Falling down the cracks in the genre map

Posted by Paul Samael on Thursday, September 10, 2015 Under: Random thoughts

So, peer review site Authonomy is to close.  The cynic in me is inclined to say that this is just further evidence that major publishers (the site was backed by Harper Collins) aren’t particularly serious about new ways of discovering writing talent.  I gather that over the site’s 7 year lifespan, 47 manuscripts were chosen for publication.  That’s hardly earth-shattering, although it seems to be a better strike rate than a similar UK-based site, YouWriteOn, which I have reviewed here (and where all the examples of authors being taken up by major publishers seem to be years old).  

I suspect the problem is that big publishers have never been short of submissions;  in fact, they are so overwhelmed that they have largely outsourced the business of talent scouting to agents.  Given that they can’t be bothered to read through their own slush piles, it was always going to be unrealistic to expect them to take on large numbers of new propositions culled from peer review sites like Authonomy or YouWriteOn.  So in that respect, I think it’s probably fair to say that big publishers have just been paying lip service to the whole thing.

But whilst peer review sites like these have arguably failed to live up to their promise of marrying up new talent with major publishers, they have provided many budding authors – myself included – with a very useful way of getting feedback prior to self-publishing (or in some cases, getting a publishing deal with a smaller publisher).  I would certainly use YouWriteOn again if I wanted feedback on something I had written – and there are plenty of other peer review sites which are still going (Scribophile has been recommended by another author who commented on my review of YouWriteOn).

Anyway, whilst Googling for material on the closure of Authonomy, I came across another peer review site called Book Country.  This site is also backed by a major publisher (Penguin) and is openly encouraging refugees from Authonomy to jump ship.  As one door closes, another opens, I thought to myself.  And Book Country may be worth considering if you want to get feedback on your work before self-publishing.   But as for the rest of the material on the site - I felt that here was a major publisher seeking to justify its view of the world rather than do anything new or try to test whether its view of the world was accurate. 

Take Book Country’s much trumpeted “patented genre map.”  First of all, I have some difficulty understanding how something like this could possibly be patentable, given the requirement for some degree of inherent novelty;  most of the information in the genre map struck me as a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.  Secondly, it is a map of how publishers see the world, rather than what readers necessarily want to read - and the message seems to be that, in order to get a publisher interested in your work, you need to slot it neatly into one of the categories on the genre map (and if you can’t, you need to go back to the drawing board).

If I had taken that advice, I would never have finished my novel – because measured against Book Country’s map, it falls down a great big fissure between sci fi and literary fiction (it's really neither one thing nor the other - it's somewhere in-between).  This is one of the main reasons I ended up self-publishing it, because I was pretty sure a mainstream publisher simply wouldn’t know what to do with it (although there were other reasons too).  However, despite this, a reasonable number of people (5000+ as at the time of writing) seem to have been prepared to download it and some of them even seem to have actually read it and enjoyed it (I know this because they were kind enough to write reviews).  Which suggests to me that the Book Country genre map isn’t nearly as definitive as Penguin would have us believe.  

A more interesting approach would have been to try to use the site to test how far the genre map holds up against users’ reading preferences – perhaps by asking users to input their top 10 favourite authors and trying to map that (sorry Penguin, that’s not patentable because someone else is already doing it – see the Gnod literature map).  Anyway, there’s precious little evidence of new thinking on Book Country, which is disappointing because, as suggested in this post, there is scope for innovation – it just requires publishers to question some of their more fundamental assumptions (the biggest one being that, when it comes to books, they always know best).

UPDATE 9.2018:  Book Country shut up shop after less than 3 years.  This suggests to me that, whilst big publishers often talk a good game when it comes to encouraging new authors and peer review platforms etc, they don't have a genuine commitment to seeing it through. They probably feel quite well served by the status quo, where I suspect they spend diminishing amounts of time/effort combing around their own slush pile for good material and increasingly rely on agents to filter it for them.  This is a system which can work well if you've written a book that fits neatly into a publisher's "genre map"-style approach (and is therefore easier for an agent to sell to the publisher), but is pretty useless if you have produced something that is less easy to categorise.  At least Harper Collins was prepared to persevere beyond the 5 year mark with Authonomy.  

Map image courtesy of www.worldatlas.com

In : Random thoughts 

Tags: authonomy "peer review sites" "book country" "genre map" 
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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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