— A new model for publishing?

This week’s theme seems to be about the state of publishing in the digital age, so I figure now’s a good time to post something I’ve been meaning to for a while now (and as we learn more and more each day how large publishers are suffering in this global meltdown maybe this is the right time for something hopeful…)

So I’d like to draw your attention to

Despite the bad news this week from HarperCollins, is their attempt to leverage the social networking capabilities of Web 2.0 with the “wisdom of crowds” effect to do a lot of the heavy-lifting of slush reading and perhaps reduce some of the risk inherent in publishing books by new authors.

As described on the authonomy. com website:

authonomyTM is a brand new community site for writers, readers and publishers, conceived and developed by book editors at HarperCollins. We want to flush out the brightest, freshest new literature around – we’re glad you stopped by.

If you’re a writer, authonomy is the place to show your face – and show off your work on the web. Whether you’re unpublished, self-published or just getting started, all you need is a few chapters to start building your profile online, and start connecting with the authonomy community.

And if you’re a reader, blogger publisher or agent, authonomy is for you too. The book world is kept alive by those who search out, digest and spread the word about the best new books – authonomy invites you to join our community, champion the best new writing and build a personal profile that really reflects your tastes, opinions and talent-spotting skills.

The publishing world is changing. One thing’s for sure: whether you’re a reader, writer, agent or publisher, this is an exciting time for books. In our corner of HarperCollins we’ve been given a chance to do something a little different.

We’d really love your help.

And from their FAQ some more details:

…we firmly believe that writers should be judged on the quality of the work they produce, not on their ability to pitch, market or publicize themselves. Personal recommendations are by far the most effective way of building support for a book, and writers on authonomy stand to gain the support of a community of readers who are really motivated to spread the word about the best new writing…

…Once a month we’ll be pulling out the top five books from the Editor’s Desk Chart, and passing them on to our Editorial Board. HC editors will read from the first 10,000 words of each manuscript, and will feed back their comments to the appropriate authors, who will be able to decide whether or not to make these comments available to the community at large…


There’s also some insight into why HarperCollins set up this site from Victoria Barnsley, the chief executive of HarperCollins UK, in a speech she delivered as part of the London School of Economics’ series of public lectures on November 4, 2008 (like I said–I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while…):

The old model whereby a publisher commissioned a work and then went through a series of steps to deliver it to a retailer, who delivered it to an unknown reader, isn’t enough. The interactivity of the Web allows readers to play a part in the process, to engage with authors and each other and in some instances, become authors themselves. The old linear model is becoming circular. For 500 years, the consumption of books was largely a private affair but the Internet has socialised that experience. If publishers are canny, they will see this as an opportunity to add more value and to create new revenue streams.

I’m not saying all readers will want to take part in this socialising. For many, the joy of reading will remain its intensely private escapism. However, a whole new generation has grown up online, who do use text to socialise and do want to engage with each other around texts. So, as publishers, we need to expand our business models to cater for this new dialogue.

Going forward, we need to operate two models: – the existing model, whereby we add value by selecting, nurturing, marketing and finally selling content to the consumer – in whatever form they demand and a second model whereby we create value in the experiences around that content where we facilitate the dialogue between writers and readers. Publishers need to broaden their brief, to take advantage of the connectivity that the digital age offers and demands.

To that end HC, and some other publishers, have begun experimenting in this social space. We’re in the process of launching a number of digital initiatives, well beyond our ebook programmes. I thought I’d finish tonight, by giving you a glimpse of this work in progress, to illustrate my point. I hope, it will give you a flavour, of the ways in which publishers will be seeking to expand and develop, their businesses, and revenue streams, in the next decade. I can’t think of a better place to start, than with last year’s Nobel Laureate, Doris Lessing.

In this case, we’ve partnered with the Institute of the Future of the Book, to create an on-line, annotated version, of The Golden Notebook. A number of writers and academics will read the text together, online, and will offer their comments as marginalia. Readers in turn, will then be able to read Doris’s text, and the annotations, and offer their own feedback, creating a rich, on-line dialogue, around this seminal text.

This project is a purely marketing exercise aimed at increasing the continued relevance of Doris’s work to new generations but it also illustrates the kind of value, that can be added, by a publisher, to the experience of consuming a text. Connecting readers, writers, scholars, reviewers and bloggers, is all part of a publisher’s new mandate and with this project, we’re doing just that.

But as publishers turn to face readers directly, we need to understand, that in today’s interconnected world, many of our readers are also writers and they have specific needs and desires we can meet and if we don’t someone else will. To that end, at HarperCollins, we’re tapping into that same community of reader-writers, with a new website that we’ve just launched –

What we’ve done, is create a site, where unpublished writers and readers can gather
to share their work, comment on each other’s work in progress, rate what they’ve read and ultimately have their work reviewed by editors and agents. We’re using the “wisdom of crowds” principle, to select the top 5 rated manuscripts, each month, for review.

The interesting thing about authonomy is that by putting us at the centre of a hub of interactivity, between readers and would-be writers it provides us with a new business model. In addition to being a new pool for talent spotting, we’ve also created a community of people who love reading and writing. It’s growing at such a rate – over 2m page impressions in just 6 weeks – that we’ll soon be able to start generating advertising income. And shortly, we’ll add a print-on-demand capability -so that any of these would-be writers will be able to see their work in print. So, in a rather neat, reverse way, a purely digital proposition will end up spawning lots of printed books – and not just digital files.

They also have a blog associated with the site, which includes posts about writing, editing and editors, and even updates on those lucky few who have actually sold their manuscripts to HarperCollins via participation on–so it seems it can be done, at least sometimes. There are also posts specifically dealing with HC’s sci-fi and fantasy line of books.

This sounds to me like trying to replicate and formalize the process by which John Scalzi’s first novel Old Man’s War was published. That book first debuted online when Scalzi serialized his novel on his web site in December 2002, which resulted in an offer for the book by Tor Books Senior Editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. The hardcover edition of the book was published in January, 2005. Old Man’s War was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in March 2006.

So check out the site, maybe sign up and see what they’re offering for a good read. I, for one, think I’ll take advantage of when my novel is finished later this year…

– S.

2 thoughts on “ — A new model for publishing?

  1. If you put half the time into writing stories as you did on some of these blog posts…

    Anyways, my immediate concern would be IP rights – by posting your content on the website, exactly what rights are you giving up over that content to the website’s owner?

  2. Spoken like a true law student 😉

    Well, according to their terms you surrender none of your IP rights to them or anyone else when you post a ms. to the site. You’re free to put it up and take it down at will, sell it elsewhere, etc. The only time IP rights would come in to play is if they decided to publish your book, and at that point you’d go through the standard contract negotiation process (and likely secure an agent in the meantime–agents like it when you already have a publishing offer. It’s kinda like asking them if they’d like 15% of whatever you make for doing next to no work 🙂

    Oh, and if you notice, most of these longer posts are cut-and-paste jobs 😉

    – S.

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