Websites for Writers: A Brief Overview
30 Apr 2009
Alan Baker looks at various websites which may be of interest to authors in terms of raising profile or generating editorial feedback. His latest book ‘The Edge of Science: Mysteries of Mind, Space and Time’ is published later this year and he is now writing a novel ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’.
We all know that the internet is having a significant effect, both on publishing and on the ways in which authors (whether published or unpublished) can further their careers. Over the last few months, several websites have been established which offer help and advice, both to established and aspiring authors. It may be useful, therefore, to provide an overview of some of these sites and what they aim to achieve. Please note that this list is far from exhaustive: there are more hybrid social network/book marketing sites coming online all the time, and this is intended only as a representative sample.
I’ll start with what I believe to be the best of the websites I’ve seen. CompletelyNovel.com was created by Anna Lewis, Oliver Brooks and Jon Gilbraith in 2008. Anna is a writer who (in common with countless others) was having trouble getting publishers to consider her work. Oli suggested that this was because publishers, like any other business, are looking for low-risk investments, and are much more likely to look favourably on a project that has already been proven to have potential in the marketplace.
This is easier said than done, however: it’s extremely difficult, expensive and time consuming for a writer to self-publish and market a book in isolation, or even to get the right kind of exposure on the Internet; so Anna and Oli decided to do something about it, and recruited tech expert Jon to help them. CompletelyNovel.com is the result.
The site is an online community of writers and readers, where people can recommend and discuss their favourite books, as well as upload their own work for review and comment. The really interesting and innovative thing about CompletelyNovel is the seamless presentation of both traditionally published books and unpublished material. Uploading one’s work to the site is very quick and user-friendly: there are tools which format the text automatically and allow the creation of a variety of covers. Once the upload is complete, there is a POD (print on demand) facility which allows users to buy a hardcopy version, which is printed and bound by a professional printer, and posted to the buyer. The production cost is 1p per page, plus 70p - £1 for the cover and binding. The production cost is then displayed, and the user decides how much extra he or she wishes to charge for the book. That extra amount goes to the writer when someone buys the book. I have bought a couple of very interesting books from CompletelyNovel, and can vouch for the quality of their production.
For published writers, a very nice feature of the site is the ability to select your books and add them to your profile, so that visitors to your page can see your professional portfolio. The books can be bought via a link to Amazon. There are also plans to link in the ability to buy ISBNs through CompletelyNovel so that uploaded books can be listed on Amazon as well.
CompletelyNovel is growing rapidly, thanks not only to the wide variety and usefulness of its content, but also to Anna’s promotional and marketing skills. They even have their own page on YouTube, where Anna is joined by other readers to present “Rapid Reviews” (typically three minutes long) of their favourite books. There’s also a blog, and numerous clubs and discussion groups on a vast array of book- and publishing-related topics. The site has recently connected to Twitter, to allow writers to develop their online presence even more.
Several prominent publishers and literary agents have established a presence on the site, including Bloomsbury, Quercus, Faber&Faber, A P Watt, Watson, Little Ltd and Andrew Lownie. More are sure to follow as CompletelyNovel’s profile continues to grow.
The team at CompletelyNovel are extremely enthusiastic, friendly and helpful, and the site itself is well laid out, visually engaging and easy to use. On a purely subjective note, I have to say that visiting CompletelyNovel is always a great pleasure: it’s a place where one can discuss books, receive recommendations, and (in the case of writers) gain constructive feedback on their own work. As Anna says, the site is “an online community which links everyone within the publishing industry and allows them to interact more easily and effectively ... we give writers the tools to be able to prove their work to publishers and make it fun for them at the same time”.
authonomy (apparently it’s not supposed to be capitalised) was set up late last year by HarperCollins to “flush out the brightest, freshest new writing talent around”, according to the rather odd tagline (which kind of implies that the brightest, freshest writing talent wants to remain hidden). Once registered, writers can upload complete or incomplete manuscripts to the site, where other users can view and comment on them. The uploaded material must be at least 10,000 words in length.
According to HarperCollins, the intention of authonomy is for writers to show off their work on the internet, to receive valuable feedback from other aspiring authors, and also to attract the attention of publishers and agents. The implication is that, in the rapidly changing world of publishing, this offers an alternative route to publication besides the traditional method of sending out unsolicited material in the hope that someone, somewhere, will show some interest.
The unique selling point of authonomy is the ranking system, whereby authors can back each other’s work; the five most popular manuscripts each month are read by editors at HarperCollins, who will then offer a detailed critique of the material, and may offer a publishing contract on the strength of it. When the site was first launched, getting to the ‘editor’s desk’ was considered the Holy Grail for users (or ‘authonomists’, as they have come to be known). More recently, however, many have come to believe that achieving publication this way is just as unlikely as it ever was. There are two main reasons for this.
First, it has been noted both by users of the site and by other publishers that HarperCollins has simply outsourced its slushpile to authonomy, in the hope that the cream will rise to the top, and the manuscripts that have reached the top five will automatically be worthy of serious editorial consideration. However, there are now well over 3,000 manuscripts on the site, with more being uploaded every day. In order to gain a position in the top five, an author must be backed by a sufficient number of other users. Unfortunately, this entails spending a truly colossal amount of time reading, commenting on and backing other writers’ work, in the hope that they will reciprocate and back yours.
Second, the nature of the ranking system means that the writers who are most adept at working the system, reading and backing large numbers of books, and making numerous appearances in the forums, have a much better chance of climbing the rankings. The consequence of this is that literary merit is not as significant a factor in achieving a place in the top five as it should be. Many authonomists and others who are not directly involved with the site have commented on this, citing it as authonomy’s most serious flaw.
In addition, several authonomists have commented unfavourably on the quality of the editors’ reports on books that have reached the top five in the rankings (the most common criticism being that they seem to consist of a lengthy synopsis, followed by a few lines of vague and generalised criticism). This has led many users to decide that the site is best used as a means of receiving feedback from other writers, and to dispense altogether with the idea of reaching the editor’s desk.
On the plus side, authonomy is an excellent place for social networking. The writer’s life is often a lonely one, and one can make many friends there. The forums cover a wide range of topics, and contain much useful advice (as well as a lot of inane babble). While many of the comments on manuscripts are of the “I’ll back your book if you’ll back mine” variety, there are many people who provide very perceptive and highly considered critiques. So, if it’s the company of likeminded individuals you’re after, then you could do a lot worse than join authonomy; just don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s a short cut to a publishing deal.
BookArmy is another website created by HarperCollins; but unlike authonomy, it is geared primarily towards readers, who are invited to discuss and review books, build reading lists and make direct contact with those authors who have also registered on the site. Another aim is to “help users discover literary gems and find about [sic] authors who have fallen out of the limelight but deserve to be read”.
The BookArmy database contains about six million books in print in the UK and US, and the site encourages writers who do not have a website to fill in their profile. The fact that the site is operated by a major publisher sets it apart from the many similar sites offering comparable services (for instance LibraryThing and GoodReads, etc).
The site also generates recommendations based on the preferences members show in their reading lists, along with lists of the most popular and most read books.
Once registered, users receive reading suggestions from like-minded readers, and there is the facility for creating a list of “friends” with whom they can compare opinions on books and make recommendations. There are also the usual forums and other discussion groups, all of which make BookArmy well worth a look.
This site was recently set up by a company called NoSquare Software, apparently in response to the perceived failings of authonomy. It has many of the same features as authonomy, with the interesting addition of a ranking system for reviewers of manuscripts. The intention is to cut out reviews which basically say: “I think your book is fantastic! Now will you please read and back mine?” This is clearly a serious issue for the website administrators, who state that the members “are dedicated to providing honest, quality feedback on your work”. There are three types of review: a critique; general praise; and a general review. Each posting must be at least 300 words long, which is another safeguard against those members who would simply work the system to get their material higher up the rankings.
According to a press release of 14 March 2009, not all of the ranking criteria have been made public, “as it is important to make a system that cannot easily be gamed”. This design tactic would appear to be in response to a recent controversy which hit authonomy, wherein a writer and gamer known as “Klazart” posted his book and then recruited hundreds of his online friends to back it, thus ensuring that it hit the top five within a few days.
The reviews are on a scale of 1-10, and the facility for ranking the quality of the reviewer ensures that those who offer intelligent, cogent and considered opinions of a writer’s work are recognised as such. According to the administrators, “the Reviewer Rating is not a competition, it’s simply a raw score that adds weight to (or removes weight from) the reviews you have written”.
As with authonomy, writers can upload complete or incomplete manuscripts, a process which appears to have been streamlined and simplified somewhat, making it more user-friendly. The layout is very attractive and easy to navigate, with author pages, profiles, and forums which discuss diverse topics. Unlike many other writing websites, Writers Wrule intends to attract readers as well as writers (an intention it shares with CompletelyNovel), in the quite reasonable belief that readers possess a somewhat different mindset from aspiring writers anxious to gain exposure for their work, and are more likely to consider material purely on its own merits.
Like CompletelyNovel, Writers Wrule allows editors, publishers and agents to register on the site and read the posted material with a view to scouting out new talent. There are also contests and competitions, including a “timed writing” competition in which contestants choose one of ten famous opening lines from novels as the starting point for a short story which must be completed within a certain period.
Writers Wrule is beautiful to look at, easy to use, and possesses some genuine innovations (such as the sophisticated ranking system). This site is still very new, so if anyone is interested in posting their work there, now might be the time to do it, before it becomes inundated with thousands upon thousands of writers and their manuscripts.
According to its founders, publishing and media veterans Peter Clifton and Mike Shatzkin, FiledByAuthor is “the most comprehensive directory of author pages anywhere. It’s also a place for authors to showcase themselves and their work, a place for readers to search and discover new works and a place for everyone to connect and discuss our favorite subject – authors and books, of course”. The site is like a cross between GoodReads and the International Movie Database, with more than 7 million books listed, and catalogued information for 1.8 million authors. Originally, it held information only on authors who have had a book published in the US or Canada, but as of April 2009, more than 200,000 UK book and author pages have been added.
These pages have been created with licensed data from industry sources, and published authors are invited to “claim” their pages by registering on the site. Once an author has claimed his/her page (which is free of charge), he/she can update it with additional information. The basic page contains a biography, list of books and links to various online stores where books can be purchased. Other more enhanced features, such as blog tools, can be added for a fee of up to $300 per year.
There is a great deal of controversy surrounding FiledByAuthor, resulting from the fact that authors have no control over the site’s overall content. There is no option available to opt out of the system and remove one’s page. In other words, if you have had a book published in the US, Canada or the UK, chances are you’re on the site whether you want to be or not, and it’s up to you to “claim” your page and place accurate biographical and publishing information about yourself on it. In addition, the site has pages for deceased literary masters such as Shakespeare and Dickens – pages which, as noted in a critical article in the Los Angeles Times book blog, do not link to definitive biographical information or public domain work made available on Project Gutenberg.
Another problem has been noted by Dennis Johnson in his blog Technology: it appears that FiledByAuthor is using “lots of material – even copyrighted material, such as author photos – without permission”. For this reason, Johnson suggests, the site may well find itself the target of litigation in the not-too-distant future.
On the other hand, FiledByAuthor does offer a web presence to authors who may not have the time or inclination to create or commission their own personal website from scratch. However, one can’t help wondering why anyone would choose this over a site like GoodReads, which (among many other things) offers a comprehensive web presence to published authors for free. The best option for published authors may be to claim your page on FiledByAuthor (so no one else can), and leave it at that.