UPDATE 3.2020: Youwriteon was due to close in early 2020 but because of coronavirus, it has decided to stay open on a month-to-month basis. This would mean you could still use it for the purpose I highlight in this piece - namely to get feedback on your work (although I understand it will not be running competitions). Prior to this, Youwriteon had said it would close in early 2020 but was raising funds via a kickstarter campaign for a new website. When I checked on 30.3.2020, the kickstarter was well short of its goal of £9K, which does not look terribly promising for the emergence of Youwriteon 2.0 - but who knows, maybe the coronavirus lockdown will breathe new life into the project. As will be apparent from my review below, I think the main value of the site is as a source of reasonably objective feedback on your work - but you can get that from other sites, such as Scribophile, which (at the time of writing) still appeared to be a going concern. Although I haven't used Scribophile, other self-published authors have recommended it (see the comment from KJD below). Here's a recent-ish review by someone who has used it, which is broadly positive (she raises some concerns about copyright infringement but I wouldn't worry about that if I were you - in my experience, would-be pirates have not got the time or the patience to trawl through peer review sites). For a couple more reviews, click here and here.
It will be a shame if Youwriteon does not survive in some form - but there is a pattern here in the form of conventional publishers being initially supportive but gradually losing interest in these sites. That is exactly what happened to Authonomy (Harper Collins - lasted about 5 years) and Book Country (Penguin - lasted about 3 years), both of which are now no longer with us - and now it looks as if Youwriteon (originally supported by Bloomsbury and Orion) may be going the same way. Personally, I think that tells you all you need to know about the limited appetite of conventional publishers for expanding their search for new material beyond what agents submit to them (the long and short of it is that they are actually pretty happy with the status quo, as they have effectively outsourced the search process to agents - so why would they bother with sites like these to find new writers?). What I would really like to see is conventional publishers adopting a more adventurous approach to what they publish in ebook form, given that the costs of producing and distributing an ebook are so much lower than hard copy (see this post) - but sadly, there's no sign of that either. So my advice would be to seriously consider self-publishing.
Some time ago, I promised to do a review of Youwriteon.com, which is a peer review site aimed at budding authors. I was intending to do this after I’d taken a look at a similar site called Authonomy.com, so I could compare the two. But having got a moderate amount of feedback on the first few chapters of my novel via Youwriteon, I decided not to bother with Authonomy (mainly because peer review sites can be very time-consuming). Anyway, back to Youwriteon - first, the good points:
- Honest feedback and good standard of reviewing (generally): For me, Youwriteon was a good source of honest feedback at a time when I wasn’t confident that what I’d written was good enough to self-publish. It’s possible that I was just lucky, but I found the general standard of reviewing to be fairly high - and most people found something constructive to say even when they clearly didn’t like what I’d written. You can read the reviews I received here (you’ll have to become a member, but it’s free to join).
- Limited incentive to give insincere praise: The cleverest thing about the site is how it avoids the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of thing that seems to go on at some other peer review sites – and which tends to undermine the incentive to be honest. Here’s how it works: you are randomly assigned someone else’s work to review. This earns you a review of your own work from another randomly assigned member of the site. If you feel favourably disposed towards someone who’s just given you a glowing review, you can do a so-called “free will” review of their work in return – but your “free will” review won’t count towards the other author’s ratings on the site. Only randomly assigned reviews by people who almost certainly don’t know you affect how your book is rated. This largely removes the incentive for mutual (but potentially completely insincere) backscratching that can go on at other sites (e.g. I am told this is what happens on authonomy - see the end of this post - but as I haven’t tried it, I can’t say for certain).
- Good standard of writing (generally): As you’d expect, the standard of writing on the site is variable – some may make your heart sink but some of it was excellent. Even where I didn’t like what I’d been given to review, it was rare that I couldn’t find anything positive to say about other people’s work. So I didn’t find the process of writing reviews in order to earn my own feedback as much of a chore as I had feared – although it did require a reasonable amount of time and effort.
But here are a few things you may want to think about before using Youwriteon:
- Genre preferences and duff reviewers: You can express a preference for the genre of what you get to review, but quite often you just have to make do with what you’re given – for example, at one point I had to review a historical romance, which was very definitely not my thing. This can be pretty frustrating – and if you don’t think you can live with it, Youwriteon may not be for you. But it’s the price you pay for the greater objectivity/honesty of the review system – which for me is the real strength of the site. You are also likely to get the odd reviewer who’s useless, lazy, opiniated, arrogant or pedantic (or all of the above) – but that’s life.
- The ratings system: As mentioned above, the site operates a ratings system and if your work manages to get a top-rating, you are rewarded with a professional critique, potentially leading to…well, who knows, but if you are really, really lucky you might get picked up by publisher (the site highlights several examples of this and I reviewed one of them – Afrika Reich by Guy Saville - last year). By all means play this game if you want, but honest feedback was all I really wanted out of the site - and I wasn’t prepared to invest the (considerable) time that would be required to get my work a higher ranking (you need a lot of very positive reviews in order to rise to the top). Also, even if you do get there (and well done if you manage it), the odds are still stacked against you in terms of whether you’ll manage to get a publisher to take you on.
- “Marmite” books: The ratings system ultimately rewards books which please the majority of members on the site. So don’t beat yourself up if your book gets great reviews from some readers and panned by others – just take the positive feedback (which may help you to market your work – see this post) and leave. Non-UK readers please note: Marmite is a [delicious/foul tasting*] [*delete as applicable] yeasty concoction which some of us like to spread on bread or toast (although I gather there are other uses – see this site). Anyway, the point is, you either love it or you hate it.
- Box-ticking: As well as asking you to provide a written review of a minimum length, the site asks for ratings of quite a long list of other aspects of the writing e.g. setting/sense of place etc. I often found it hard to rate things like setting/sense of place – because sometimes it’s crucial, but sometimes it really doesn’t matter that much or the writing is effective precisely because it has no clear sense of place. In those cases, are you supposed to give it 5 stars or none? I suspect the rating system tends to favour work which clearly ticks all these boxes, not just some of them - which probably gives it an in-built bias against less conventional writing.
- Too many beginnings: The maximum length of any sample you can submit for review is 7000 words. I can see why the site has imposed a limit because if you had to read much more than 7000 words, very few people would be prepared to do any reviews. But it does mean that the site is full of the opening sections of novels, often with no indication of how they will develop later on (which sometimes makes it harder to assess the sample or offer constructive suggestions). If I were to use the site again in future, I would use up some of my 7000 word allocation by adding a synopsis of the rest of the book – and I think the site ought to encourage everyone to do the same.
- Self-publishing: Youwriteon also offers a (paid-for) self-publishing option, where you can make your book available through the site and get hard copy distribution. Not having used this, I can’t really comment – but there are plenty of other options which are free of charge (at least so far as ebooks are concerned). These are well worth investigating before you part with your hard earned cash.
In conclusion, I’m grateful to Youwriteon for giving me
enough honest feedback to overcome my fear that if I self-published my novel, I
would probably die of embarrassment (so far that hasn’t happened, but there’s
still time…). And although I haven’t
used it recently, I would do so in future - if, for example, I’d got stuck with
a piece of writing and wanted some feedback to help me work out what to do with
UPDATE 1.1.2015: YouWriteOn has just announced that in future, only the following periods will count towards the "prize" of earning a publisher's critique of your material: April-June and October-December. The periods in between will just be "development periods" i.e. the idea is that you use those to get some initial feedback and then potentially submit a revised piece in time for one the "competition periods." If all you want to do is use the site to get some feedback, this should not make too much difference - although it may be that during competition periods, users are a bit more inclined to actually give feedback (so you may find that you get reviews more quickly than during a "development period"). For more suggestions regarding peer review sites, see this page (scroll down to "Are peer review sites worthwhile?"). Finally, YouWriteOn is also linked to a self-publishing platform (www.feedaread.com), which may be worth considering if you want to make your book available in hard copy. There is a fee for distributing to Amazon and other booksellers, however. Also, if you want to distribute in ebook format, then as far as I can see, feedaread doesn't offer that - but plenty of other platforms do e.g. Smashwords, Feedbooks etc. See this page.
UPDATE 9.2015: Authonomy has just announced that it is to close - see this post.
You might also be interested in:
- Self-publishing: a guide
- Publishers: no better than fund managers?
- Falling down the cracks in the genre map
- Publishing: the hedge fund approach
- E-books: shaking up publishing, but not content?
In : Writing fiction
Tags: youwriteon "peer review sites" feedback reviewers authonomy
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