Thursday 24 May 2012

Writers on the Web

If you're an indie and/or self-published writer, you may have heard such terms as authonomy, ywo, webook or bookcountry bandied around blogs and facebook posts. What are all these weird and wonderful things or places, what do they have in common and what use are they to you?

They are all writers' critique sites, peer-review systems variously sponsored by publishers, arts councils or other sources of funding. The idea is that you upload a portion of your work-in-progress and receive feedback, in return for which you offer feedback on other writers' work. The big shiny carrot is often the "chance of publication" by one means or another; although many may appear to be misleading and offering false hopes to writers, it's often more the case that writers view these sites through rose-tinted glasses and expect (or feel entitled to) a great deal more than is actually on offer. Having said that, some of the sites below may offer assisted publication of one sort or another, or links to CreateSpace and other print-on-demand suppliers.

So are they any good? I guess that depends on what you want to get out of them - and what you are prepared to put into them. And whether you want or need feedback or comments on your writing. Each site is subtly different in terms of user demographic, quality and quantity of feedback offered and operating rules.

I've been a member of all 4 above at different times with varying levels of participation. Bear in mind that these are just my opinions based on my own participation - sites change and evolve and you may have altogether different experiences.  

YouWriteOn started up in 2006 with Arts Council funding. It's a quid pro quo system - you review a randomly-assigned book and earn a "credit" which you can spend to get a review of your book. You read your assigned extract, write a review of a minimum length and then answer author-set questions (designed to "prove" that you have actually read the extract, although it's really very easy to fool the system by copying the text into word and searching for key terms). You also have to award stars for different elements of the book (characterisation, plot, dialogue etc). Pros: It's hard to game the system or mutually-inflate your mate's book, since you can't choose what you read. Cons: You can't choose what you read. Also, in the time I was there, there were dubious levels of consistency in the stars awarded. Carrot: Review of top-scoring books by leading publishers/agents. 

Authonomy started in late 2007 in beta with 100 users, then opened to all in 2008. Owned and run by HarperCollins UK. Here you can read, comment, vote and shelve what you like when you like - and others can do the same for you. Books move up the chart on a complex algorithm based on how often your book is on how many bookshelves and the "talent-spotter" rating of the shelf-owner! Pros: Feedback can be very detailed and constructive. Cons: Easy to game system, plus feedback can often be little more than variations of "Loved it. Shelved it. Can you please shelve my book too?"  Carrot: Review by HC editor for top books, and several books from site have been picked up by HC and other publishers for traditional publication.

Bookcountry is Penguin's offering. Similar in operation to authonomy, you can read and comment on whatever you wish. As an author you can set topics for feedback and get stars awarded for these topics. Books become buzz books and favourites and top-scoring books are featured on the site. Pros: A good place to maintain a presence to attract readers. And feedback can often be detailed and useful. Cons: No real "charts" to climb, if that's what you're after. Carrot: Various agents and editors allegedly scout the site.

Webook. I'm not entirely sure who owns and runs this. It's very different from the first three in that it consists of several rather-complex "rounds". You post a single page and people vote 5* (elevate to next round) down to 1* (toss in bin). Based on a length of time/number of votes, your piece may make it through to the next round, when you can post a chapter for the same fate. And so on. It's a bit like being an agent, I guess. And there's also a list of participating agents you can submit to via the system. Pros: Excellent lesson in what really does work in a first paragraph/first page. Rate 20 first pages in quick succession and you can see your own work in a new light. Cons: It costs $3.95 to enter each piece of writing and your work can score highly then bomb for no apparent reason. Carrot: You can "win", though I don't know what winning means...

Most of the above sites have forums of a sort. Authonomy is the only forum I've participated in to any extent. It's most definitely toxic at times (but then I'm seeing more and more internet flame-wars these days, particularly where writing is concerned), but I have to say I've made some wonderful friends there, many of whom I'm sure will remain friends for a long time. Many of them are also talented writers, whose work I have enjoyed reading.

And if you're a reader, but not a writer, these sites are still open to you. Feel free to look around and comment on other peoples' books. Pure readers are often like gold dust - they have no ulterior motives and nothing to gain by giving good or bad reviews so are often seen as far more honest than the writers.

You have nothing to lose except time!

Saturday 5 May 2012

Tales From the Closet

Are you a secret writer? Or do you shout about it at every opportunity?

I work at Cheshire Police Headquarters. It's a big lovely new building in Cheshire with excellent facilities (restaurant, sports hall, gym). There's a large workforce - both police officers and staff, and inevitably there are a few writers amongst us! Back in March last year, I got together with a few of them and we had a table in the corner of the restaurant selling books - at least they did. Since I only have ebooks, I just had some cards and sat there and tried to look like I knew what I was doing.

One of the guys writes thrillers like I do. He frequently posts on our intranet bulletin board advertising his books. I don't. Quite apart from the fact that I don't have any actual physical goods to sell, I just can't bring myself to do it.

I mean what if people I know actually read my books? I'm not overly concerned with whether or not they like them, although obviously it'd be great if they liked my stories and thought I was a good writer. But if they read my books, they'll read the whole story - and there are some bits that really aren't very nice. I don't write chick-lit, or fluff, or romance - not that there is anything wrong with them and I do occasionally read them, but I couldn't write them. No, I write some dark and nasty stuff and I do wonder whether people I know start looking at me differently, wondering how I could dream up such stuff, never mind commit it to paper/computer file. It must be the same for erotica writers - many of them write under pseudonyms for precisely that reason, because otherwise the people in the office would think they were just, well, maybe a bit kinky?

I do write nice stuff too. Edge of Dreams is YA fantasy and quite suitable for all to read. But it doesn't sell in anything like the quantities that Hamelin's Child does. Maybe because I don't promote it nearly as much, but maybe because Hamelin is a better story. Or as a very recent amazon review said: ... a story that doesn't so much hook you as grab you by the throat and force you to keep turning the pages until the very end.

I know people at work have bought my ebooks. I know they've read them. And sometimes I'm in the lift with guys and I'm wondering whether they're looking at me and seeing my books and whether they think I'm a bit weird, if not downright dangerous.

Friday 4 May 2012

May Update

I've neglected this blog a bit lately. Been busy writing, setting up part of the new AuthorsElectric website and other mostly mundane things. If you look at the Authors Electric blog site, you'll see we've had over 23 thousand hits in the last 30 days. That's a lot of people looking at our stuff! Mostly due to the concerted efforts of those AE members who did a massive free book promotion to coincide with World Book Night.

So - sales of my ebooks are still riding high. I've started thinking about a cover for Paying the Piper - maybe this will provide some much-needed motivation?  JT Lindroos did my covers for Edge & Hamelin and he's kindly agreed to do Piper for me too, so there'll be some continuity and it will actually look like a follow-on novel. Watch this space!