Everyone loves a good disintermediation story. So, we read, writers have suddenly started to overlook the literary agent in their quest to produce a bestseller. The truth as we all know is that such dances started to be choreographed a while back. In 2008, Harper Collins UK launched the Authonomy community site, encouraging writers to upload their manuscript and expose it to peer review. The objective was to “ beat the slush “ with the promise that editors would review manuscripts which critiqued well on the platform.
It is a little acknowledged that the idea for Authonomy came not from a senior executive brainstorm, but from a young editor, Kate Hyde, who believed it was fundamentally counter-intuitive that a major global trade publisher (by definition, existing to make books public) should proudly advertise on its website that it would not accept unsolicited manuscripts. There was a degree of skepticism around the launch. Not least within Harper Collins itself. Editors generally liked the idea of agents acting as a filter. But some successful commercial writers did eventually emerge and hit the bestseller lists.
The debate will continue to rage. But everyone loves the idea that even smart commissioning editors with a good track record or the best talent spotting agents will sometimes miss a book that lots of people actually want to read. Risk averse publishing climates will only encourage disintermediation. Publishers should engage with unsolicited manuscripts, even if it means sometimes ending up with egg on their faces. Never forget, 12 publishers rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before JK Rowling found Barry Cunningham (an ex-Marketing Director) at Bloomsbury and started a global phenomenon.