Display Sites – A Means To An End?

This week WEBook announced the launch of AgentInbox. I had planned to cover it as a news item, but felt it was more a news story about writing than a publishing news story. Digress it you will for a few moments and read Victoria Strauss over on WriterBeware and her take on WeBook’s AgentInbox.
I have been asked many times to comment on what are generally called author display sites, examples of which are WEBook, Authonomy, Authorlink and so many, many more. Here is the view and explanation of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America on display sites.

“Manuscript display websites promise to showcase your writing to agents and editors by displaying a portion of your manuscript online–sometimes with a synopsis, logline, bio, or other material. Some are free; many charge fees. Most are independent, but a few, such as HarperCollins’s Authonomy, have some sort of publishing industry backing. Extra services, such as editing, may be offered at additional cost, or members may be encouraged to exchange critiques and comments. There may be a social media or ranking component, on the theory that agents and publishers will pay more attention to offerings that have a greater number of page visits or positive reader reviews. A few sites offer limited readings and/or critiques by publishing industry professionals, or have arrangements with agencies and/or publishers to look at top-ranked listings.

However, established agents and editors, their offices already bulging with paper submissions, really weren’t all that interested in looking at manuscripts online–especially since the display sites’ search functionality often wasn’t very effective, and pre-screening tended to be minimal (particularly when the people running the display sites didn’t have publishing industry experience). As a result, display sites never became the alternative route to publication they were supposed to be. Success stories were few and far between; more often than not, the sites simply became electronic slush repositories. Worse, some of the agents and editors who cruised the sites were marginal or questionable–not exactly the kind of contact the hopeful writer was looking to make.”

My own opinion does not waver too far from the above. As a basic social networking critique, display sites have some strong benefits and allow an author to test the choppy waters before embarking on the lengthy process of a final draft and banging on the doors of agents and publishers. I don’t believe they can operate as a realistic and viable shop window for a finished manuscript or previously self-published book. Certainly, most large publishers are precious souls. They don’t like the idea that the manuscript they look at is available to other rival eyes. They want exclusivity and the ability to deal directly with the author or contractually with an industry professional. More fundamentally, agents and publishers do not generally look to online sources to acquire manuscripts. Does it happen? Of course it does. But this is the exception to the rule. I am not saying this will not one day emphatically change. Simply, it’s not the norm now, and will not be until someone comes up with a service or platform to deal with industry slush piles which agents and publishers will trust, believe in, and fully utilize as their primary source of acquisition.
So where do display sites fill a purpose? Why are there so many? What is the point of loading up your magnum opus? Well, the better sites may indeed provide input and constructive criticism and help a writer perfect their manuscript and hone their own writing skills. The worst of them provide a limbo ladder to publishing their book without the required industry audience that actually counts. I have spoken to authors and supporters of HarperCollins’ Authonomy, of which I have used, and while it has resulted in a few contracts for authors, I am convinced those authors would have achieved this on their own efforts and merits.
The more progressive display sites attempt to become online writer workshops, of which they are not and will never be. They lack moderation, the direct presence of a skilled tutor and experienced professional, and often  are laced with an unhealthy rivalry between authors themselves. Think of a room filled with a hundred Oscar Wildes all clutching their manuscripts and arguing amongst one another for supremacy and literary success! My own thoughts are that an author would be better off spending two or three hundred dollars on a writers’ weekend workshop retreat then laying their manuscript dormant online for months in the hope that some agent or publisher is going to come knocking on their door.

Related articles from July 2009.
Display Sites: The Future Ahead?    

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