Writers and Violence: Our obligation to at least wonder if there’s anything we can do

I have written the first draft of the article describing the publishing panel at the LitFest in Anguilla last weekend, an event that seems somewhat seminal to me – situated as it was amid the mudslide of turmoil that surrounds the impact of electronic technology on our industry. So it is taking me a while to write that post. But today did not seem like the right day to be polishing sentences. After several days of relative isolation from the news online, and the shock of coming back to it, I felt I needed to stop and think about the bigger picture for a moment.

Today in Seattle, a gunman killed five people and himself. Here in Toronto, a young man shot another at a subway station after an altercation on the train. These are just two senseless incidents of violence out of thousands I could report from today’s headlines alone that have not only affected the hearts and minds of those immediately concerned, but aroused the horror of bystanders and online readers and viewers everywhere.

A few days ago, a drugged-up man in Miami ate the face off another man, and was shot to death by police on camera. A man in Montreal killed another man, chopped him up, put his torso in a suitcase and a few of his other body parts in packages and mailed them to innocent recipients: the murder scene is now open for public viewing. A couple in England has been charged with setting fire to their home and killing their six children. A young woman in Sudan is about to be stoned to death for adultery.

It makes me wonder if there is any justification at all for sitting around and writing stories. We should be doing something more constructive. Jackie Chan is starting to look like the only sane person in the news.

On the other hand, the eminent and distinguished speakers at the conference last weekend seemed to be fairly unanimous that it is the loss of story/heritage that leads to a lot of this insanity, drug abuse, and senseless violence. We must give people back their voices, and we must tell our stories. This new publishing era is certainly facilitating that.

But I think at the very least the endless endless horrific headlines should make us, as writers, think about our ethical responsibility to push away the chaos, instead of adding to it.

Along with talent, growing expertise at writing, the universal ability to publish whatever we want to say, and our increasingly fevered and competitive efforts to reach (i.e., capture) audiences, comes responsibility. That’s all I’m saying here.

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June 6, 2012: Adding a link to PEN International, and one to Amnesty International. We can at least write letters.

The New Slush Pile: How Readers Are Choosing The Next Bestsellers

… or “Whoops! My book has started selling – I’d better get it edited.”

While the old guard in the books industry is still busy struggling to figure out how to give traditional publishers, agents and bookstores some relevance in the new order, a far more significant change is taking place just beyond their (albeit limited and utterly self-focused) lines of vision. Due to the availability of thousands upon thousands of free books by beginning authors in electronic format, and the proliferation of e-book reading devices with fodder-hungry owners, it is no longer editors or agents who are now combing through the slush pile looking for the gold: it is the readers.

A note to the non-writers: the “slush pile” is a term that has been used for centuries to describe the manuscripts that writers have sent to publishers uninvited, in the hope that they would be “discovered” and made famous. The term “slush pile” distinguished these unsolicited manuscripts from those that were sent to publishers by agents, established writers, or a senior editor’s aunt in Rapid City, Iowa. Interns generally read the slush piles, which were mostly full of dross, but (tradition has it) occasionally the readers found a Rowling or a Hemingway in there, and a career was launched.

The transition from editorial-office slush piles to online ones has happened so quickly that the mainstream books industry is largely unaware of it, as are most writers and most readers. The evolution has taken place in a climate where, over the past couple of years, new and inexperienced writers have proudly put their first books out in e-book format – usually created at little-to-no cost to them – only to discover that attempts to sell their novels or memoirs at $2.99 or $1.99 or even $.99 are fruitless. No one wants them.

That has led these writers to discover that if they put the same books out there at zero cost, e-book-reader owners will snap them up by the dozens—as if they were free marbles. Suddenly the writer’s “sales” figures shoot through the roof – from zero sales to 4,000 in a weekend is not uncommon among my social media “writer” contacts. Their books also start climbing up the bestseller-in-their-genre lists (romance, western, etc.) on Amazon.

Of course, their sales are illusions – nobody is actually “buying” their books and the writers are not making any money, and usually after a few days of skyrocketing numbers of downloads, when the writers put a price back on the book – having a new but deluded appreciation for their own worth— it drops off the bestseller lists and sales are once more insignificant.

Building An Audience of Readers

But what happens next? That is the question that all of us who are watching this phenomenon have been asking, and on a recent Monday I began to learn the answer. On that morning, I read a posting by an acquaintance on FaceBook that said, “Oh, whoops! My book has started selling. I’d better edit it.” Someone replied, “If it’s selling, why edit it?” to which the original poster responded, “Oh, nothing major. Just spelling, typos and formatting. Things like that.”

Coming from a background in the books industry—I have published four books with traditional presses, been editor-in-chief at a publishing company, and freelance-edited almost every kind of writing under the sun for thirty years—I was flabbergasted that anyone would put a book out there— in electronic or any other format—without editing it. I expressed my outrage on Reddit and a writers’ forum and attracted great interest from other writers and readers – most of whom were in my corner when it came to the importance of doing as good a job on editing as you can (and can afford) before you offer a book for “sale” – even at no cost.

What amazed me were the responses from people who have been downloading all these books for free. This was the first time I had heard them speaking – the first inkling I had gained into what was happening to cause all of those free books – good, bad, indifferent – to be downloaded onto all those Kindles, Nooks and Kobos. To my surprise, these readers (many of them quite literate) seemed far less perturbed than the writers were about the condition of the editing and formatting – what they wanted to see was good writing and good stories. They had downloaded dozens or even hundreds of free books by people they had never heard of, just because the books were free. They sampled them like new food: if they liked what they read, they kept going. If they didn’t they stopped reading after the first page, or the first few pages or the first hundred pages. They had no commitment to finishing the book: they had paid nothing for it. The only books they finished were the ones that kept them reading: which was, I realized, just the way readers of the slush piles in the publishing houses treated manuscripts.

More importantly, they said they would remember the names of the writers whose books they had liked, and they would follow up and read what these writers published next time. It sounded to me as though they might even be willing to pay for those next books.

It is in ways like this that a new books industry is being born, and the old one being swept away forever. The Publishers of the Future will not dictate what readers want to read, they will learn what readers want to read – from the readers. Then they will publish the NEXT books the readers have found in the new slush pile – which is what the mountain after mountain of free ebooks has obviously become – and they might even offer to clean up the editing on the first ones.

(And if the publishers are lucky, the writers might actually deign to give them their second books. However, after having tested their mettle on real readers without the interference of the books industry, and enjoyed the power and freedom of creating and marketing their own books, they may decide to self-publish the second ones as well. We’ll see what happens there.)

In the meantime, it is nothing but great news for writers that books in the slush pile are no longer being read by those who THINK they know what readers want (publishers and agents), they are now being read by those who DO know what they want: the readers.

I love this brave new world.

How writers can stop plagiarism: individually, and as a powerful, united, “pen”-wielding group

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but copying is theft. And yet stealing the writing of others has become so commonplace that teachers and professors feel impotent to put a stop to it, and many writers seem resigned to the inevitability of being ripped off, scraped, plundered, robbed and screwed.

I am not resigned. I can only begin to imagine my outrage if someone ever attaches his or her name to a story, essay or article I have written and tries to pass it off as his or her own (which has happened to many other writers but not to me yet, as far as I know). It was aggravating enough to discover that a post from this blog – which I had spent hours and hours creating (or years, it could be argued, if you consider the experience that went into it) – had been altered enough to make it hard to trace and almost unintelligible, then posted as part of a money-making machine set up by some scuzzbucket with a website registered in Russia.

Thanks to the diligence and knowledge contained within my fellowship of on-line writers, with whom I communicate at last count on about ten different sites, I managed not only to figure out who was doing this to me (and hundreds and hundreds of other writers), but also why – and what I could to do to address the problem.

How I Discovered I’d Been Pillaged

About three weeks ago, I Googled “Militant Writer” to get the link to my blog (usually I just use the autofill function on the Google toolbar but I was on another computer). To my surprise, the results included not only my site and a few unrelated items, but also a couple of links to what turned out to be mangled versions of one of my blog posts — on someone else’s website.

It turned out that the site, entitled Publish A Book, is a compilation of hundreds of articles previously published in dozens of different on-line publications – some from blogs such as my own, but others from more established commercial outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. In each case every fourth or fifth word has been replaced with a synonym, most of them slightly “off,” so that the articles come out sounding as though they have been translated into a different language, and then translated back to English. One sentence in my article reproduced on the other site read, for example, “It looks unpreventable to me now that except they take up the sideline manufacture of weaponry or maybe bath salts to sponsor themselves, the major publishing homes are going down,“ while the original version was “It seems inevitable to me now that unless they take up the sideline manufacture of weaponry or bath salts to subsidize themselves, the major publishing houses are going down.”

Screen capture of an article on canyoupublishabook.info

In addition to all the other articles,  I noticed that there were lots of ad links on the website but I didn’t yet understand what that meant. I looked around the site – without success – for an email address to which I could send a complaint. On July 20, I put a notice up on my blog to tell my readers what I had discovered, and I also started threads about it on FaceBook, Twitter, Google +, authonomy, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) discussion forum, a couple of LinkedIn writers’ forums I belong to, and The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) listserve. I also sent a letter to Access Copyright, which is the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – with which I am registered (you will notice a copyright notice on my on-line posts). I cc’d TWUC, my lawyer, and a few other people.

It was a few days before I heard back from Access Copyright, and the representative there explained that they could try to help me to get some payment for having had my work used by someone else. I said that what I wanted to do was to have my post removed from the other website, and they told me that they could not help with that.

In the meantime, my fellow writers on the forums had been working overtime. One person (thanks again, tvguy) found the email address I had been unable to locate on the website (by going to the Privacy Notice page and scrolling down, down, down) and he discovered that the same email address was also the contact address for a whole lot of other sites (there were about 80 at that point) which offered advice and guidance (and links to more ads) for people who had questions about lung cancer, loans for bad credit, migraine headaches, and a whole lot of other conditions and issues. Another writer helped me by tracking the websites and the email address to an internet host which included an actual name and functioning email address, albeit one located in Vladivostok (which didn’t sound like a place that was going to honour my copyright).

Another writer colleague explained the rationale for all those sites – and the dozens of others like them that are proliferating on the Internet. He explained that these larcenists set them up to attract hits by people using search engines to look for information on certain popular topics – in this case, self-publishing. When unsuspecting visitors to these sites click on one of the many links contained within them, the owner of the site gets a payment – from Google AdSense or similar advertising programs. They probably get only a few pennies when someone hits one link, but when you have 80 sites and hundreds of links, they start to add up.

In the meantime, I had been going through the perpetrator’s websites attempting to work backwards to identify others who were, like me, being victimized by the owner of these websites (if you are looking for a new way to procrastinate on the Net, there is meaty potential here. The articles become puzzles that you can solve by trying to guess what word was in the article originally before they replaced it with a less meaningful synonym, then Google the result and see what happens). I guess I was thinking of “class action” remedies to the problem – if enough of us who had been wronged complained together, perhaps we could get the sites taken down.

I found the originals of several articles – including a few from blogs and some by writers for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Toronto Star. I wrote to these latter writers, and ultimately to the papers themselves to tell them what was happening. (In response, I have had one “Thanks for the heads’ up” response from the WSJ, but that is all.)

What I Did

Despite really significant support from the writers on the aforementioned forums and this blog page (“Go get the slime, Mary,” was a typical response) and their excellent sleuthing skills (thank you, people), in light of the lack of interest exhibited by almost everyone I had written to directly, I lowered my expectations. I did have other things to do besides bringing down one scumbag. I decided I would settle for having my own blog post removed from his website, and alerting other people as to how I had done it.

On August 8, I sent the “Cease and Desist” letter I posted on the same day on my Militant Writer blog. I sent it to the email address that was posted on the “Privacy Policy” page of all those websites (which turned out to be a non-functional email address) and to the email address that was listed on the site where ownership of the website was listed (which seems to have been working). I sent a copy to Google AdSense (which required me to walk over to the FedEx office several blocks away and spend $12 to fax it, since Google and Google AdSense don’t have email contact addresses. Which makes me laugh). I sent copies to my lawyers in Canada and the USA, and to the papers to which I had previously written whose work had also been plagiarized.

Even though it was a big hassle to go and fax the letter to Google AdSense, I think that was the step that brought results. Google is based in a country that does have copyright laws, even if the plagiarist is not. (I have since heard that the perpetrator might not be just one person – that businesses to set up advertising-money-generating websites are popping up all over the Middle East and Asia, employing hundreds of workers at $1/hour to comb through articles in western newspapers, magazines, and blogs, alter them, and post them on these money-making websites. Others have suggested that the perpetrators use complex computer algorithms rather than slave labour.) It seems unlikely to me that Google is going to want to be seen as knowingly paying someone on the basis of stolen copyrighted text.

Whether it was the fax to Google AdSense or the email to the website owner, all of the articles I had pointed out had disappeared off the websites by the following morning (not only mine, but the examples I had provided from the NYT and the WSJ). The sites are still up, although there seem to be fewer associated with the fake email address grishina@addictiontreatmentinfo.net,  which leads me to believe only that there are probably now sites with a whole new fake email contact address on them. But it is time for me to get back to my own work.

What To Do If You Are Plagiarized

  1. Make screen captures (Command, Shift, 3 on a Mac) so that you have evidence of what has been posted and where it was copied from, with date stamps;
  2. Write a cease-and-desist letter (like the one I wrote) to the person who has done the plagiarizing. Use any contact addresses on the site to track down the legal owner of the site, or try http://who.is/

If you want to start strong – or with your followup email if the first one doesn’t work – send copies to:

  • the site’s web host if you can find it (e.g., if the name on the site is scuzzbucket at yahoo.com, send a copy to Yahoo);
  • any commercial interests that the plagiarist is working with via links or other promotional initiatives;
  • legal representation in the country where the commercial interests are based;
  • the media.

If that doesn’t work, then:

  1. If any of the stakeholders are based in the U.S., send the website a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice. The act is explained on Wikipedia and this WordPress site gives excellent guidance on how to complete a notice: http://en.support.wordpress.com/content-theft-what-to-do/
  2. Advise the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN. Note: I didn’t get around to exploring their site so I’m not sure if they have any interest or power in this area)
  3. If you still don’t get results and you can afford it, sue the bastards. If you can’t afford it, try to gather a group of other writers together whose copyright is being infringed by the same website owner, and put your resources together or find a pro bono legal service to help you to sue the bastards

Attitude Attitude Attitude

The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that we don’t just accept that plagiarism is the new reality. If anyone in the universe should be able to fight back eloquently and passionately against the theft of our writing, it is writers.

We can prove that the pen is mightier than the sword, and if we are fortunate (as I was) we can use our words to diffuse the problem before we have to start paying lawyers. Sending a copy to a lawyer is a good preliminary indication of your serious intent, however, as far as I’m concerned.

For many of us, our writing is our stock-in-trade. Most of us aren’t making very much money from doing it, but we invest a lot of time, thought and heart into what we write, and if our work is stolen and we don’t speak up, we are devaluing what we do.

We need to constantly remind our students and our readers that plagiarism is theft. We need to be familiar with, support and monitor the copyright legislation that affects us. We need to join copyright collectives like Access Copyright and post copyright notices on our work. (I am not a copyright lawyer, but I do know that you don’t need to pay to copyright everything you write in order to protect it. If you have evidence you wrote it — as I do here with my early drafts of this blog post on my computer — you are covered.)

We need to make a BIG, FOCUSED, ARTICULATE NOISE when someone rips us off, or steals the work of any of our fellow writers. We, both individually and as a group, hold the strongest weapon there is against the theft of our creative enterprise: our own eloquence. It is up to us to use it.

P.S. I welcome comments that include any additional information you may have on fighting copyright infringement. And stay tuned — I WILL be getting back to the important subject of self-publishing very soon, as I move closer to publishing The Whole Clove Diet.

Note: If you want information on how to detect plagiarism, or where to find plagiarism-detection apps, visit this blog post by Jennifer Murtoff. And tvguy, mentioned above, has found a way to warn off prospective plagiarists before they even start.

authonomy: One writer’s experience

by Mary W. Walters

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Update Sept 8, 2012: Four years after this post was written, it appears that very little has changed on autonomy. A reader of this blog recently wrote me to ask if things had improved, and since I rarely go over to authonomy any more, I decided I would ask the people who still did. Click on this paragraph to read the responses and watch me get sucked into yet another authonomy flame war.

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In theory, authonomy is a perfect way for writers to get their book manuscripts read by editors at a major publishing house without the intercession of an agent.

After reading about what authonomy is intended to do and why, a writer might decide that if her manuscript isn’t good enough to get the kind of positive reception from the other writers on the site that it needs to rise through the ranks to the top five (aka the Editor’s Desk)—where it will at least receive professional feedback from one of the finest editors in the English-speaking world, and at best be snatched up for publication—perhaps it isn’t as good as she’s been thinking that it is.

But is that a logical conclusion for her to draw when after several months on the site she does not, in fact, reach the Editor’s Desk and realizes that she probably never will?

For the benefit of other writers who may be weighing the same questions that I considered six months ago when I decided to post my novel, The Whole Clove Diet, on authonomy, I here offer a summary of my experiences and observations so that others may be better equipped than I was to assess the potential value to their writing careers of participation in the site.

What authonomy is

authonomy (the “th” is pronounced as in “author”) is an on-line community of writers that was established in 2008 by HarperCollins Publishers. Although the site is based in the U.K., HarperCollins offices around the world participate in evaluating manuscripts, and the site is open to writers, published or unpublished, living anywhere—as long as their manuscripts are in English.

On authonomy, participants read excerpts from books by other writers on the site, and they “shelve” or “back” the ones they find of merit. They are also encouraged to provide the authors of the books they read with some feedback in the form of comments. Those with the most backings (subject to an algorithm that recognizes users’ reviewing experience on the site) rise to the top and when they reach the top five, they are read and provided with an evaluation by a HarperCollins editor.

The authonomy site is still in beta format, but as of this writing it has more than 3,000 users–each with at least one and sometimes as many as three books posted on the site. Some users are very active (a recent forum question was “How many people spend more than five hours a day on authonomy?” and several people actually raised their virtual hands, albeit a little sheepishly). Many writers spend at least an hour or two a day on authonomy, reading, critiquing, commenting and sometimes contributing to the forum. Other writers show up only occasionally, and still others have not been on the site in months.

HarperCollins (HC) states that the purpose of authonomy is to “flush out the brightest, freshest new literature around” and on the last day of each month, authonomites gather around to see which five books will be whisked away for review by the HC editors. Approximately one month after starring them for selection, HC editors deliver critiques of the five top manuscripts to their respective authors. These evaluations ideally include suggestions for revision and some indication as to whether HC might be interested in seeing the manuscript again after the author has worked on it.

A word or two about the Golden Goose

The hope of almost all of those who officially join the site and post a book is that that HC will recognize their work of fiction, non-fiction or (less frequently) poetry for the masterpiece it is and want to publish it. Subsidiary hopes include that, as it is rising to the top but before it actually reaches the top five, the manuscript will be discovered by an agent, another publisher or even HC itself. This has, in fact, happened once or twice–although it hasn’t happened very often. Nor, to my knowledge, have any books that have actually reached the top five yet been selected for publication by HC.

Since getting an agent or a publisher is pretty much a crapshoot in this day and age no matter how you go about it, a more significant problem than the dearth of publications from the site is one that anyone can see who reads the HC editorial responses to books that have reached the Editor’s Desk in the past. (This feedback is almost always posted by the authors who’ve received it, although they are not required to make it public.) The problem is that while some of the editorial feedback is constructive and helpful, even insightful and brilliant, some is next to useless. The site administrators have said that HC editors for each book in the top five each month are selected on the basis of its genre or subgenre (young adult, for example, historical romance, or literary) and the location of the writer—but clearly, some HC editors are better readers and feedback-writers than are others.

I have read HC evaluations on authonomy that were little more than summaries of the excerpt. Others have contained errors that could only have been made if the editor had not read the submission very carefully, or had not consulted the “pitch” which is also a required part of the submission. Several comments from HC editors have been marred by typos and even grammatical errors, which seriously undermined their credibility.

After waiting months and months to obtain feedback from the powerhouse publishing giant that is HarperCollins—which is one big dream of a lifetime for many—to  receive a less than professional evaluation on one’s excerpt is more than discouraging. The recipients of such evaluations are upset when this happens, and so are the other authonomy community members who have also read the excerpt. Contributors to forum threads disgustedly point out the flaws in various HC reviews every month, sometimes out of loyalty, but often also on the basis of solid evidence.

My authonomy history

I joined authonomy in February of 2009, posting my novel in its entirety (at the outset) on the site. The Whole Clove Diet rose steadily albeit slowly toward the Editor’s Desk, garnering many positive reviews along the way. In the first few weeks I learned from comments left on the forum by site administrators and other users that by the time I reached number 50, particularly if I also maintained some visibility on the forum, I could feel fairly well assured that HC had seen my novel. If they had not by that point contacted me by email, I could assume they were not interested in it.

By then I had begun to appreciate how hard it was to reach the Editor’s Desk/top five and how small the advantages might actually be to getting there. I decided that if HC and other publishers and agents were trawling the top 50 on a regular basis, I would set my sights on reaching the top 45 or so.

In fact, I only made it to about 110 before I quit. Although I developed some rewarding on-line friendships at authonomy in the four months or so that I was a regular participant, and received some useful input that was helpful in the revision of my novel, and discovered a few writers who I really think are going to make strong literary contributions in the future, the experience of being on the site nearly drove me crazy—several times. And so I removed my novel, although I am still a member of the community and enjoy popping in from time to time to exchange comments on the forum with my friends and colleagues (and fellow-sufferers) over there.

authonomy intention vs. authonomy reality

authonomy has been described as a “do-it-yourself slush pile” in which readers (mainly other writers) do all the work for HarperCollins by finding the best books on the site and pushing them toward the top. This is fine: times are changing and most writers are willing to do a little work in order to attract professional attention to their manuscripts.

The only problem is that the way the authonomy system works does not contribute to finding the “best” books, no matter how you define that term.  It appeared to me that at least 90% of the writers on the site have joined with one goal in mind, which is getting themselves to the Editor’s Desk. (The others insist they are there only to receive feedback from other writers that will help them improve their work.) This means that the primary motivation for most people who will read and back other people’s manuscripts on authonomy is not to find good books for HC to publish—but rather to find other people to read and back their own books.

If a writer who joins the site decides to stick to the stated guidelines and her own ethical principles, refusing to back other people’s books if she feels they are not very interesting or well written (or worse, if she points out such major defects in her comments on those books), the writers of those other books are not likely to be inclined to back her book in return (are they? Remember that we are dealing with human beings here). The new writer quickly learns that in order to get a backing on your book from someone else, you really need to give that other writer a backing first.

As a result, on authonomy you can almost never trust a backing to mean that someone likes your book, since almost everyone on the site backs almost everything. The books that rise most quickly to the top are not those that are the best or the most fun to read, but rather those whose authors spend most time on the site, networking with other people, raving over everyone else’s books, backing everyone in sight, and thereby attracting hundreds of backings in return. The more quickly the determined writers can read and back an excerpt, the more they can read a day, and these speed demons may sometimes be accused (and sometimes are) of skimming only a few paragraphs before passing judgement. And the judgement is almost always favourable.

authonomy is not about excellence in writing. It is about becoming as popular as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, and ironically, rather than a supportive writing community authonomy can often seem to be a dog-eat-dog arena where you can’t trust a soul. Those who aren’t showering you with false praise are slamming you for your reviewing tactics.

Getting to the top 120 is the easy part. After that it gets much harder—mainly due to those algorithms I mentioned earlier. Trying to get to the top five requires hours and hours of commitment every day. On average, to get into the top fifty or so and not fall back again within a reasonable period of time (four months, let us say), you have to start by reading about three or four excerpts a day, commenting on them, and backing them. (I read about two excerpts a day, three chapters each, almost every day. After three months, I had not yet reached the top 100.) Those who have risen higher than I ever did have reported that when you get into the top ten you have to read eight or ten excerpts every day to get into the top five and stay there. At about 45 minutes per excerpt, this means that for at least a month out of your life, and probably more, you are doing little else but authonomy readings. If you happen to go away for a week, you start sliding backwards. Before long, rather than looking for the best books, you reach a point where if you find a book you think is terrible you are heartbroken because it means you are either going to have to lie your head off or give up the possibility of getting a backing in return.

In the race for the top, honesty flies out the window.

Nasty, nasty

In order to be visible and attract readers on authonomy, most participants find it useful not only to read and comment on other people’s excerpts but also to participate in the forum. As is true of most writers’ websites, there are several very witty and knowledgeable people there, and the forums can be great fun. (I found myself inclined to read the books of those who impressed me on the forum—they didn’t need to plug their actual books to me; their forum comments made it clear that I would be interested in what they’d written. I was rarely disappointed by such hunches. By contrast, some people never do anything on the forum beside promote their own books: the number and character of some of the “shameless self-promotion” threads grew so nauseating that I put several of these authors on a mental blacklist and never did read their excerpts.)

Unfortunately, the forums are not always fun. People can be nasty, small-minded, offensive, arrogant, self-serving—even racist. If you begin to work very hard on getting to or staying in the top five, you are likely to start attracting verbal abuse on the forum. As Ambrose Bierce once said, “Success is the one unpardonable sin against our fellows.” Some people have found the comments against them so demoralizing that they’ve left the site even as the summit came within their sights.

There are also huge multi-participant battles—mainly at the end of the month when tensions start to run high and those who don’t like the tactics of the writers who have made it to the top five start trying to overthrow them. At other times, writers have what has come to be known as “authonomy meltdowns” from all the stress of trying to get to the top five and stay there: they go verbally ballistic.

While I was there, it seemed to me that most of the battles (and there were several) concerned how the authonomy site itself either works or does not work. Almost always you can find at least one active thread discussing the mechanics of authonomy and how the operation of the site could be improved. One day one of the forum participants started a “backing” thread that encouraged authonomites to back as many books as possible by people who were also on the thread within a specified period of time. The instigator did this as a protest against “the system,” but many others on the site clearly leapt at the chance to get ahead of others without having to do all the work of reading excerpts. Still others protested loudly about the lack of ethics of those participating in the backing thread (I was, of course, one of those. Taking the ethical high ground, and voicing my opinion when doing so can only be compared to shooting myself in the head? That’s me every time). Mayhem ensued.

Feedback from other writers

You will get some good feedback about your writing from several people on the site. I made hard copies of all the comments I received, and several of them were very useful when I did my final revisions. However you will also receive many comments that are utter drivel. (You can see examples of good comments and totally useless ones by reading any excerpt on the site, and then reading the comments under it.)  In general, many of the compliments are hollow and meaningless, posted only to attract a return read. Some people come up with the equivalent of a boilerplate response and post it with small variations on every excerpt they “review.” Others tailor their remarks more carefully, but still lean heavily toward the positive to ensure their own survival. (Some on the forum insist that they really did love reading almost every book on the entire site and would buy them all in an instant if they had the chance. I think those people are dishonest. Either that or they have no standards and are careless with their money.)

It is certain, at least to me, that those who insist on being honest with their evaluations ultimately pay a heavy price. There are of course many writers on the site who appreciate constructive criticism, but there are many others who do not. The latter group will call down those who have criticized them–usually on the forum rather than privately–and will even occasionally attempt to organize counterattacks and boycotts. (authonomy can be instructive to those who wonder how well meaning human beings ever get involved in wars.)

Once I realized how the authonomy system works, I stopped taking any of the compliments and rave reviews I received seriously, although they were nice to get. I also ignored comments from people who clearly had no idea what I was doing with my fiction (many are reading outside their genres and don’t understand or like what they have to read in order to move ahead. Threads that pose such incisive questions as “Why do writers have to use big words?” and “Conflict… or not?” often make for illuminating and amusing reading.) In short, the people who say they are on authonomy for the great writing advice they get from other writers, and insist they aren’t interested in getting to the Editor’s Desk at all, are for the most part in the wrong place as far as I can see.

How to survive on authonomy – for a while, at least

  1. Set your sights for the top 25 or 50, not the top five. A few writers who have made the top five have said that they were approached by agents once they reached that stage, but if I were a canny agent visiting the site, I’d be scanning the top 50, trawling for the best books on a regular basis—not leaving it until the writers of the best books were on the Editors’ Desk and likely to be scooped up by someone else. Once you reach your initial goal, you can always decide to continue if you want to, but my best guess is that you reach maximum benefit from the site when you reach the top 45. (If you can hang in there that long.)
  2. Read enough of others’ manuscripts before you make a call on them that you’ll still respect yourself in the morning, even if others aren’t playing by those rules. I felt it was only fair to other writers to try to read at least three chapters of their books, or the equivalent. Despite my initial determination to back only books I felt were publishable, ultimately I did find that in order to survive, I had to play the game and back almost everything that was not truly awful. My standard for myself became that I had to be able to find at least one thing in the excerpt on which I could genuinely comment positively; if the writing was so bad that I could not do that, I would not back the book or comment on it. Instead I’d pretend I’d never seen it. (Please note that I admit to having high standards: I have been referred to often as a literary snob.) Sometimes in addition to the positives, my comments included suggestions for a change the author might want to make to improve the first three chapters, always keeping in mind that I was reading only the first few chapters, and that the book could get much worse or much better after the section I had read.
  3. When you really do like an excerpt, say so clearly — or the author won’t be able to tell your kudos from the garden variety he or she receives every day from everyone. When I loved a piece of writing, I really raved about it in my comments—being very specific about the strong points and saying, for example, that the book was sure to find its way into print (I never said that if I didn’t mean it). I also created a thread of my own where I listed my favourite books, which was fun.
  4. Say “thank you” when someone backs you or leaves a comment.
  5. Forget the “friends” option and ignore invitations to become friends with others unless you have a very good reason to accept. This has nothing to do with politics or human kindness, but only practicalities. On authonomy, you get emails from the site administrators if you get a comment on your book, but not if someone backs you. You have to watch your “news feed” for that information. You also see your friends’ activities in your news feed (“Writer X backed Book Y,” “Writer A commented on Book B,” “Writer F revised his book”). If you add too many friends, you will get so many notices in your news feed that you may miss a notice that someone has backed you. You don’t want to miss your backers, because they deserve a thank you message and you may in fact want to consider backing them. So adding friends can cause problems. There is no real advantage to “friending” someone anyway, as you can send everyone messages whether they are friends or not.
  6. Remember that all messages on authonomy are public.
  7. Make a list in a notebook somewhere of who has backed you, and who you have backed or decided not to back. By the time you get to 50 or 100 reads, it gets really really difficult to try to remember whose excerpts you’ve read and whose you haven’t. A lot of people on the forums say, “How I wish I had started keeping track at the beginning!”  By the time you start forgetting who you’ve read and who you haven’t, it is almost impossible to go back and make a list. I recommend keeping track from the outset. (And if someone changes a title of a book you’ve already read, which happens surprisingly often, make a note of that as well.)
  8. When people I didn’t know from the forums sent me a message suggesting we trade reads, I usually ignored them. Some people send out such notices in spam-like quantities. I therefore don’t recommend sending such messages to others. Like the shameless plugs on the forums, requests for reads can rapidly grow tedious and irritating and turn people away from you rather than attracting them.
  9. Don’t post the whole book. I posted my entire manuscript when I first went on. Then a few people on the site warned me that some agents and publishers avoid books that are posted in their entirety on-line, believing (erroneously) that this contravenes copyright or (even more erroneously) that everyone in the universe will read it on authonomy and no one will need to buy it. So I took down most of my novel. However, I made a big mistake when I did this. First I took down all but the first three chapters, and then I added back a few chapters. While I was doing that, my word count fell below 10,000 and when it did, I lost my position on all the shelves and watchlists I’d been on. That set me back a couple of weeks at least. So after you’ve posted your manuscript don’t ever let it drop below 10,000 words again unless you are sure you want to lose your ratings.

Not an entire waste of time

authonomy has its benefits. It is a good way of keeping your manuscript “out there,” building an audience for your book, and getting to know a few more writers. You will get to know some of the authonomy regulars, several of whom are characters as diverting and eccentric as those you’ll meet in their (or anyone’s) fiction. (These include: a writer who appears to deliver intelligent pronouncements from a horizontal position on a couch—he maintains he’s dead, and as under-appreciated as Chatterton, after whose post-mortem portrait he has modeled his own avatar; a man with a blue face who expounds literary theories and criticizes others’ approaches to writing while maintaining that he never reads a book; at least two divas who’ve been on the site forever and pop by with witty or snarly comments from time to time; a hot young lawyer who is swooned after by most of the female writers on the site; and several young women who keep taking more and more clothes off their avatars in an apparent attempt to attract more readers. There are lots of warm and welcoming people on the site who will go out of their way to make you feel at home, and there are several insular cliques. Strangers conjoin on authonomy in unexpected ways: I watched with amusement one evening as a thread involving three apparently quite drunk authonomites devolved into highly graphic cybersex; unfortunately the posts weren’t well-enough written to have made my voyeurism the least bit titilating. Also unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, after about noon the next day I was no longer able to send a link to the thread so that a few of my non-authonomite friends could have a laugh, because it had been taken down. There are also a surprising number of wiccans on the site; be forewarned: you do not want to mess with wiccans. :) )

While you are on authonomy, you may indeed be discovered by an agent or a film company. There is always the possibility that the authonomy system will actually work in your favour–that you will reach the Editor’s Desk and, despite the odds against you even at that point, be offered a contract by HarperCollins. All of those things are possible, if unlikely.

In the meantime, if you are in it for an evaluation as one of the top five, eat your Wheaties, give up either your day job or your family and social life, and prepare for a long, disorienting haul from which it may take you several months to recover.

Our Fellow Writers: Friends or foes?

by Mary W. Walters

Those individuals to whom, as writers, we feel most kinship are also our competitors: only so many books get published every year. Over the course of our careers, our fellow writers are also likely to become our judges: the reviewers of our books, the evaluators of our funding applications, the assessors of our anthology submissions and the decision-makers in our nominations for awards.

Many writers are fair and highly principled. Some are not—and a few may be accurately described as ethical degenerates. Even the most conscientious writers, finding themselves on adjudication panels where their motives are never likely to be suspect, may occasionally be tempted to seek revenge on those they think have insulted or offended them—or caused damage to the reputations of their friends. And if they have received some kindness or support from one of the candidates under consideration, they may suddenly discover ways in which they can repay those favours by giving their mentors (or students) a word of praise or a tie-breaking vote.

If we want to be judged on the merits of our work alone, maybe we are better off to stay away from other writers—to keep our noses down and focus only on the writing. On the other hand, the writing community wields more power than most of us realize, and by isolating ourselves we can condemn our creative enterprise to permanent obscurity. Avoiding fellow writers can also deprive us of some of the most meaningful relationships of our lives.

So how do we negotiate the narrow paths of literary friendship without stepping on landmines, being run through with swords, or simply falling in the gutter?

In the beginning

Most writers did not grow up with writer friends. In fact, if an unscientific survey of my own childhood and those of most of my writing colleagues is any indication, many of us were fairly solitary—if not downright ostracized. When we started writing, we were likely to be looked upon askance by our friends and relatives—most of whom may in fact still look at us that way.

As adults, the primary characteristic that sets us apart from the majority of the human population is our obsession with our writing. For us this “pastime” is not hobby, but an integral part of our being, and the foundation of our world view. We do not understand how people who are not occupied by this  majestic compulsion for most of their waking hours ever manage to get through any of the mundanities of life. How does anyone survive the seemingly endless years of wrangling with teenagers, or the monotony of shepherding aging parents all over town, without  the plot of a story to work out or the tantalizing fantasy of an impending publication?

Conversely, most of our friends and acquaintances will never understand how we can be so devastated when an agent reads our query and tells us, “No!” – or our jubilation when a literary journal with a readership of 500 offers us $50 for a story.

With most of our friends and family failing to appreciate or even comprehend us, is it any wonder that we are disproportionately elated when we finally do find people like ourselves? Not only do our fellow writers  “get” the emotional upheavals we experience as our hopes for literary fame and fortune are alternately fuelled and dashed by individuals and circumstances over whom and which we have absolutely no control,  they also understand us when we say we are going underground to write and won’t be having lunch with anyone or even emailing until we have recovered from our latest writing fit.

We do go overboard—of course we do. We embrace these people with open arms. We open our hearts to them as well. We both literally and figuratively fall hopelessly in love with them. How can we help it? We are falling in love with ourselves.

The worm turns

But becoming enamoured with other writers is like befriending porcupines. Our tendency to become overly ecstatic when we think we’ve found our soul mates in on-line writing forums, at writers’ conferences or in creative-writing workshops means that we are equally disposed to over-react when those relationships break down. As they too often do.

Such breakdowns often start quite innocently—an argument over the merits of a newly published book leading to the discovery of fundamental differences in earth-shatteringly divisive issues that range from politics to the use of the first person. Before we know it our parentage, sanity and literary tastes are being questioned on public forums, in quiet corners at literary gatherings, and privately via emails – and we are questioning right back. We suddenly discover that among writers (like every other community of humans in existence) there is backstabbing, malice, and downright pigheadedness everywhere we look. Friendships dissolve in bitterness. Relationships break down. Writer A and several of his friends no longer speak to Writer B. Writer C, oblivious, composes a letter to the editor in support of Writer B on an unrelated subject, and inadvertently alienates himself from the entire camp of A.

Writer D discovers that of the three committee members who decided the outcome of her most recent funding application, one was the close friend of her vindictive ex-lover, and another was a writer from the far end of the country whose first novel she reviewed several years ago with something less than enthusiasm. And she wonders if the make-up of that panel had anything to do with the fact that a writer who is clearly her inferior (she knows he is inferior because of things he once said about sound poetry while drunk at a copyright conference in Toronto) received a grant and she did not.

Such personal animosities often pale in comparison to the kind of nastiness that erupts if any among our number has the misfortune to actually be successful. The malicious whispers of friends denouncing alleged mutual friends who’ve just won prizes are barely drowned out by their more public declarations of congratulation. On-line forums start to smoke with accusations about the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of those moving closer to some coveted reward.

Can’t live with ‘em? Can’t live without ‘em, either.

After a few brushes with writers’ politics, any sane person would find it wise to back away from writers in general and writers in particular, and to return to the solitude from whence we came—which we need to write in anyway. We start to see the appeal in the lives of friends and family who are not quite so persecuted as we are by a sense of their own creative genius. We do our best (not always successfully, because we also tend to be attracted to anything that will distract us from our writing, and we also tend also to love altercations involving intelligent people who are good with words. Scrabble will do for some, but for others a really good argument is the only valid entertainment) to swear off writers’ forums, and resign from writers’ organizations.

But this is a foolish tactic, too—and not only because it deprives us of the fellowship we really do need with others of our ilk.

The value of networking

My recent conversations with and about agents (see The Talent Killers and associated fallout) have revealed  to me a very important piece of information that I did not previously have. Here it is:

Agents often find new clients not from queries but through referrals from existing clients.

Tah dah!

Since the hardest part of getting publishers to look at our work is getting an agent to present it to them, any clue as to how to find an agent is somewhat akin to locating the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And where is that pot of gold? Apparently we need look no farther than across the table during lunches with our writing pals, or down the row to our colleagues at a writers’ conference, or at our fellow forum contributors on Authonomy or AbsoluteWrite. Forget trying to cozy up to the agents and editors who are the speakers at these conferences – the people whose egos we should be stroking if we want to move our careers ahead are none other than our fellow writers!

It is not only agents that writers can help us with. Knowing writers can give us inside leads on new literary journals that are starting up (I just heard of one of those today), part-time jobs that are opening in the industry that might be perfectly suited to our skills, names of editors at literary magazines, apartments that will become available when other writers are away on residencies—the possibilities are endless.

This hitherto less-than-widely-broadcast reality immediately restores the writer’s primacy in the publishing hierarchy. And the implications are inescapable: since there is no merit or advantage to simply asking strangers if they will present our work to their agents, which is more than likely to ensure they never will, the only solution is to be nice to all the other writers we run into ever. Or at least to those who have agents. And to those who might have agents some day.

Making ourselves visible—also known as networking—is increasingly important in this brave new cyber world. The era of the writer isolated in her garret is long over. We need to be shouting our talents from the rooftops rather than hiding them beneath the eaves.

What to do? What to do?

So on the one hand we have the risks involved with knowing writers too intimately (or of their knowing us too intimately, to be more precise) lest a fallout lead to custom-tailored repercussions. On the other hand, there are undeniable advantages to knowing other writers, not only in terms of the information we may gain from them, but from the access they may offer us to agents, publishers, and other writers who have Clout… not to mention the good words they may put in on our behalf on the aforementioned juries, committees and panels.

There is only one solution. In matters relating to other writers, we must go against our own natures and proceed with caution. We must commit to heart the wise words of the frequently disparaged poet Rudyard Kipling, whom T.S. Eliot once described as being “able to write poetry, if only by accident” (see what happens to successful writers?).

Kipling wrote a poem, “If,” that is no longer as well known as it should be. It begins:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…

And so on. (Simply exchange the word “men” for “writers” throughout, and you’ll be set. It won’t scan so well, but you can’t have everything.)

In affairs of a literary nature, we need to move cautiously. Before throwing ourselves on the necks of other writers willy-nilly, we need to stand back and take a look at them. We need to watch them at work on the forums and on committees, listen to what they have to say about writing and about life, make sure that they are solid and that we can believe in them before we start leaping into unholy alliances of one kind or another—and we need ensure that they are being equally cautious with us.

But when we do find other writers we can really love (as I have been fortunate to do many times since I started writing)–writers  who we do trust, whose writing we do admire, and who respect and like us back, then we need to release ourselves into these relationships with complete abandon.

Some writers are ethical to a fault. They will never throw us under a bus no matter what we say or do. Maybe not all of them will give our books a positive review after we have broken off love affairs with them, but a surprising number of them will.

In my experience, some of the finest, most open-minded, tolerant, loving, loyal, dedicated and supportive people in the world are writers. And finding those ones and making them our friends is worth all the bickering and flames and suspicions of malfeasance that comprise the potential downsides of leaving the safety of our garrets for the open, if narrow, road.