One of the most successful authors in the world, Walter Isaacson, is seeking the wisdom of the crowds for his new book about the technology industry’s major inventors.
Crowdsourcing books isn’t new, but it is, as far I as can tell, the first time a writer of Isaacson’s caliber has opened up the writing process in such a way. In an email interview, Isaacson gave me some more detail on how it’s working. “It has been surprisingly helpful. I have made dozens of factual changes, plus I have sketched out a few more substantive additions I plan to make in the final version,” he said.
Though only two chapters are online, it’s already gotten attention from an impressive group. Stanford Professor of Political Theory Rob Reich thought the role of government in funding the early Internet got short shrift, and recommended Isaacson give it some attention. Isaacson responded in kind, “Yes, I will add a section on govt research at MIT, Stanford, Lincoln Lab, BBN, SRI, etc. Very important. I’m a fan of Leslie Berlin and her Noyce bio is superb.”
In a spicier example, Stewart Brand, an early pioneer of online forums, disputed Isaacson’s retelling of his own history. The two had a lively exchange, with both agreeing to moderate their understanding of the events.
As the former CEO of CNN and Managing editor of Time, Isaacson is no stranger to soliciting feedback. “In the past, I have sent parts of my drafts around to people I knew,” he told me. “By using the Internet, I can now solicit comments and corrections from people I don’t know.”
Despite the fanfare of the Internet’s crowdsourcing potential, there’s really no quality and widespread tools for soliciting feedback. One of the websites he’s experimenting with, Medium, was never designed to help authors co-write books. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams began the blogging platform to shift our daily reading habits and inspire users to tell their most interesting ideas.
Unlike other news sites, however, Medium lets users comment in-line, which makes it a more suitable place for targeted feedback. If the experiment continues to be a success, Isaacson will not only have proved that many authors should crowdsource their works, but will have given Medium an extraordinary new purpose.
Medium, in fact, has a section for “book excerpts,” but it might take an author with some buzz to make the idea more mainstream among authors.
Of course, crowdsourcing won’t work for every book. Nick Bilton’s exposé on the origins of Twitter revealed a handful of sordid details; he didn’t lend out any early copies because the launch made news. Additionally, as the CEO of the Aspen Institute, Isaacson has an elite circle of supporters. Even if it works for him, it might not work for newbies.
It’s an ongoing experiment. The web has a pretty good track record of making industries, especially knowledge industries, more transparent and participatory. If I were a betting man, I’d say Isaacson is riding the cusp of what will eventually be a staple of modern authorship.
If you’re a fan of technology or Isaacson’s past work, you can read the drafts here.