Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Beware Of The POD People

You know the POD people. They seem to be one thing and then they turn out to be another. Often they're out to steal your identity or your soul or some such.

Take, for example, authonomy, Harper Collins' online community for authors. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was an alternative route towards publication, what with all the enticing slogans dotted around the site: "We're More Than A Community Of Book Lovers, We're on a mission to flush out the brightest, freshest new talent around." "Beat The Slush." "Can You Make It On Screen?" And, most deceiving of all, pasted right above the Editor's Desk chart, "Publishing Contract Anyone?"

Whereas the truth of the situation is much more like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers where, when you are spotted as a talent, they point at you and scream. Proclaiming you an outsider and making sure you stay that way.

As the only author to date to have two separate books reach the Top 5, within the space of two months, I hope I might be forgiven for thinking my books had something special going for them. The first, Evil UnLtd (TM) was declared by Harper Collins themselves to be excellent but, as a science fiction comedy, sadly lacking a viable market. (Hello?) The second, Kip Doodle (TM), was a fantasy adventure for kids.

Many agents described it in positive terms, using words like "colourful", "imaginative" and "well-written". The only publisher to see it so far, Harper Collins, didn't believe young readers would find its central hook sufficiently fascinating. Kids - and adults - who have read it thus far have loved it. Some of the people in this loop appear to be a little out of touch.

It's clear that they pay no attention to the feedback left by authors and readers on each book. They are, I imagine, dismissive of those comments because the nature of the peer-based system does mean that a proportion of the critiques given will inevitably be self-motivated. There will be self-motivated positivity, angling for some reciprocal rave reviews, and there will be self-motivated negativity, from jealous, twisted individuals. But someone at HC devised the system, so you'd think they'd give it some credit. And to be honest, it's actually fairly easy to spot the crits that are borne of some ulterior motives. Among those that are the most transparent are the much sought-after crits that come from the HC editors each month. Their primary motive being, as far as I can gather, 'We'd really rather not publish anything off this site, least of all the really popular books.'

Not for the first time, I'm forced to wonder, what the heck is going on with the publishing industry? Which may be a little unfair. After all, just because Harper Collins are such a major player, should we consider them representative of the industry as a whole? Naturally, in the light of their 'verdicts' and the increasingly questionable worth of authonomy, I'd prefer to think otherwise.

Whatever their advertised claims about the nature of authonomy, unlike any Ronseal product you'd care to name, it's not what it says on the tin. The clue, in fact, is in the name. Authonomy = autonomy for authors. What they would like is to break into the POD business. As authors who have submitted our works to the sorry process, we know this because many of us have been approached by email with a 'special offer', inviting us to self-publish with HC's partners, Blurb, and help establish an authonomy shop, where visitors to the site might be able to buy our books.

Great, you might think, as a means of getting our books out there to the reading public. But no. Not when a paperback is costed at approximately £10 - before any profit to the author is factored in. How is an author expected to compete in that market, even if the quality of the book is better than many of those being produced commercially? To say nothing of the questionable quality control, where the apparent policy is, it's not good enough for us (despite being considered "excellent", for example), but it's good enough for POD.

Or, to put it another way, 'We'd like to make a bit of money off this book but we'd rather not have to pay the author anything, if that's all right with you.'

The worst aspect of all this though is the underhanded nature of it all. Because, whether the clue is in the name or not, those slogans say nothing about POD.

Those slogans invite the author to believe in some mythical new alternative to the slush pile and they wave a carrot of a *possible* publishing contract in front of the author's nose. A possibility that, it's quite clear now, is entirely non-existent. Indeed, they appear to be operating in accordance with some hidden rule that nothing selected from their precious Top 5 is to be granted any serious consideration. Faced with quality books and sometimes overwhelming evidence of readers' comments (even when weighing in the self-motivation factor), the crits offered appear geared towards finding spurious and often self-contradictory reasons not to publish. It's galling and insulting.

Now, in fairness, the smallprint does say that all that is promised is a crit from a Harper Collins' editor. But stop and contain your excitement for a moment before you go racing off to win yourself this prestigious prize. Because even these illustrious acolades are not always what they are cracked up to be.

Have a read of this one, from the latest batch (scroll down to the gold star and the brown banner that says Harper Collins wrote). The quality or otherwise of the book is immaterial. The crit given is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a professional critique. It may be from a HC editor, but frankly a tea boy could produce a nine-paragraph summary and round it off with a two line 'review'.

Me, much as the HC comments on Kip were short-sighted and self-contradictory, I feel I was quite fortunate in the crits I received for both my 'gold-star' works. But the results, coupled with the 'standard' - if we might call it that - of crits being issued in some cases, does lead me to question the worth of the exercise.

"Beat The Slush", they say. But the authonomy system is only an electronic slush pile, albeit linked with some social networking. 'Bookface', as someone dubbed it shortly after they introduced a messaging facility. Speaking from my experience, it took about a month and half for Evil to reach the attention of a HC editor, and two months later, Kip reached the Editor's Desk. They each received their response a month later. That's reasonably comparable to the timescale for a standard snail-mail submission. Now, the crits - for mine - were more detailed than you'd generally receive, it's true... *but* weigh that against the input of time and effort required in promotion and networking in order to get your book noticed among the thousands on the site.

At least with a snail-mail submission, you can post it off to an agent or publisher and forget about it, get on with something else in the meantime as you await a response. The work goes into fine-tuning the initial submission, then there's nothing more to be done. The submission will reach the editor's or agent's attention sooner or later, but you are free to write, be creative and, who knows, perhaps produce another masterpiece ready for a turn at rejection. ;-) You can even send off multiple submissions. Some agents and publishers frown on that and prefer an exclusive approach - check with the agents and publishers in question - but it is an option. Of course you can make other approaches while pursuing the pot of gold at the end of the authonomy rainbow, but you'll be lucky to find the time.

So was it all a complete waste of time? Well, no. The opinions and insights of many fellow authors were invaluable and I'm glad to say I made some very dear friends. Indeed if they adorned the site with slogans advertising a chance to meet lots of interesting people, there wouldn't be an issue. What I do regret is the time wasted professionally, when I probably could have written two other books.

So, if you are an author considering uploading your works on authonomy, all I'd say is, proceed with caution. They are POD people. They are not what they claim to be. They are also (for the Doctor Who fans out there) Chronovores. Major time-eaters.

What the site is good for, I have decided, is for showcasing those works which might otherwise be languishing in a cupboard or on the hard drive, gathering dust - actual or virtual. So my advice, think of it in those terms. It is a place to store samples of your work where they might actually be seen by others. Possibly even an industry professional.

That's why I've since uploaded further samples of my works. It's not my intention to chase after any more gold stars, I'm not even promoting those books on the site. But they are there to be seen and sampled and of course all comments are welcome. I'll have details and links in my next blog for each of the books I currently have uploaded on the site.

As for authonomy, I suspect it's the pet that the Harper Collins family didn't want. But their digital-age kids insisted on getting one and now they're saddled with its upkeep and obliged to feed it five crits every month. It's a strange beast. They might tell you it's a dog or a cat, but whatever they claim it to be, it is more likely a hamster running pointlessly around its exercise wheel and limited to thinking very much inside its box.

And the next time you see the words "Publishing Contract Anyone?" make sure it's on a product manufactured by Ronseal and not Harper Collins.


The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes said...

Very interesting post, Simon.

I probably bring a different perspective as someone who has benefitted immensely from Authonomy - so in the interests of balance and shameless self-promotion (yes, I am giving away my new book, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes, by writing it interactively in its own virtual world on the Facebook group of the same name) I'll give a thought.

I also got to the top 5 - the same month as the wonderful Kip. I was very lucky that my HC crit was hugely helpful - it was one of those that rang 100% true. As a result, I've pruned 23,000 words from teh story and now have a manuscript I'm really happy with. I don't know whether anything will come out of it with HC (they're still reading but I don't expect) BUT as a result of their crit I know I'm more likely to get success somewhere. I have also met MANY wonderful people through the site (including Simon ,without whose friendly rivalry December wouldn't have bee the same) with whom I am still in touch, with some of whom I am working on literary projects that may well bring even more success.

So Authonomy has been hugely beneficial.

An Harper Collins have, by creating a beast with flaws, been the biggest winners. Because every time one of us complains, we give the site webspace, and someone will go and look. Their stats increase, their ad revenue goes up.

Mockingbird said...

Si, hearing what you are saying loud and clear. And agreeing with every word. I wouldn't have missed the people that I have met by being involved, but Authonomy itself and Harper Collins... curiously seemed to be a detached and nebulous being that had little to do with what was in front of me quite early on. I have now mostly semi-detached from Auth... and plan on keeping it that way... It ate time, and was generally a waste of effort.

Soyarma said...

Luckily I got sick and was forcibly detached from Authonomy before I threw too much time at it.

Unfortunately something possessed me to make a site like Authonomy (albiet with a much more robust ranking system). One of its focuses will be to provide writing exercises and contests to help broaden people's scopes.

It's up at if anyone wants to transfer their time-waste there and get as much (if not more) peer benefit withtout the dubious hope the HC review clouding their judgement.

Soyarma said...

SAF: You may not want to publish my comment as to a degree it is a plug for my site.

That being said it is a site I'm making out of frustration with the Authonomy process, so I figured you may have some sympathy, lol.

SAF said...

Hi Soyarma. I have no objections to publicising your site at all. Could be an interesting experiment to see how that sort of thing operates without the phantom HC carrot. I think we all got sick of authonomy, but sorry you got actually sick.