Getting to know the writer community at Authonomy

by AA on 10 November 2011

I used one of my Fancy Hands requests a while back to drum up a list of online communities that it might make sense for me to join in an effort to network with other writers and potential readers of Realms Unreel. I started checking out the suggested sites several days ago, as I’ve expanded my focus from writing to figuring out how to get published. Although Fancy Hands didn’t find any communities that I felt really strongly positive about, I did turn up a reference to a community called Authonomy in the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest staff list of the 101 Best Websites for Writers. The description read:

Developed by book editors at HarperCollins, this online commu- nity for writers, readers and publishers allows you to upload your manuscript for free and have others take a look at it. There’s also a shot at landing a book deal: HarperCollins editors read the most popular manuscripts—and have even signed a few for publication.

I went over to check it out, and I was impressed with the level of activity in the forums on the site. I decided to give it a try. I joined and uploaded my manuscript. This was two days ago, so I’m still getting the feel of the community. Here are some rambling initial thoughts.

It can feel spammy at first. As a new user of the site, you show up prominently on the new member page, and one method existing members use to try to push their books up the ranks is to contact newbies as they arrive on the site to welcome them in and to ask them to check out their book.

Newbies are desirable targets for several reasons. Since we’re new, we’ve not (yet) been inundated with thousands of read requests. If you’re the first “welcome! want to read my book?” message in my newbie inbox, you probably have a better chance of getting a response from me than if you’re the tenth or the hundredth such message. As of day 2 on the site, I can see that it’s not going to take long to get to that hundredth message. I responded to my first couple of messages quickly, in the spirit of getting plugged in to the community, then realized what was happening and realized I needed to create a prioritization system. It’s not going to be possible to respond to everyone. I focused on the more thoughtful messages that offered some useful information and seemed to be from like-minded people. I can’t be friends with everyone, right?

Another reason newbies are targeted is that we start out with five empty slots on our public “bookshelf.” Every site user essentially helps to vote up the ranking of books they like by “backing” the book so it appears in one of those five slots on their bookshelf. By putting a book on your bookshelf and keeping it there for 24 hours or more, you’re advertising your support of the book to other users as well as giving the book points that boost it up toward the coveted top five spots in the sitewide ranking. Once a month, those top five manuscripts get whisked off to the HarperCollins editors desk to be considered for publishing. So that’s really what all the messages are about. People want backing.

And that’s cool, as it turns out. Although it can seem spammy, in fact all these messages form the basis of a social currency of comments and backings. Everyone has their own criteria for responding to messages, deciding what to read, deciding what to leave comments on, and deciding whom to back. Most people seem to accept that there’s no obligation to like everyone’s stuff, even the stuff of someone who likes your stuff. What does seem to be expected is that you make an effort to repay a comment with a comment, a read for a read.

Writers on the site seem to be genuinely cheering each other on and providing thoughtful comments on manuscripts. Some of these comments are pure gold. I know how hard it is to get even close friends and family to spend the time to read even a portion of your manuscript and provide feedback. Having a huge pool of readers who are willing to swap critiques with you–even if it’s just critiques of the first few page, or even just the pitch–is invaluable.

So I decided to just go ahead and throw my hat in the ring. I started with the first people to send me messages, and I’ve been methodically reading pitches, first chapters pages, and in some cases the first few chapters of manuscripts. I don’t spend more than twenty minutes per manuscript, and sometimes a lot less when it’s something I can’t possibly read. I don’t request their comments in return, but pretty much everyone has responded with thanks and has said they’ll provide return feedback as soon as they can. Many of them already have.

The main thing I’ll have to figure out long-term is how much time I want to spend per week on this. Reading and commenting is time-consuming work, and I’m either going to do it thoughtfully or not at all.

Although I initially joined Authonomy to get a shot at the editor’s desk, I can see now that the real benefit of the site is the critique swapping. This will definitely be a useful tool as I write my next book, and I’ve already gotten feedback from the site (and made realizations through reading other people’s work) that have me thinking of further improvements to Realms Unreel. For now, though, I’m letting go of that manuscript to work on other things. I think an extended hiatus from the manuscript will do me (and it) good.

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