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Spotlight on Authonomy

Learn the best ways to get connected, hone your skills and build your career on the Web in this expanded Q&A with the founders of Authonomy.
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Year founded: 2008
Number of members: Around 24,000 registered members and at least 5 times that number per month in visitors who come to read and browse all the books.
Mission: To flush out the brightest new writing talent.
How to join (any criteria, fees, etc.): Simply register with an e-mail address and password—it’s that easy and it’s free to use. If you want to upload a manuscript (not compulsory for participation) there is a minimum requirement of 10,000 words.
About the founders: HarperCollins is one of the biggest publishing houses in the world. Kate Hyde, who fielded these questions, is a digital producer at HarperCollins UK and a founding team member of authonomy.

Thus far, you’re the only mainstream book publisher that has attempted forming a writing community of this magnitude. Why did you decide this would be a worthwhile endeavor?
We wanted to create a better way to surface fresh voices and writing talent that could be used not just by us but for all the industry. For too long publishers have been criticized for their vastly inefficient or insular methods of sourcing projects.

Also, we’re avid about reading: We were interested to see how reading books and writing books interacts. What we have with authonomy is a mutually supportive system where people do a lot of reading and commenting on other’s material to improve their own voices. We passionately believe if you want to be a great writer you should be a great reader. We set out to foster a supportive community that encouraged improvement and work in progress, as that’s to everyone’s benefit.

To date, how many book contracts with HarperCollins have resulted from the site? How did those come about?
To our knowledge, three—but because so many agents are now using the site, we have no way of knowing whether new talent was sourced from the site unless they tell us! We have some more in the pipeline and have recently had some very near misses with some books (voted by the community) that have made the editor’s desk and subsequently made it to our strict acquisitions meetings but didn’t quite get the contract.

The Reaper was a self-published book selling well locally and with a good fan base. We recognized that we could take the book to a national level and really make it a mass-market success.

Fairy Tale in New York (called Breakfast at Kowlaski’s on the site) was a manuscript put up on the site that we just discovered and loved—we instinctively felt we could work with the author.

Never Say Die was a project two authors had been working on for some time. They already had an agent, but put their work in progress on authonomy, I think, to get responses and feedback—something authonomy is particularly strong at. The response was so supportive and positive that their agent used it to pitch publishers. We bought it from the agent on the basis that authonomists had tried and tested and loved it.

We know of at least 20 other books on authonomy that have been picked up globally by other publishers or literary agents … and countless more entrepreneurial types who have found success by a more autonomous route of self-publishing.

Do you have any knowledge that other publishers may be using your site to find new authors?
They definitely are! It’s not fair to name names, but I have associates at most of the major houses and some very cool independents who tell me they trawl the site regularly. We’re not going to be churlish though: We built it that way—to be the most efficient way of attracting serious talent.

Literary agents are using authonomy, too, as they are hungry for fresh talent but are stretched in terms of their time. We’re now getting pitches from agents that include authonomy community quotes.

Describe the writer who can most benefit from involvement with authonomy.
I think there are two types: There’s the writer with a fledgling project under his wing, sick of writing in isolation and not getting enough constructive feedback from his best friend/cat/bus driver to really see improvement. This person can ask a myriad of literary and arbitrary questions of fellow writers and get some really detailed feedback on his script, which is incredibly helpful. We’ve even seen some professional writers with contracts already under their wing use the site in this way, which adds an interesting chemistry to the mix.

There’s also the writer who feels her book is pretty much ready to find a paying audience. She can use authonomy as a springboard to commercial success—focusing on finessing her sales pitch, attracting support from a fan base to prove to a publisher they can sell in sufficient quantities, or even using their fans to sell the book directly to if they self-publish.

What else is unique about authonomy that sets it apart from other online writing communities?
Our site isn’t just a writing community; it’s also a reading community. We have many members who come here to read, support and discover new talent because they like to be ahead of the game—the equivalent of indie film fans. They actually outnumber the people with manuscripts up there—which is great news if you’re a writer looking for a reading audience. Our readers prefer to find their own gems rather than just picking bestsellers that everyone’s reading, so they are the lifeblood of the site.

In terms of what authonomy offers to writers, the main thing is a heap of discerning and vocal readers! I think this element appeals in particular to that second author profile: the people serious about getting spotted and working a book out to be not just a literary success but also a commercial reality.

Authonomy is also increasingly standing out from other writing communities in the level of participation from professional literary agents, scouts and even TV producers.

Most online writing communities seem to take on a distinctive personality of their own. How would you describe yours?
We have tens out thousands of members, and each time we think we have a “type,” something (or someone) will happen to show us that we actually have a community of rather diverse writers, with fascinating sub-groups according to genre, global location, tastes and reasons for being there. But to generalize, members are well read and articulate, and good at leaving detailed feedback that is a lot of the time impressive in quality—we’ve often discussed how we’d like to employ some of our top talent spotters as professional readers! In summary I think it’s a constructive community because it’s very focused on making progress.

What other services/functions do you offer that make your site especially valuable to writers?
The whole proposition of authonomy is to make people’s fresh work more discoverable—whether by readers or by industry professionals. So we make sure that text is absolutely visible, and linkable from external sites. This means our members link to their bookshelves and scripts from their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc, in turn making it one of the most highly networked of writing communities.

We also back that up with regular professional advice on our blog. We have the very best writers in their fields offering free writing Masterclasses—from Barbara Taylor Bradford to Stuart MacBride—as well as commissioning editors, production experts, literary agents, booksellers and cover designers all offering the insider view guide to how publishing really works.

There’s also a high level of social networking that has evolved within the site, so it is possible to make friends and share material. Some of our members are even starting book clubs and meetings outside of the site.

What are the unique ways you’ve seen writers benefit by being active on your site? What can they do to get the most out of it?
“Seeing my work in print” used to be the goal for aspiring writers, but of course nowadays that’s easily accomplished by anyone with a laser printer or access to self-publishing services. What people really mean by wanting “to get published” is that they want to attract an audience of sufficient size to make their project viable—they’re really talking about marketing and public recognition. That’s where writing communities and commercial publishers come in.

At authonomy we encourage them to put as much material on the site as possible and, like any submissions process, get a really tight pitch and opening chapter worked out. And to tag their text wisely so it is easily searched on the site. This gives them the best chance of attracting support.

Unlike the lonely experience of the writer’s garret, a rewarding experience on authonomy has a lot to do with talking to other members of the community for mutual advice and support. We encourage members to use all the tools available to them, participating in the forums, reading and commenting on other works, and talking to writers in their genre.

To be blunt: Why should writers spend their time on authonomy, rather than on another online writing community—or, well, just writing?
We don’t argue that people should limit their attentions to just one community, and actually as a book publisher we have no interest in seeing that happen. We set this up to improve and access better talent for the industry, so we’re totally behind writers using a balanced portfolio of techniques and methods to improve their chances of finding an audience (whether commercial or pastime is up to them). We just hope authonomy provides a good, rounded toolkit for writers and is enjoyable to participate in along the way.

Why do you think it’s important for writers to be active in the online writing community at large?
Because increasingly, online is where people are discovering, discussing, purchasing and even reading books. It makes sense to have a presence online if that’s where the majority of your potential audience is.

For basic information and in-depth interviews with other online communities' founders, click on each writing community below:
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