Building the book in public

Guy Kawasaki at Wikimania 2015 2 e1487148912716

For most publishers, the finished book is not just the main unit of currency but the single external output from the publishing process. Galleys or ARCs might go out, tightly controlled, to reviewers, but the manuscript itself and early rounds of proofs are strictly between author and editor. The exception of course is academic publishing, where editors will routinely send out proposals and manuscripts, and often points in between, such as sample chapters, for peer review – checking, advice and input from experts in the relevant field of study.

Several publishers have experimented over the last few years with making books available before publication – Safari Rough Cuts, now O’Reilly’s ‘Early Release’ programme, was one of the first, allowing customers to buy access to books as they are being written and to provide feedback along the way. Leanpub is another good example, with authors using the Leanpub tools to write and publish in a single iterative process, taking on board comments along the way.

It takes a brave author to do this, one who is secure in their own expertise and who believes passionately in collaboration and the wisdom of the crowd. One such as Guy Kawasaki, author of 13 books include Art of the Start 2.0 and Enchantment and my guest in this week’s Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast, for example. Except that Guy doesn’t participate in an early access sales programme run by a publisher: he simply puts first his table of contents and then his full first draft up online.

‘I literally post my Word file and I turn on the comment thing and I say, “Okay, insert your comments.” The bottom line is here’s my manuscript, have at it.’

What results is not only a better book, but an incredibly strong network of relationships and a body of people invested in the success of the book. As he points out:

‘A lot of people have never interacted with an author this way, never had input into a book. They go to Amazon, buy it, and their input is inputting their credit card. There are people who can fundamentally change my book, and people have.’

For Guy, it was a logical extension of the value he saw from sending the draft to a hand-selected set of beta readers.

‘Even before I came up with this idea, there were 10, 15, 20 people who I respected in the world who I would send my manuscript to, and I noticed that they came back with very good comments. Then I figured out that, God, maybe you don’t know all the intelligent people in the world first-hand, so maybe you should broaden your net… When you think about it, you just have to assume that it’s the law of big numbers, and that’s what I do.’

This is a challenging concept for publishers. Not only does it disintermediate them to some extent (the author is building links directly with potential readers), but the idea of putting the content itself, the thing that our entire revenue stream depends on, up for free on the interweb is deeply worrying. What’s the point in investing in anti-piracy measures after publication if you’re going to plaster the world with the first draft for free?

The reality of course is that most books fail for lack of attention and awareness, not a lack of adequate anti-piracy measures. Guy is sanguine about any potential loss of sales.

‘If a thousand people get my manuscript and don’t buy it, the thousand isn’t going to be the difference between success and failure. I want hundreds of thousands. I want millions of people to buy my book. If a thousand don’t, but in fact that process that makes my book better, that enables hundreds of thousands or millions of people to buy it, so be it. I would gladly give away a thousand copies to get hundreds of thousands or millions sold.’

But even when the sales forecast for a book is in the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands of copies, I’d argue that those who engaged with the manuscript and the author directly are in fact the most likely of all potential readers to buy the finished book, and not only that, but to rave about it to anyone who’ll listen. This is partly their book too, after all.

‘I don’t see anyone else doing it my way,’ Guy notes. I think he’s right, and it surprises me. I’d love to hear from any other publishers who can prove us wrong.

membership economyAlison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers.

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