Failed Experiments in the Future of Publishing: An Ongoing Series

July 3rd, 2009

HarperCollins Publishers, one of the largest English-language publishers with sales over $1 billion, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Last fall it launched authonomy, ostensibly a sort of social networking site, where authors could submit 10,000 words or more from an unpublished book (or self-published) and the devoted and literate members of the authonomy community could read this stuff, and comment on it, and rate it. HarperCollins editors would keep an eye out for which submissions seemed to be getting the best member response, and decide whether to make a publishing offer to the author.

Today marks the publication of the very first book to result from the experiment. According to a release I received from authonomy the book is called The Reaper, and written by Steven Dunne. It is described on the web site as a “combination of Silence of the Lambs and The Poet set in Derby. A long dormant serial killer strikes again and the hunt is on.”

Apparently the book “was picked up by HC late last year,” so with the speed typical of traditional publishing houses, in took seven or eight months to get it into print.

Well, I for one don’t think it worth the wait, nor a strong indication of authonomy’s promise. The first chapter is available to read on the site, and I offer this modest selection from the prologue:


The cat froze, suppressing its instinct to run, and peered into the swirling gloom towards the noise. To break cover, even in this fog, could be its undoing. That’s what its own prey did. That’s when it had them. The animal stared, unblinking, head locked in the direction of the approaching footfall.

From the gasps of fog a figure emerged as though exhaled from the bowels of the earth. The boy was tall and though his clothes were baggy, he was identifiably lean as the cold breeze folded his roomy, low-slung trousers around his legs. He scuffed his Nikes along the rutted pavement, as though wiping something from them, before stopping to sniff the air. The peak of his grimy baseball cap came up as he looked around, sensing the animal nearby.

For a second he stopped hunching himself against the cold and looked toward the cat. He saw its eyes and stood perfectly still.

Softly the rumble in the boy’s throat grew until his armoury was fully loaded and he let fly. An arc of spittle landed near the cat’s front paws, splashing its legs. The cat tensed then leapt to the side, wide-eyed. To banish any chance of feline forgiveness, the boy darted towards the animal and aimed a kick at its retreating rear.

“Here puss puss,” coaxed the boy bending down to click his fingers, scouring the dark ground for missiles. Surprisingly there were none. The boy had alighted upon the only spot on Derby’s Drayfin Estate that wasn’t crumbling.

“Fuck it.”…

Well, there you have it (or the first part of it). I doubt it makes you want to read on. Perhaps it was the sentence, “From the gasps of fog a figure emerged as though exhaled from the bowels of the earth” that put you off? Or was it the Nike product placement in the second paragraph? The repulsive description of spittle in the fourth? Or the obscenity in the sixth?

Some commentators are more impressed by HarperCollins’ authonomy effort than I am. I conclude this entry by noting that like most large publishers today, HarperCollins no longer accepts unsolicited manuscripts directly. The famed “slush pile” of yore is not to be found there. What is to be found is a web site where the unpaid public are given the chance to read through the slush for HarperCollins, and the company can pray that a few bestsellers emerge. The one aspect that would qualify as social networking is that all of the folks who voted for chapter one of The Reaper are strong prospects to purchase the finished book, and feeling a certain ownership of the process whereby it was published, will read it with more generosity than I can summon, and quite possibly recommend it to their friends.

I’ll be continuing to follow the experiment.