From the category archives:

Crowdsourcing

Kindle 2I’ve written before about how I believe the physical nature of books will change…much sooner than most of us can imagine. Within 10 years, 20 years tops, there will be virtually no print books being published – we’ll be consuming content exclusively on portable reading devices. Newspapers will fall even sooner.

Today’s text readers include the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, The Plastic Logic Que and, of course, the iPhone and its various cell phone based derivatives. Future products – perhaps even the long rumored Apple “iPad” – will undoubtedly be much easier on the eyes and intuitive to use than what’s currently available.

But how about the creation of books? Bob Stein of the Institute of the Future of the Book suggests that the same phenomena of “crowdsourcing” that forms the backbone of content creation on social media – from blogs to Facebook – and that has made Wikipedia the world’s largest and most popular reference source, will be applied next to novels, biographies and all sorts of non-fiction.

The initial reaction of traditional authors – myself included – has been a quick harrumph. You can’t displace a well-trained and experienced writer with the power of isolated individuals across the Internet.

Or can you?

Stein gives the example of a well-known biographer who receives a $2 million advance, goes off for 10 years to research and write, and returns with his latest best-seller. Crowdsource me? says the writer. Not going to happen.

But at the same time, there is undoubtedly a newly minted PhD in Creative Writing who grew up on Facebook who has no problem writing in public and letting her thousands of friends and followers contribute. It may seem improbable today, but then so does the total demise of a hard cover book you can hold in your hand.

You can already see companies exploring this space. WeBook is probably the best known. Founded by Israeli serial entrepreneur Itai Kohavi and backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital, the site allows anyone to start a book topic and solicit submissions from other WeBook members who can also collaboratively edit the book in real time for all the world to see. WeBook runs periodic votes where members determine which books WeBook should actually publish (gasp) in print.

The startup Vook is more traditional in that most of what this company publishes is written by a single author, but it breaks the traditional mold by including video as an integral part of the storytelling process. “Vooks,” of course, are digital only.

Group written books are actually not that new. Take a look at the Talmud, the massive work of Jewish law, folklore and history. The original source material for the Talmud was oral, written by multiple authors and handed down from generation to generation until it was finally written down.

Legally, publishing crowdsourced books can be pretty tricky. The Internet culture of free sharing makes it tough to solicit help on a book and then charge for it. For example, I have a personal crowdsourcing project called SiddurWiki and I’m still trying to figure out the lawyerly language so that content on the site can be widely distributed electronically at no cost, while at the same time, be set up so that I can also sell it and make a profit.

So what does an established, traditional author (or an electronic publisher of any type, for that matter) do in such turbulent times? I think that individual authors have to begin thinking of themselves as hybrid writers and managers. It’s not enough to lock yourself in a room with just a typewriter (boy, that really dates me!) Rather you have to view your work as a “product” that needs leadership.

Writers of the future will be need to be cheerleaders, evangelists and social media experts, as well as dedicated craftsmen.

Ultimately, writers won’t go the way of the dinosaur. Indeed they’ll be as valuable as ever: a single person will still need to put it all together. But the process that leads up to that is about to change forever.

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