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September 9, 2008

Authonomy.com — Are you the next J.K. Rowling?

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Here's where you find out.

From a September 3, 2008 post on the site's blog: "After more than three months running in private Beta, authonomy.com is finally live and open to all. It's a hugely exciting day here in London — we'd like to welcome our new visitors and also offer a huge 'thank you' to all the committed members who've helped us test, develop and launch the site."

More in Simon Kuper's September 5, 2008 Financial Times column, which follows.

    Following the crowd is not a novel idea

    A hundred and one years ago, the British intellectual, Francis Galton, published a strange discovery that has only recently come into fashion. Galton, Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, had seen a competition at a county fair where 800 people guessed the weight of an ox. The average of the crowd’s guesses, Galton calculated, was 1,197 lbs. The animal’s actual weight was 1,198. No individual expert had got half as close. Galton had discovered the wisdom of crowds.

    Now the London publisher HarperCollins hopes to apply that wisdom to the market in first novels. HarperCollins estimates that it receives at least 50 unsolicited manuscripts each week. Most publishers know the feeling. Typically, the Jiffy-bags get dumped on to the traditional “slush pile”, where they may get skimmed by a 21-year-old intern before being returned to the wannabe J.K. Rowling with a rejection slip.

    This week HarperCollins launched Authonomy.com, a website where the wannabes can upload sample chapters. Anyone can read and rate them. Harper- Collins promises to read the 10 highest rated each month.

    Let’s forget that HarperCollins is publishing my next book. Let’s leave aside the probability that the wannabes will get their friends to give their books five stars, just like on Amazon.com. The question is whether HarperCollins could benefit from the wisdom of crowds.

    It is certainly an imaginative way of dealing with a market plagued by oversupply. Most people never read novels. Meanwhile, as John Lennon noted, hordes of others just wanna be a paperback writer. First novels that do somehow get published often sell fewer than 1,000 copies. Of the hundreds of debuts each year, probably fewer than 10 make significant money for anyone.

    It is, therefore, not worth seriously reading the slush pile. Even to speed-read 50 manuscripts a week would require five editors. Hiring them would cost almost £200,000. Instead publishers rely on agents to pick the most plausible wannabes. But agents themselves are knee-deep in unread slush piles. That’s where Authonomy.com comes in.

    The wisdom of crowds has worked for Google and Wikipedia. “Prediction markets” which pool that wisdom have proved much better than bow-tied pundits at predicting elections. So-called experts have dubious records in the fiction market too. Four or five publishers rejected an overlong first novel about (sigh) a child wizard named Harry Potter. Only after J.K. Rowling found an agent would anyone publish her. Speaking of experts’ poor judgment: Galton himself was the father of eugenics.

    Yet the problem with Authonomy.com may be that the readers, too, will turn out to be a small coterie of experts. They will be people who like novels. But the few novels that “break out” — the Harry Potters and Bridget Joneses — do so by appealing to people who do not normally like novels. The first publisher to turn itself over to a horde of semiliterate philistines may be onto a winner.

September 9, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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