Halfway through an article about the tech-savvy new CEO of HarperCollins UK, (“Victoria Barnsley: Bringing books to your mobile phone,” by Ciar Byrne, The Independent) comes the news that they’re taking the slush pile public:
With this in mind, HarperCollins is about to launch a new website, Authonomy.co.uk, which will allow unpublished authors to upload their manuscripts for others to read and comment on. The website will provide an opportunity to spot promising new work, but also, more importantly from the publisher’s point of view, will create an online community of readers and writers.
“Our whole business model will change,” says Barnsley. “Up until now we have received unsolicited manuscripts. This is about encouraging people to build a community where they will judge each other’s content.”
“My view is more people want to write a book than read a book. It is unbelievable how many people out there have a book in them. I think people will love it. Only one of the purposes of this site is that eventually we’d find stuff to publish. The main interest is building a community. We see this as experimenting to learn.”
This was sent to me by Frank Sennett, who asks:
Isn’t the real value proposition of sites like this the opportunity for publishers to offload their slush piles? If they spot one extra publishable novel out of a scheme like this, whatever. What they really want is to get unsolicited writers to leave them alone, and “building a community” is just a polite way to say that, right? Too cynical?
Doesn’t sound too cynical to me–that is, Frank’s question doesn’t. More and more publishers seem to abandoning the over-the-transom route for authors. It’s hard to blame them, in a way, given how inundated they are with unsolicited manuscripts (and how they’re faced with declining reading habits). But a contradiction within Barnsley’s remarks seems to verify Frank’s suspicions: if people would rather write a book than read one, how does HarperCollins expect a “community of readers” to grow around a site where all writers, regardless of ability, are welcome to upload their manuscripts?
If reading is truly on the wane, publishers can best encourage it through the time-honored process of finding and championing the best books–not by adding to the already vast number of possibilities vying for our time. Separating the wheat from the chaff should be a paid position, not a volunteer one.