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).