Power to the People: The Role of Online Communities in Book Publishing

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Article ImageFor almost as long as there have been books, there have been authors trying to get their manuscripts in front of an acquisitions editor. Authors slogged away at keyboards before printing out copies of their manuscripts, sticking them in a manila envelope, and sending them off to editors where, more often than not, they got lost in a pile of identical manila envelopes. However, as technology and the internet change the way we read books, so too do they change the publication process. In the Web 2.0 world, anyone can be an author. However, many writers still want to work with an editor, and some still desire publication in book form. Today, there are many roads that can lead writers to professional publication. While the destination is often the same, new routes are emerging all the time.

Book Authors Charting a New Digital Path

Miranda Dickinson, a copy writer from Stourbridge in the West Midlands of England, did not travel the traditional route. In 2008 she joined Authonomy.com, an online writers’ community created by HarperCollins Publishers, and posted a portion of her novel, then titled Coffee at Kowalski’s.

“It was my pet project that I’d been writing just for me, and only one friend had read what I’d written,” says Dickinson. “The main reason I uploaded it was to see what other people thought—you know when you think something’s good but you aren’t sure if you’re just peering at it through rose-tinted spectacles? Well, that’s where I was with my novel. I wanted to know whether I was kidding myself or not!”

Backed by one of the biggest names in publishing, Authonomy is not just any writers’ circle. “Like most major publishers, we had stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts a long time ago,” says Clive Malcher, digital operations director at HarperCollins. “Dealing with them manually had proven to be an inefficient way of finding books to publish. … I was convinced that the internet’s ability to bring people together very efficiently could help us deal with the slush pile more effectively. … The goal was to have the website surface publishable books that would otherwise have remained hidden.” Together, with editor Kate Hyde, Malcher shaped the idea into what eventually became Authonomy.

The site allows members to support books they like by adding them to their “shelves” and to build credit for themselves as talent-spotters by finding the best books. Authors, of course, also offer advice and reviews. At the end of every month, the top five books on the site are selected for the Editor’s Desk. They are reviewed by real HarperCollins editors, and, every once in a while, some lucky author gets his or her book plucked from the virtual slush pile and put on the path toward publication.

Dickinson found an editor, though her book did not make it all the way to Authonomy’s virtual Editor’s Desk. She explains: “I had become really involved in the Forum, and some of the people I was chatting to started to recommend me to their friends, which was so kind of them. I was delighted when my novel broke the top 100 books—I think the highest it reached was somewhere in the high 70s. Then, I received an email from an editor at Avon, part of HarperCollins, saying that she’d found my manuscript on the site and was interested to read the full novel.”

In a different era, Dickinson’s manuscript might have been filed away in a desk drawer, never to see the light of day, or it may have languished in an editor’s slush pile. In today’s Web 2.0 world, though, a writer who may not have had the courage to send his or her manuscript off to a literary agent—or who simply did not catch the eye of the agents he or she targeted—can post the manuscript online. With the right combination of talent, luck, and social networking skills, that writer can end up with a book deal.

There was one roadblock on the route to Dickinson’s success: When the editor contacted her, the book wasn’t actually finished. So she spent 3 days writing the last 20,000 words or so and then sent her novel off. “Two weeks later, I received an email from Avon’s publishing director, asking me to call her,” she says. “She offered me a three-book deal, which I accepted. I signed with Avon in January 2009.” Fairytale of New York was published in November of the same year.

Dickinson’s experience might sound like a one-in-a-million shot, but she is not the only writer who has found her way to a book deal through sites such as these. “We set very clear goals on a range of metrics—manuscripts uploaded, users registered, page views, visits, and, most importantly, number of books acquired,” says Malcher. “We managed to exceed all our targets. We hoped to find one book to acquire in the first year but managed a spectacular four titles. Of those, two became Sunday Times best-sellers—a 50% hit rate.”

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