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Wikipedia–But For Books?

A new project by a British publishing house aims to try out crowdsourced editing.

The red pencil is feared by rookie writers and well-established authors alike–the editing process is, by design, adversarial. I can name you at least one restaurant critic who has fired off a coruscating email to an editor who dared change one word in a review (he got a civil yet also coruscating reply from the editor’s colleagues).

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And now it’s about to be crowdsourced, by a new publishing firm that’s led by thriller writer Hector Macdonald.

Macdonald, who studied zoology at Oxford under Richard Dawkins, has also worked as a strategic communications consultant in both the private and public sector–a job with striking parallels to that of the crowdsourced editor-had three novels published by Penguin in the past decade. And his fourth, Rogue Elements, is about to be published by Advance Editions, Macdonald’s own publishing firm, which Macdonald hopes will use the not inconsiderable resources of book lovers that hang out on literary discussion forums. Is he really comfortable with the idea of a bunch of website Johnnies fiddling around with his oeuvre?

“I’ve witnessed the power and energy of ‘the crowd’ previously on a website called Book Drum where book lovers can post extra content around their favorite books,” he told me. “And I’ve been impressed by the sheer mass of book reviewers and bloggers on the web, all eager to discuss what they like and don’t like about a book. It seemed the perfect time to harness some of that energy to help authors make their books even better.” Macdonald’s consultancy career has clearly given him invaluable insight, too–“how to test quickly the assumptions implicit in the model about demand and social media dynamics, etc.”

The platform is a simple one: There is no going into the manuscript and fiddling, a la Wikipedia, here. Instead, it’s built on a forum system that “allows contributors to post suggestions online, tagged with a section number for the relevant passage of the book,” says Macdonald. “They can also categorize their suggestion as, for example, ‘Error’ or ‘Bright Idea’.”

Crowdsourcing creativity is nothing new–from casting movies to remakes of RoboCop to Off-Broadway plays–yet it’s hard to imagine the editing process being thrown open to any old Joe. But one of Advance Editions’ authors, Heidi Kingstone, whose book Dispatches From the Kabul Cafe chronicles her years as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, sees it differently.

“There is so much history and so many different perspectives in Afghanistan,” she told me. “So many experts and people with incredible experience that… might help make the book richer.” In her estimation, the book is an “extra layer of research.”

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It’s easy to see how the idea works for a non-fiction book, but fiction is a very different kettle of fish, surely. Macdonald agrees. “These aren’t first drafts–the author has worked for months or years on their book by this stage, and has collaborated with a professional structural/story editor to get it just right. By the time suggestions start coming in from the rest of the world, the book is already as ‘finished’ as anything you’ll find in the bookstore,” he says, “But we think this new age of digital connectivity affords us an opportunity to take good books to another level.”

Advance’s idea isn’t to reduce the expertise of its edits, but rather to introduce an extra layer of editing between first edit and last edit. Is Macdonald aiming a blow at the publishing industry? “Advance Editions is certainly no threat to regular publishers–we’re tiny, and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” he says. Early readers get to download the first half of a book for free onto their e-readers after signing up to Advance and creating a profile, to which they can link their social media pages–an important part of the process for Macdonald, who has created a YouTube trailer for his book–“a powerful force in social media these days, so it makes sense to have a presence there.” If they like what they’ve read when the words stop, they can get the whole book downloaded for a 60% advance discount–around $3 from either Barnes & Noble, Kobo, or Amazon. The authors engage with the early readers, and anyone behind a particularly useful or clever suggestion gets an acknowledgement in the print edition when it comes out. The editing process is open for just three months, then the book is closed and off it goes to be printed.

But what about fact-checking? Or potential editorial sabotage? ” If someone states a fact, check it with another source,” he says. “So, for example, one contributor has just written that it’s impossible to drill through masonry quietly, however specialist your drill. I’m not sure he’s right about that, but as a key plot point in Rogue Elements depends upon it I will certainly be checking it out.”

About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.

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