Rant: HarperCollins launches Authonomy

Color me all circa 1994-style DIY-unimpressed, but I’m just not sure what to make of Authonomy, a social networking site for “writers, readers and publishers” that was “conceived and developed by book editors at HarperCollins.” Strategically triangulated somewhere between Digg, Goodreads and MySpace (that’s right: Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp ultimately is the one footing the bill for this if HarperCollins is involved…), Authonomy promises writers and readers a common space that will “flush out the brightest, freshest new literature around.”

Apparently this “flushing” is a good thing, and it’s what happens when visitors to the site set up profile pages, upload sample chapters of their Great American Novels(TM), and then give other profiles’ projects their up or down vote.  Because, you know, nothing is as “bright” or “fresh” as Siskel & Ebert’s system for evaluating what makes something bright/fresh.  (Also: isn’t the term “flushing” a bit strange here if one is truly looking for the brightest/freshest?  Last time I checked, things that get “flushed out” are either things we don’t want or things that are about to be shot and killed.)

Look, I’m *the* Social Networking Whore Supreme, and I’m sure I’ll add this to my daily rotation; however, I think there’s something just a little insincere with a “community” site engineered and brokered by corporate publishing houses in New York City, who have historically not been so keen on building communities with/around their products (unless, of course, we’re considering abominations like the NY Times Bestseller List or Oprah’s Book Club as “communities,” in which case I’ll very readily concede these points and get amped to vote my little heart out on American Idol this next go around…kthxbye!).

And But Also: I’m a Small Press Shill too, and as much as I respect the time and energy that people are putting into this project, I have to wonder out loud right here if that same time and energy wouldn’t better serve people who *really* give a shit about the whole writin’ and readin’ thing if they were to just forget about the NY publishing world entirely and start their own zines, journals, blogs, and presses.

That’s right.  Do it yourself.  And don’t say you didn’t see this coming.

Authonomites, that world you’re trying so desperately to break into couldn’t really give two shits about you or your work, but they most certainly do care that you click on things, and they are (still…) desperately trying to figure out how to monetize where/why you do that clicking thing you do. Carefully trace the arc of most social networking sites and you’ll see that the differences between “community” and “commodity” are nearly impossible to distinguish.  If you actually make the time to write and (gasp!) purchase books, you are part of a highly cherished demographic, especially to us small press hipsters (hey, look, I’m an editor too!), whose very existence ebbs and flows with each reading or conference you might attend.

And, yes, absolutely: colleges and universities are just as guilty of these things as HarperCollins.  Just ask me what I think about the meaning of acronyms like “FTE” and “OA” in higher education sometime.  ‘Cos that’s hows I pays da bills.

All of the above isn’t to say that the NY publishing world is necessarily The Enemy (even though they pretty much are The Enemy…) or that Authonomy is an inherently bad idea.  NY publishers get a lot wrong but once in a blue moon they get it exactly right (even HarperCollins, whose affiliate presses have published amazing work by the likes of Zoe Trope, Curtis White, Allen Ginsberg, David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann, and even has a forthcoming book in the hopper from–did you hear yet?–Kevin Sampsell), and when they do get it right it always makes us wonder why these offerings are so damn far and few between.

What I hope all of the above does say is fairly simple: if you are reading something that is totally blowing your mind (whether you wrote it or not shouldn’t matter one bit), you need to do everything in your power to help get that something out into the world, including publishing it yourself even if you don’t have the slightest clue right now how to do it.  (You’re savvy enough to do it.  For reals.)

And if that something is already out in the world, you must help push it even further by telling any and everyone about it who will tolerate you doing so.  Make a scene already, for fuck’s sake. The biggest one you can muster.

I’m using imperatives here because Getting Published(TM) isn’t some blue ribbon you win at the county fair for being some giant pumpkin or prize pig. The ruling classes have been petrified for centuries about the emergence of a literate, intelligent and activist populace that decides for itself what makes art Art.  That emergence is happening now; get out there and show them that their fears are more than justified.

If sites like Authonomy help you get started with this, fine. But if you stop there, we will know.

And we will come and find you.

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3 responses to “Rant: HarperCollins launches Authonomy

  • the lid

    wow that literally made me creamy.
    you rock my brother from another planet.

    howz that teaching going?

    neener neener

  • banana_the_poet/Michele Brenton

    Just found this ‘old’ post. I wish I’d found it a while ago. I’ve been mucking about on authonomy for ten months and come to exactly the conclusion you were leading to in this article.

    I’m headed into self publishing now. It’s scary and a bit tricky – but it is fun and a challenge. How funny is it going to be to tell people I’m a publisher?

    Almost as funny as my husband being a record producer LOL He set up a record company a few years back so we could record and sell a CD of our young son playing a mixture of ‘established’ classical music and some pieces hubby had written and raise some money for charity. That was a blast and a half!

    If only we could start our own bank as well :))

  • King Wenclas

    Writers had better wake up to what’s happening. Note today the news that the top-selling “novel” in America is by TV personality Lauren Conrad, published, naturally, by HarperCollins. Note the existence of HarperStudio, whose philosophy is anti-writer. As someone who WAS DIY circa 1994 (and still is), I’ve been covering this issue for some time, and hope now to get more writers on the side of myself and my colleagues. See recent posts on my own blog– and please consider joining the protest at the Petition to PEN blog–
    http://www.penpetition.blogspot.com
    PEN being a once pro-writer organization which is now in bed with HarperCollins and other multinational conglomerates.
    Thanks.

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