03 February 2009

The future of publishing?

Because SF writers like to speculate, what do you see happening to the publishing world within the next twenty years or so?

OK, here is my vision.

In 2029, I will walk into my local bookshop to the smell of coffee and fresh bread. It's just after opening time (I won't change my habits between now and then), and only two people are sitting at the twenty-odd reading screens. One has just received a cappucino from the kitchen. She has a palmtop with her and is downloading some information onto the bookshop's system. Because last night a friend told her about a great book, and now she wants a copy. After all, an electronic cookbook is not easy to use.
A shop assistant behind the sales counter is whacking a few reams of paper into the printing machine and checking the ink cartidges, ready to start when the first order comes in. On the counter, there is a stand with the latest in electronic readers, but fair number of people still prefers a paper version. You can have them gift-wrapped by the second shop assistant who is at the computer using the shop's link with the sales database. This program links directly to the shop's account, and pays royalties to the author.
The second customer in the shop is a middle-aged man. He's an author and he's here to check that his book is available through this database. He wants to order a copy for someone at work.
I sit down at another of the screens and hit Science Fiction (I don't expect to have changed tastes either). A list of books comes up, with their covers and a one-line blurb. New releases at the top, a search field and various field to narrow the results.
I don't actually want anything new. There is a book I read when I was at high school that has stayed with me all those years. I never remembered either title or author, but I've searched and found it, based on what I did remember. It has been out of print for more than fifty years of course and the publisher went broke long ago, but that doesn't matter. I order a copy and drink my coffee browsing the latest releases, and get three for $1 on my electronic reader, while the machine behind the counter churns out my print order.
And somewhere faraway in England, the daughter of a long-dead author receives a bit of money or her mother's account.

What is your vision?

02 February 2009

The Authonomy Experience

I joined Harper Collins' Authonomy in September 2008, after I heard of this new initiative, an electronic slush pile, in another workshop. I am always up for something new, and I think a large part of the publishing industry is in urgent need of updating, although thankfully some agents are moving to paperless offices and E-submissions.

With about 4000 members Authonomy is a vibrant community, which allows members to upload 10,000 words or more of their book. Because agents look at the site, it gives a writer another way of exposure in addition to regular submissions. But the site's greatest value lies in the fact that other members comment on the book. In effect, this makes Authonomy like a writers group, and it’s probably best seen that way. In addition to that, the site has a voting system and Harper Collins promise to read the top 5 books every month.

I don’t think it took long for people to realise that reaching the top 5 meant you would receive a professional review, not an invitation to submit your book to an appropriate editor, but in the competitive world of trying to get a novel published, even a professional review is good.

I initially uploaded my three finished novels, and let the readers decide which one they enjoyed most. I then made the other two books private and concentrated on the remaining one. This was the soft-SF/crime novel Seeing Red.

I enjoyed the vibrancy of the site, and if you are willing to trawl the forums, you will see that I have often spoken out in favour of Authonomy. In November, I faced a dilemma: all of a sudden my book was in the top 10. I knew that Harper Collins doesn’t publish what I write, and in those same forums, you may find messages where I considered removing the book. But a professional review would be nice. I decided to go ahead, and I decided to do so without willy-nilly voting for other books in order to get those authors to vote for me. I ‘played’ the Authonomy system and I won. I would get my professional review.

First let me say what I expect when I say ‘professional review’ because I’ve had professional reviews from publishers in the past – a page or two of commentary on a novel, stating the strong points, the weak points, overall possibilities for improvement in no-nonsense but professional, dare I say impersonal, language.

I did not expect this (note, the HC review is immediately under the red banner if you scroll down the page), a review which starts off referring to my ‘popularity’ on the site, which, frankly, has nothing to do with the book, and comments about ‘being honest and grown-up’ make it sound like I’m a child. Those comments were belittling and unnecessary, especially in the light that he is an anonymous reviewer, and I have all my cards on the table in clear view of 4000 community members. This paragraph says to me: this book is only here because you are popular, and we don’t like that. That’s fine, but exactly whose system was I using to get where I was?

There are some comments about the book which are fair enough. He didn’t like it, although it was the subject matter and not the style, plotting or characters he had problems with. He made some comments. That’s all up to me to deal with.

But the reviewer then gives me a final kick in the guts in by stating that stating that no one will publish this book. First off: if I were an editor in a rival publishing house, I’d be offended if anyone spoke for me. I’d decide for myself what I’d take on, thank you very much. As for me, the author, what am I to make of this remark? Was it meant to make me run off and cry? If no one would publish the book, wouldn’t I find that out in due course as I submit?

I wrote a book I would buy. I wrote it, because I enjoyed it. I’m guessing about three hundred people voted for it. I sent out a number of whole-book manuscripts. It was (and still is) a popular book. I fully accept that a publisher has their own agenda, and that my book was not what they wanted. I accept the reasons. I have other books. I don’t like the way SF publishing is going, but that is a separate issue.

From Harper Collins, all I asked for was a professional crit, not to be lampooned, belittled and kicked in the guts when I was down.

A normal ‘thanks, but no thanks, because...’ would have done. I feel betrayed, saddened, vilified and angered, because none of this would have been necessary had the crit been more carefully worded, and maybe vetted by someone who deals with online communities. Yes, I have done much in the Authonomy community. I don’t think I’ll be doing much more.

Edited to add: Read what fellow Authonomite Alexander McNabb has to say about the review.