WEbook Puts a Crowd in the Author's Seat

The Internet startup invites the online community to write books collaboratively, bypassing the traditional publishing model

It works for Wikipedia, but can the power of the crowd extend to writing books? A new startup called WEbook is tackling that very question with a new service that's open to anyone who wants to help write a book. Like the open-source software movement and Wikipedia's collaborative encyclopedia entries, WEbook is betting that the "all contributors welcome" approach can bring more creativity and innovation to a book project than an individual or a small group of experts.

If the notion of teamwork sounds a bit counterintuitive when it comes to writing books, WEbook President Sue Heilbronner agrees. That's why the service is emphasizing nonfiction—anthologies, self-help, and essay collections, for example—more than novels, where a consistent author's voice matters more.

WEbook Launch

The site, launched Apr. 9, is essentially an online workshop. Indeed, while the online medium has become a nemesis for all forms of the printed page, WEbook thinks digital technology can be channeled in an effort to reinvigorate the staid, exclusive publishing industry. By taking advantage of community input and feedback, WEbook hopes to provide a new way for ideas and authors to emerge and move from idea to book.

Community members will propose the projects, submit chapters to different books, vote on the chapters, and then review and rate the finished books. WEbook plans to publish the highest-rated of its books digitally and in print, sharing a percentage of the royalties with the major contributors.

An invitation-only version of WEbook went live in mid-2007, inviting students and graduates from writing programs such as Columbia University's to join in writing Pandora, a thriller novel about terrorists and star-crossed lovers. Here's an excerpt written by Melissa Jones, who authored two chapters of the novel:

"A faint smell of dry earth wafted down from the round ventilation hole. Yusuf held his back straight and glanced at his hands against the fine dove-gray fabric of his suit. His fingernails were clean and well trimmed; the thick platinum band on his left hand gleamed in the harsh light. Two weeks in a bunker away from your homeland was no excuse for slovenliness."

Book Buzz

About 700 people are now members of the service, working on 60 projects, which range from Ex-Pat Journal, a compilation of stories written by people living outside of the U.S., to 101 Things Every Man Should Know How to Do, a tongue-in-cheek handbook spanning topics from break dancing to cooking a steak.

Just because the site is all about "we" doesn't mean the site will shun those literary killjoys who eschew teamwork. Authors can also use the service to write their books in private, inviting a small group of friends to log in and provide feedback. They can also let the whole community read and rate their books but not edit or contribute to them. But it's in WEbook's interests to have as many books made public as possible, because then it has the right to publish them.

Since the community will determine which books are published, WEbook is betting that its members will also generate buzz in the same way that American Idol's audience provides a built-in boost for that show's winners. "Our idea is to provide a place where individuals can bypass a very exclusive system, where the odds of someone unknown getting published are 15,000 to 1," says Heilbronner.

Balance Is Key

The company was founded by Itai Kohavi, an Israeli entrepreneur who started Comfy, an interactive toy maker, and Neat Group, an online travel technology company later acquired by Cendant. Kohavi, also a writer with two novels and a children's book to his name, raised money for the concept from investors including venture firm Greylock Partners.

Still, books might not lend themselves very well to a group effort. The problem, says Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR), is that completing a book with a single vision with dozens of authors is a challenge. Take some of the popular wikis out there. When you look closely, the writing style and content structure tend to vary from entry to entry, he says.

In fact, none of the handful of books written by authors using a wiki-type system has been a popular success. One notable example is We Are Smarter Than Me, a book produced by a community of business experts and managers about how companies can make the most of online communities, blogs, and the wisdom of crowds. The book, released last year with much fanfare online and in the press, failed to break out. It's listed at 25,248 in Amazon's rankings. "Perhaps the best balance will be small central groups driving the majority of the content and vision, with collaborative help from the community helping shape and mold," says Owyang. "In either case, a balance will need to be found."

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