The Wisdom of Crowds

The inimitable Cory Doctorow‘s latest project, With a Little Help, is a self-conscious attempt at creating a book that not only bends the traditional rules of publishing and distribution, but of editing, marketing, sales and just about every other aspect of book publishing you can think of. Like a few of Doctorow’s other books, With a Little Help will be available as an ebook in various formats from his website for free (you can download it for free or buy a paper copy here). What’s different about this one, though, is that it is the author’s first foray into self-publishing. There’ll be a low-price print-on-demand paperback version, a special high-price limited edition hard cover, an electronic audio edition for free, and a low-price CD audio edition.

There are a lot of very interesting things to be learned from this project, and I could go on about it for hours, but what I’d like to concentrate on right now is one of the ways Doctorow was able to put the project together, which is laid out in the title of the collection: with a little help. But he didn’t just get help from his friends – he opened up donations in time, money and expertise to the open web in a way that is usually described as crowdsourcing.

Just a few examples: he offered one reader or group of readers the opportunity to commission one particular story for the collection (for the princely sum of $10,000), fans from other languages or who use unusual ereaders can translate or convert his books and have them posted up alongside the official versions, he crowdsourced proofreading (giving typo-spotters a shout out in the endnotes of the book), web design, cover design (there are multiple covers) and even book packaging (he’s using discarded burlap coffee sacks to cushion the high-end hardcovers en route!).

What I love about this project is the sheer audacity of it. There are so many moving parts, so many different levers and buttons that Doctorow decided to press for the hell of it along the way that will make it a very interesting prospect to track as it makes its way into the marketplace. The crowdsourcing aspect means that all of his readers and helpers are all sharing a little in the outcome of the book (though not, it is to be assumed, in the financial outcome – if there is one). It is a grand experiment – the kind of thing that a major publishing company should be able to do, but usually doesn’t. My question for everyone today is this: what do you think of all this crowdsourcing? Is it inevitable that the quality of the book will slip? Would you proofread a book for free if you got a credit at the end for any typos you found? What do you love or hate about this project? Let loose in the comments.