, A teacher and former comedy writer, posting his manuscript on Authonomy was an afterthought.

Having decided to self-publish Reaperafter failing to get the required response from literary agents, he had already done surprisingly well in shifting all but 100 copies of his 2,000 print run, especially in bookshops (including Waterstone’s) around Derby, where he lives and where sections of his atmospheric psychological thriller are set. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of his readers, he went looking for further feedback online, without expecting that it would lead to the two-book deal and contract with an agent he has now secured ahead of publication in July.

“I put Reaperon Authonomy to get it noticed by publishers,” he says. “I never expected it to appeal to everybody or to get into the top five, and it didn’t, but happily HarperCollins editors were impressed by my synopsis and asked to see the completed manuscript.”

Dunne feels that a key problem for first-time novelists is the role of literary agents, who can obstruct rather than facilitate access to publishers. By providing an alternative route, websites such as Authonomy can be helpful in this respect.

“To be fair to agents, they’re swamped with material,” he says. “And as they are already making a living from the writers they represent, the incentive for them to push new talent is limited. However, I think that some publishers have become aware that the standard system of representation can work as a block to new writing, and that other mechanisms are needed.

“I now have a good agent, but it was only after I stopped pursuing their interest that I found the right strategy. I self-published, sold 2,000 copies, set up a website for the book, received five-star ratings on Amazon and Play.com, and finally got the publishing deal after the Authonomy posting. It’s a lot of work, but better than sitting around waiting for rejections from overstretched agents who sometimes manage encouraging words but almost never make a commitment.”

While Dunne’s book was already finished and attracting attention by the time he uploaded it, Miranda Dickinson’s experience of Authonomyprovides a more encouraging model for aspiring writers with little knowledge of the publishing process. In her blog on the website, she writes of working on Coffee at Kowalski’sin her office while the company that employed her was gradually being wound up.

Having posted her uncompleted manuscript on Authonomy and received some encouraging comments, she was then amazed when, without warning, HarperCollins asked her to finish the book so that it could go through the editing process and be published.

“If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” she writes. “There’s nothing special about me – I have no golden ticket, vast marketing team behind me nor sneaky insider information – I just wrote a book, uploaded it and someone noticed. Publishers and agents are looking.”

AS FOR THE third book, questions have been asked about the role of Authonomy in “discovering” Melanie Davies’s memoir, which, it is said, had already been touted to HarperCollins by respected literary agent Andrew Lownie before its popularity on the website helped to seal the deal.

So do websites represent the future for publishing, showcasing the writers of tomorrow in the same way as MySpace has launched musical careers? Or is it simply a way of shifting the slush pile and getting new work read for free?

In Authonomy’s case, its success so far seems to be based on its ability to draw in readers as well as writers through profiles, forums and “talent-spotter of the month” charts.

And while any site based on voting and committed social networking will throw up skewed choices and results, the experience of the three contracted authors shows that being in the top five is not the only way to get noticed.

For writers, the great benefit, even for those who remain unpublished, is feedback and the prospect of a professional critique. Dunne says: “As a courtesy, anybody who read my book, I would read theirs and make a comment, even if, ultimately, I was more interested in what HarperCollins editors might say.”