It was Clare Christian, the original editor of More Tea, Jesus?, who suggested it might be worth putting it on Authonomy. The website was pretty new at the time and was designed to unearth the brightest, freshest new literature through a community of writers philanthropically reading new work and pushing the good stuff ever closer to the desk of an editor at HarperCollins.
In fact, for most authors and most books – even the good stuff – it’s nothing of the sort.
Even back then, when the website was much, much smaller, the Holy Grail of the editor’s desk required a concerted effort to maintain support and a degree of luck in terms of timing. I didn’t have time to make any kind of effort at all in this respect. To get noticed you really do need to have time to spend on self-publicity, cultivating relationships and – vitally – reading other people’s books. It is a community quite rightly based on reciprocation and, having recently found myself in a full-time composing job, I had little time with which to reciprocate.
Not that the editor’s desk is the only reason to join Authonomy: far from it. The value of a community of writers and enthusiastic readers commenting on your work is self-explanatory. But again, this was not something I was in any position to appreciate; I had already been through the lengthy editorial process and questioned, rewritten and chopped the novel as much as I could bear. The last thing I wanted was a load of well-meaning suggestions about what needed changing.
The prologue came in for quite a battering from a few people who either thought prologues were plain unnecessary or that it slowed the pace. In the case of the latter they were absolutely right, but they hadn’t considered the dramatic importance of the prologue (do you really begin a novel about the apocalypse with a vicar giving a sermon about an omelette?) and they weren’t aware that it was balanced by an epilogue, the mirroring of the two being one of the important satirical points of the novel, not to mention a (funnyish) joke. When More Tea, Jesus? was eventually giving a publishing contract, I went back to the comments that had been written about it and found much of them to be wise and useful in the rewrite that followed. I didn’t get rid of the prologue, but with the benefit of a bit of distance I did see that it wasn’t working and made big changes, apart from anything else making it considerably shorter. However, back when I first started using Authonomy I had not so long ago been on the verge of having this novel published, so I wasn’t in a great emotional place to listen to people whose only basis for criticism was their own writing, which was itself of… ah… variable quality.
I have read some brilliant books on Authonomy. Not many, but some, actually brilliant books. It is reassuring to see that many of those were noticed by other people and have found success since.1 Other books on Authonomy are full of good ideas but desperately in need of an editor, some read like fan fiction or school essays and some are so badly written or lacking in basic punctuation that you wonder if the writer ever read it back after they wrote it. It is a great cross section of the thousands of people who feel they have a book in them and have actually been bothered to write it down, which I think is great (though I do think people ought to self-edit their work a bit if they’re going to put it on the internet2). If nothing else, it shows that publishers, or at the very least editors, do still have a vital role to play in the whole publishing process.
(Mind you, there’s plenty of mediocre stuff put out by publishers as well. And some of the brilliant writing on Authonomy is so refreshingly uncommercial and therefore I presume unpublishable that it makes my youthful Canterbury Tales parody look like Dan Brown. I digress.)
Unfortunately, the vague promise of a fast-track route to publication has given Authonomy a sometimes rather competitive (or just plain cynical) atmosphere, in which people desperately try to bump their own work up the ratings by commenting nicely on somebody else’s after skimming through the first chapter (another reason the website didn’t and doesn’t work terribly well for me, because my inability to lie about a book I don’t think is very good makes it seem as though I hardly ever read anything on there). There is enough empty praise floating around to give you an inflated view of your own brilliance, if you’re not savvy enough to assess the quality of the criticism you’ve received, and it leads to a kind of Britain’s Got Talent syndrome where everybody thinks they’ve got something astonishing to offer the world without considering the hard work that ought to form a part of their contribution.
The forums in particular are rife with resentment from authors who feel their work is being unfairly ignored or that they are somehow being duped or taken advantage of by the powers-that-be. It is something which I experienced in a pretty full-on way when the acquisition of More Tea, Jesus? was announced: Scott Pack had been brought into the Authonomy team to ‘shake the site up a bit, iron out some of the kinks and find some books to publish’ and in keeping with this remit he plucked my book from the depths of the website and put it in front of the readers. But the announcement was followed by an explosion of fury in the forums from people who seemed to think they were uncovering a conspiracy (my previous association with Scott was already documented on the world wide web so it didn’t take a lot of uncovering). Suddenly I was under the scrutiny of people questioning why I had or had not been on Authonomy at various times, to the extent that they seemed to be (inaccurately) taking note of the length of time between my visits. The suggestion was that if I popped in it was to publicise my book and if I didn’t I wasn’t a serious member of the community. It was even suggested that my account had been retrospectively fabricated. It was nothing more or less than a collective cry of outrage from people who thought their books should have been published and not mine. And it wasn’t a lot of fun to be at the receiving end of it.
If you’re starting to think all this paints a rather negative picture of Authonomy, then STOP! Authonomy is brilliant. It is a website wonderfully full of novels, finished and unfinished, absolutely brilliant and utterly crap, and the people who wrote them encouraging each other to write more. Authonomy is doing something that plenty of schools are failing to do: it is inspiring creativity, it is getting people to write stuff down, it is even (sometimes) getting people to go back over what they have written and make it better. When I got the news that More Tea, Jesus? was going to be published I realised that it was badly in need of a rewrite and took it off the website; but I tentatively replaced it with a rather less thoroughly worked through (and completely uncommercial) novel, about which I have now received a great deal of really useful feedback, some of it from people who demonstrably know what they’re talking about. I have had a wealth of advice and feedback from kind, committed readers who have given their thoughts and encouragement for nothing except perhaps the agreement of a mutual read. That is exactly the spirit in which I would wholeheartedly recommend aspiring writers use the website.
I also seem to have recently started receiving propositions from a young lady called Donzo on the website. I get the impression she hasn’t read my book, but she seems keen on me so it’s a start.
1The Morning Drop, a startlingly good first novel by Andrew Hughes, sticks in my memory still, and I’m delighted to see will be published by Doubleday/Transworld at some point in the next year or so.
2Insert your own snarky joke about this blog here, if you like.