The Future of History

Monday, 22 August 2011

Art on Authonomy

For those who don't know, is a website run by HarperCollins publishers.

I first came across it in December 2008.  Back then, I was working on a new beginning to my Arthur project.  I had spent about a year-and-a-half working with a highly respected literary agent on various different proposals for the book (outlines, synopses, sample chapters, etc. etc.) and I was getting just a little bit frustrated.  Fearing that I might be losing interest in my own project, I decided to go ahead and write a few of the early chapters for my own enjoyment.  And that's when I found out about Authonomy.

I joined up on 5 December 2008 and on 10 December I uploaded my chapters.

Authonomy works like this: authors and readers all around  the world can join.  If you have upwards of 10,000 words of your book project written, you can upload them and anyone on the site can read them.  When you've read some or all of the author's material you are expected to leave a comment or two.  And, if you choose, you can put their book on your virtual shelf.  This earns them points.

The site aims to work like its own self-regulating slush pile.  Every publisher has a slush pile of manuscripts sent in by hopeful writers, and every publisher knows that maybe, just maybe, somewhere in that great big pile could be the next Harry Potter.  HarperCollins simply decided that, rather than having to read through the slush pile themselves, they'd get all those eager, budding novelists to do it for them.

The more people 'shelve' a book on Authonomy, the higher it rises up the rankings.  The object for every writer on the site is to get their book into the top five.  At the end of every month, the top five books are spirited away to the Editor's Desk, where they receive a gold star and a half-hearted review from a jobbing editor.

It doesn't necessarily lead to publication, although one or two authors have been spotted on Authonomy and their books fast-tracked into print.  For the rest of us mortals, the great thing about Authonomy is the people you get to know there, the extraordinarily high quality of the material you can read (for free) on there, and the massive amounts of help, advice and support you can get - especially in terms of editorial suggestions.

My Arthur book was then called "Commanding Youth" (you'll have to read the book, when it comes out, to understand that title; but it's not called that anymore).

I was very lucky.  Two lovely people, Richard Dowling and N. Gemini Sasson, got to it really quickly and gave it a great big thumbs up.  Others came along and had a look.  Some terrific comments began to appear.  The book began to rise up through the rankings.

Now, there really isn't very much Non-Fiction on Authonomy.  Hardly any, really.  There's some excellent material (Gemi Sasson, for example, writes great historical fiction) but very little from the Non-Fiction camp, and most of that falls into the memoirs category.

But my Arthur book was doing pretty well, and I got to enjoy plugging it (you have to, otherwise Authonomy will get you nowhere) and reading, reading, reading so many other people's chapters.  Before Christmas had come I was able to let my agent know that the book was soaring up the ranks.  He asked me for a proposal.

Back to Square One, then.  Over Christmas, I rewrote the first chapter and test-ran it on Authonomy, alongside the many, much shorter chapters I'd already got up on the site.  All the comments I'd had back from those first chapters fed into my rewrite, and many Authonomists gave me their considered opinions (special thanks must go out to Richard Pierce-Sanderson, who gave me the most detailed and helpful editorial critique I could have hoped for).  Yep - that new first chapter was looking good.

But the agent wanted three chapters, along with all the rest of the material for the proposal.

That meant taking time out from reading, swapping reads and generally plugging my Arthur book on Authonomy.  I took a couple of weeks and, thanks to all the advice and encouragement I'd received, came up with two more chapters.  We were now nearing the end of January 2009.  The book was riding high in the Authonomy charts and was in with a real chance of making the Editor's Desk, especially once I had replaced my original chapters with the three new ones.

My agent chose that moment to end our association.  Apparently, I'd written those two new chapters far too quickly.

My computer then got a virus, which kept me off Authonomy for another two weeks.  But even so, "Commanding Youth" (as it was then known) hit the top five at one minute past midnight on 1 March 2009.  I think it peaked at number 3.  No other Historical Non-Fiction had ever made it into the top five.

It didn't go to the Editor's Desk, though, because I pulled it from Authonomy a few days later.  I didn't have the heart to slug it out all through March just to keep it up there in the top five.  Two publishers had expressed interest, and so I bowed out and freed up a space on the Editor's Desk for another author.

And, in the meantime, I turned my attention to another of my projects ... but that's another story.

Anyway, apart from all the friends I made, the great chats, fabulous feedback and wonderful stories on Authonomy, the best thing for me was the discovery that history can be very popular indeed.  Away from the mainstream publishing market, real people all over the world, of all ages, found they could really enjoy reading a history book!!

Like I said, the first (and perhaps the only) Historical Non-Fiction book ever to make it into the Authonomy Top Five, ahead of literally thousands of other books.

It's come a long way since then.  But nothing gives me more hope, as I near the moment when "ARTHUR" goes live and the book can be ordered or downloaded, than the fact that, as Authonomy taught me, it is possible to make historical non-fiction every bit as enjoyable as any fiction.

And with Arthur, you're off to a pretty good start anyway.

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