Urjo Kareda, the artistic director at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre from 1982 until his death in 2001, was famous for many things. One of them was his commitment to reading every offering that every aspiring playwright ever sent his theatre. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, he read as many as 500 unsolicited scripts a year.
He responded to the writers, too, delivering honest assessments of their scripts in what could be notoriously sharp-worded letters. Kareda had previously worked as theatre critic at the Toronto Star and clearly didn't believe in mollycoddling dramatists – or deceiving would-be dramatists as to their chances.
His reading probably didn't uncover any hidden gems; the various new play development programs he established at Tarragon were surely far more important to the theatre's artistic success. But if Kareda's approach to unsolicited material was inefficient, it was also admirable. It suggested a commitment to the idea of playwriting and to the community of playwrights that extended far beyond the needs of his individual company; it suggested he felt it was his duty, as a salaried cultural arbiter, to acknowledge all those unpaid aspirants in need of cultural arbitration.
When HarperCollins announced recently that it would close its website Authonomy Sept. 30, I didn't mourn the forum to which writers could post unpublished manuscripts for peer review; instead, I mourned the professional spirit of Urjo Kareda. A handful of published, bestselling authors whose work was first discovered on Authonomy are apparently deeply saddened by its demise, but the site sounds as though it was mainly a way to get the slush pile to read the slush pile. Self-publishing, print-on-demand and the fan-fiction phenomenon have eroded the distinction between amateurs and professionals in the literary industries, but every so often you get a small reminder that sometimes you need to send in a pro.
If theatres are inundated with unsolicited writing, the situation in publishing houses is worse: More people aspire to become an author than a playwright and most books are significantly longer than scripts. Traditionally, interns were assigned to make their way through the slush pile. Today, most major publishers simply don't accept unsolicited manuscripts; instead, they rely for their culling on literary agents, who have an even more direct financial incentive to consider only the immediately marketable. If you visit HarperCollins's international website looking for advice on how to submit your manuscript, you'll find the publisher suggests you get an agent or visit Authonomy.
Every month, Authonomy sends five unpublished manuscripts upstairs to a real editor. Those five are selected based on the number of positive recommendations they received from the site's membership. The trouble, of course, is that the site's membership is not composed of professional editors but of other unpublished writers, who may not be in much position to judge what is publishable. Worse yet, members started campaigns to get attention for their work, soliciting good reviews in exchange for good reviews. "People learned how to game the system," Scott Pack, the former HarperCollins employee who used to administer the site, told The Guardian. " … The focus of the vast majority of members was how to get into the top five, rather than how to make their work as appealing to HarperCollins as possible."
Sounds like the professional editors needed to start reading a lot more than the five monthly winners of their online popularity contest.
The more suspicious bloggers out there always thought Authonomy was merely a stalking horse for HarperCollins's print-on-demand business: Self-publishing has become much more accessible to aspiring writers, who only print copies that someone has actually ordered. Similarly, Youwriteon, an online writers' circle organized by Random House and Orion Publishing in Britain that also offers a professional read to the best reviewed books, has been accused of shilling for POD services.
To research this topic, I visited authonomy.com repeatedly and also spent some time with Wattpad, an unaffiliated Canadian-based site that allows writers to upload and readers to access any amount of free writing in different genres of popular fiction. Wattpad suggests that it helps writers build their craft; the claim to fame of its stars seems often to be that they have earned paying gigs writing promotional material for businesses. That's professional writing, but probably not what the aspiring authors had in mind when they uploaded 57 chapters of the greatest zombie story ever. I was not far into these online travels before ads began popping up for a company that offers self-publishing – for a fee. Its FAQs included "Why should I pay to be published?" The answer was that, if filmmakers invest their own money in their productions, why shouldn't authors do the same?
Yes, there are any number of people out there who would be happy to take advantage of aspiring writers. Sadly, there are very few Karedas to tell them whether they have any realistic hope of going pro.