Rewriting the rules for publishing


E-BOOKS MAY be garnering the lion’s share of headlines about the future of publishing, but the digital revolution isn’t confined to how books are being bought and read.

Publishers are embracing the internet’s potential, with sites like (HarperCollins) and (Penguin), encouraging unpublished and self-published authors to submit examples of their writing, which are then reviewed by the writers’ peers, who also contribute to the sites. The more positively reviewed a submission is, the higher it rises in the rankings, until eventually it emerges on to the radar of editors.

“In practical terms,” says Irish writer Frank McGrath, author of the as yet unpublished Gold Orchid, “the site could be viewed as a self-sifting slush pile. Agents are known to sift through the site from time to time and may request manuscripts from authors they like. HarperCollins have published several books discovered on the site and its sister site, Inkpop, while other authors, including myself, have secured an agent.”

For Laurence O’Bryan, the experience of submitting his work to online scrutiny was initially about discovering a mutually supportive community. “Writers are increasingly part of the online world,” he says, “as is the community we live in. You can write in a back room, yet talk to other writers all over the world every day from the comfort of your desk.”

O’Bryan is the author of The Istanbul Puzzle, a thriller which will be published in January by Avon, a HarperCollins imprint.

“Authonomy runs occasional one-day events at the HarperCollins offices in London,” he says. “I went to one in December 2010, and it was an amazing experience, like being allowed into a fairy castle. Everywhere there were piles of new books and you could smell them . . . I met a HarperCollins editor there and she offered to read my novel, and a few months later they offered me a book deal. A three-book deal, actually. So the pros are pretty clear to me.”

McGrath is equally enthusiastic about the process and how peer review can help to hone the author’s craft.

“It lessens the loneliness of writing,” he says, “even if you also realise there is a lot of talent out there and that you are up against a lot of good competition. But you also see how much a work needs to stand out to gain acceptance by a traditional publishing house.”

McGrath’s description of as “a self-sifting slushpile” is one of the criticisms that have been levelled at the new departure, with writers concerned publishing houses are abdicating their responsibilities by putting the futures of writers in the hands of a review system that’s potentially open to abuse, with the writers contributing to the site jostling for position.

Eoin Purcell, a commissioning editor with New Island publishers, agrees there is a danger of writers being exploited. “Most companies are unlikely to push too hard,” he says of the demands made on authors, “but as publishers move deeper into the provision of services to authors, the potential for mistakes or misjudgments by publishers grows.”

There is also the risk of a backlash from disappointed authors. “Communities have needs and expectations that have to be met,” says Purcell. “If publishers are not careful they can store up resentment and bad press from disgruntled members, so they really need to think about their strategy and be honest in their dealings from day one.”

Purcell says the process can benefit publisher and writer alike, if handled correctly. “Creating a digital submissions space enables much more effective management of the submissions and the development of a direct relationship with writers.”

The traditionalists may be cynical, but ultimately, and despite the shiny new technology, the fundamentals remain the same: a writer submits a book to a publisher in the hope of one day seeing it on a shelf.

“I’m still surprised it’s being published,” says O’Bryan of The Istanbul Puzzlewhich will be published in January, “but it’s been sold already to Italy and Greece for translation, and other countries are lining up to take it too.”