I stumbled over the Writer Beware post on Authonomy, the latest attempt by a publisher to put their slush pile online. Blogger Victoria Strauss goes through the history of similar efforts: first came the Del Rey Online Writing Workshop (I was a beta tester!), which moved out from Del Rey's aegis to become the Online Writing Workshop for Fantasy and Horror (see link at left); iPublish, from Time Warner; then Pan Macmillan's New Writing program, which sound more like restoring slush as they stopped requiring agents, but the trade-off was no advances; the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, in partnership with Penguin (one book, so far, but it hasn't been that long); a brief mention of occasional publisher-run contests with a contract as a prize; and now Authonomy from HarperCollins: "Authonomy also holds out the hope that agents and publishers will become part of the Authonomy talent-spotting community. And here's the real payoff: "HarperCollins hopes to find new, talented writers we can sign up for our traditional book publishing programmes – once we’re fully launched we’ll be reading the most popular manuscripts each month as part of this search."
Okay, they don't want to read their slush, but they're hoping other people will be eager to?
What Victoria Strauss doesn't mention (although a commenter points it out) is that OWW spawned many successful writers—Karin Lowachee, Charles Coleman Finlay, and Elizabeth Bear for starters, but they didn't get their start from Del Rey. OWW functions fine as a workshop where writers help each other. And I think that paradigm works well in general, as non-publisher sites like Critters prove.
What publisher-run sites want to accomplish is to pan for gold from slush at minimal cost, but so far, they have each gone about it by creating a site that attracts writers but not readers. The feedback on a writer-vs.-writer site can be a lot like the feedback on Survivor. Voracious readers who can't afford to buy the books they want aren't sitting at their PCs looking to read unpublished books online. They're at the library, checking out books.
Will Authonomy break the mold? It will be interesting to see.