Power to the People: The Role of Online Communities in Book Publishing

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Making Your Way Around the Writer’s Block

Technology is, in fact, changing everything about book publishing—from the way authors are found to how the final product is delivered to audiences. In some cases, the internet is even changing how the books are written. Long gone are the days when an author toiled away in private for months or years; today, communities are opening up the writing process and providing feedback in unprecedented ways.

“There are portals such as WEbook where aspiring authors can develop manuscripts and get feedback from people in the community, enabling them to build a readership for their writing whether or not a specific manuscript ever makes it into print,” says John Blossom, author of Content Nation and president of Shore Communications, Inc. “Lulu.com is a long-established online self-publishing community that offers forums and groups in which authors can support one another in the ‘tricks of the trade’ for self-publishing.” These days, self-publishing websites and online communities for writers seem almost as plentiful as the books on the shelves of Barnes & Noble—which also announced a self-publishing portal called Pubit! earlier this year.

Blossom himself has turned to Google Wave (for which, Google announced in August, that it will cease development, though the company may incorporate its features into future products) for help with his next book. “I used a collaborative technology [called Near-Time] to write my first book, Content Nation, and it worked out pretty well from a production standpoint. But since I was starting its community from scratch, it was hard to get contributions. On Google Wave, I am already part of a vibrant community of hundreds of active Wave users,” says Blossom. “My hope is to use Google Wave to interview key figures in electronic publishing and to integrate those interviews and the discussions that they generate into the structure of the book.”

While a few brave souls like Blossom form writing communities of their own, major publishers are embracing the wisdom of the crowds as well. Safari Books Online and O’Reilly Media, for instance, introduced a service known as Rough Cuts. Rough Cuts provides access to the very latest information on a given topic and offers buyers the opportunity to interact with authors to influence the final publication.

On the O’Reilly website, readers can buy a Rough Cuts version of a book in a variety of ways: They can choose one of the following online packages: the prepublication version only, the Rough Cuts version and the finished print book, or just the printed product. “Book publishing communities have evolved quite a bit in recent years,” says Blossom. “From people commenting on bloglike manuscripts, we now have tools like O’Reilly’s Rough Cuts program where people interested in cutting-edge technologies can participate in the development of text and reference books much in the same way that people may participate in an advanced seminar.”

Even this successful experiment had humble beginnings, though. “Rough Cuts was a natural outgrowth of what we had been doing in a more secretive manner,” says Mike Hendrickson, associate publisher for the Open Tech eXchange division at O’Reilly. “Before Rough Cuts, we were putting manuscripts in Yahoo! Groups, Google Groups, Subversion repositories, FTP sites, author sites, and a host of other places so we could engage potential readers in the content development.”

Readers get access to the most up-to-date information, making Rough Cuts popular with business and technology customers. Meanwhile, O’Reilly and its authors get the benefit of input sometimes from unexpected sources. “We published iPhone Open Application Development by Jonathan Zdziarski. It was the first content available on a software development kit [SDK] for an Open SDK used for building software for the iPhone. The catch was this SDK was not sanctioned by Apple, and, as a result, your phone was ‘jail broken’ if you used this SDK. … This book took you through things very carefully and was quite popular,” says Hendrickson. “We had tons of feedback and, hopefully, helped some developers get their apps in good shape before Apple finally pulled the trigger on its official SDK release. It was a great example of hackers coming together and building a set of tools while discussing the tools on our Rough Cuts page for the forthcoming book.”

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The Digital Reader reported back in September that Amazon was recruiting Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) authors to submit unpublished manuscripts to a crowdsourcing program that will allow readers to decide which books editors should consider for publishing. (You can join the mailing list here.)