Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Manuscript Display Sites

There are all sorts of manuscripts display sites available on the internet, like the infamous YouWriteOn, and HarperCollins’ Authonomy. Anyone can register with these sites and download a chunk of their work which might then be reviewed by other members; in return, you review their work and everyone gets a little feedback.

Both YouWriteOn and Authonomy run a rankings scheme whereby each month the ten most highly-scored pieces of work are read by editors and/or agents, and offered criticisms. This is an opportunity not to be sniffed at: I’ve read several of the professional critiques alongside the displayed work and they all offered good, solid advice which the writers would be wise to act on.

There is a downside, though. In order to attract enough reader-attention to make it to the top ten, Authonomy writers have to network their socks off—and that’s very time-consuming: frankly, I’d rather spend that time writing and have my agent work on getting it seen by the right editors; while over at YouWriteOn there have been accusations of vote-rigging, and some writers claim not to have received the editorial reports that they were promised.

Never mind, say the members: there’s still a chance that the books will get seen by an agent or an editor trawling the site, looking for talent. After all, the review process ensures that the work is of a much higher standard than most of the slush-pile, so they’re bound to be looking.

Well—no. The review process does improve the work but there are several limiting factors working here. The only people offering advice to the majority of the members are the other members who, while perfectly literate, tend not to be very experienced writers and so some of the advice that they offer is of limited value. In many cases, the criticism they offer doesn’t get beyond the level of pointing out errors in punctuation, grammar or spelling; and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of the stringent structural work that most books require. Structural editing is made almost impossible by the medium in which the work is displayed: it’s incredibly difficult as an editor to have a good impact on a full manuscript if you’re only considering a short extract from it.

But the biggest reason that agents and editors are unlikely to plough through the work that is on offer at such manuscript display sites is that these people already have far too much slush of their own. Every day, new submissions drop on their desks in far greater quantities than can ever be published. Reading through their own slush is bad enough: why would they want to go and read through everyone else’s?

Writer Beware has blogged about Authonomy, and this particular post provides a very useful history of manuscript display sites (make sure you read the comments to get the full value).


Karen said...

Although I did sign up to Authonomy, I haven't posted anything for all the reasons you've mentioned. I'm too good at prevaricating as it is, and decided in the end I'd much rather just get on with it :o)

Jo said...

I totally agree. Why waste valuble writing time reading other (unpublished) authors' mediocre work, just to gain a credit to enable another wannabee author to praise or trash a chapter or two of your own work. It may do your ego good to have some unqualified person gush about how great your writing is, but at the end of the day it's unlikely to find you an agent or publisher.
And as Karen says if you're a bit of a prevaricator it's another heaven-sent excuse to 'sit' on that manuscript

Jane Smith said...

Karen and Jo, I'm with you both here. Do have a look at the Writer Beware articles I linked to, as they're very interesting.

Writing is by its nature a very solitary activity, so interraction with other writers is a precious thing. Which is why peer review sites are useful. But it's important to ensure that you're taking advice only from those able and qualified to offer it.

R.R.Jones said...

While I was diddling with the idea of self publishing with YouWriteOn, I dipped my pinky into the murky pool of manuscript display.
It was fun, actually.
I read some manuscripts from other hopefuls and in turn my dreadful tome was subjected to some fairly harsh assessment. It was very interesting because the budding critics would write what they liked as they didn't know me, never would know me and probably wouldn't want to know me.

My badger with the whole thing was that there is a word limit on how much one can send in, the standard of critique was my level, (novice) and that I was sent stories to read that I would never, in real life, pick up at a book store, (e.g. Chick-Lit).
It was fun, I read some GREAT stories but I would never hang my world on it.
A phase in the learning process is how I see it now.
BTW Jane, I love your Blog, it really is very educational.
Thanks a lot.
Reg :-)

Penny said...

Ms. Smith, how can I become a slush pile/manuscript reader (for lack of a better word)? What website can I go to to find out the qualifications and receive some useful advice? I also want to type manuscripts but have no idea where to get updated information to set up a business--the sites I've come across haven't been very useful...Hope you can advise.

Jane Smith said...

Reg, I've been thinking about the whole peer review system and I wonder if the real value for the writers of lies not in the comments that are received on the work, but in the crits that writers make. It's far less painful to dissect someone else's work than your own, and by spotting the problems in that way you learn not to make them in your own.

Penny, the first round of slush-reading is usually carried out by editorial assistants and trainees; they filter out the things they like, and hand them on to more senior staff, who then reject pretty much everything. It's not work that's outsourced, as far as I know: and those editorial assistant jobs are difficult to get, and pretty low-paid.

As for manuscript typing, there are quite a few services around offering it: you could try posting on a few writers' message-boards to see if anyone's interested, but lots of writers write by typing direct onto their computers, so this is probably a dwindling market. Sorry!