Thursday, October 21, 2010

Crowd-sourcing editorial feedback: a novel approach

Rafael Lima is an author, screenwriter, and lecturer at University of Miami in Ohio. He's been selling a draft of his novel-in-progress on Amazon for $0.99 (as an e-book for the Kindle) in order to "crowd-source" responses that he has been using to refine his manuscript. Lima's novel ploy for soliciting editorial suggestions on his novel manuscript came to my attention last week via Jennifer Howard's blog in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a post titled Finding an Editor -- or Lots of Them -- in the Crowd.

According to Ms. Howard's post, "Having watched the shrinking of the publishing industry and the dwindling of old-school editors, Lima didn’t like the odds of getting much creative help with the book if he went the traditional route. He uploaded a draft of the book to Amazon’s Kindle store as a 99-cent download and invited readers to tell him what they liked and what they didn’t."

I've had twenty or so readers of my own current novel project, Consequence, a dozen of whom have read the full mss. in one or more of its incarnations. Their feedback has been beyond helpful, it's been essential to refining my manuscript. Some have given big-picture feedback (this character is superfluous; that chapter sticks out like a sore thumb; the core plot is terrific but that sub-plot needs to be yanked; are you nuts? -- etc.). Others focus on the small stuff (word choice, the verity of a line of dialog, even the fine points of punctuation).

Much more often than not, a reader's suggestions help me out ... sometimes in ways they didn't necessarily intend. One reader, for example, told me that Consequence gave her nightmares. I jumped for joy! Not because I'm mean, but because her experience told me that my characters were real. They got under her skin.

But the art of interpreting readers' feedback is often complicated. In general, I'd guesstimate there's about a 15-30% chance, depending on the draft and the pool of readers in play, that if two people comment on the same aspect of my mss., their opinions will diverge. Now, don't get me wrong! Even that divergence is valuable. It's an essential reminder that I have ultimate responsibility for filtering feedback and measuring it against my own intention and craft. While my readers often lead me to see a sentence, scene, or chapter in a new and improvable way, sometimes a reader's opinion is, well, idiosyncratic. Sometimes, for example, readers fixate on exactness in rendering of place that is not so important to my story, or in rendering an obscure historical event -- to the detriment of drama that is better supported by a sprinkling of poetic license. Sometimes they want me to write a different book than the one I'm writing.

Making the most of my readers' feedback takes time and attention. And I do want to make the most of it, especially considering the hours and effort I know that each of them has so generously given to responding to my work-in-progress.

Rafael Lima, who not only solicits feedback from Kindle readers of his $0.99 draft but also from the students he teaches in the School of Communication at University of Miami, receives feedback from all angles. His mss. for Screenwriter hit "number 27 on the Kindle Store’s list of most-downloaded paid-for titles," Lima says (it has since come down several orders of magnitude, but, hey, life is flux). So when I read in Ms. Howard's post that Lima says of his experience, "There’s all these pluses, and I have found no minuses in the experience at all" I've got to wonder: how does he do it?

It sounds straightforward the way Lima explained the process to Jennifer Howard -- opinions that pop up frequently are the ones he pays attention to -- but I have a hard time imagining tracking and filtering dozens or hundreds of converging and diverging opinions coming at me from all sides. Three or four or five at a time is about as many as I can productively juggle.

I'm curious what other writers think. Is crowd-sourced editing something that would help you refine your novel? Would it distract? Confuse? Clarify?


  1. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has done the same for her scholarly monograph "Planned Obsolescence", with a really well-done, functional UI. It's definitely worth checking out.

  2. That's a brilliant user interface, you're right Quinn. 187 comments (to date) on this (interesting) academic topic ... nearly 50 commenters, including the author ... and one can figure that out by clicking a couple of obvious links. That's not an unmanageable number of opinions, nor an unmanageable number of opinionators in an academic dialog like the one surrounding this monograph, in which it is clear that at least a significant fraction of the people offering feedback are colleagues of the author who share academic interest in the topic (the dialog is in some large part peer review, just not the sort academia has been used to).

    I'm not so sure that a novel -- like Lima's -- that rises to 27th most downloaded on Amazon would attract a similarly manageable quantity, nature, or focus of comments. I dunno, I'd be delighted if Mr. Lima found this post and told us what he thinks.

    I also wonder whether the 2014 model of somebody's e-book platform will permit this kind of crowd-commenting -- intended for students sharing notes on a textbook, perhaps -- and be turned to a use similar to KF's only for novels like Lima's. O brave new world....