Beta testing a book: Chris’ crazy idea about how to write a book in the 21st century

A long time ago I decided that when I finally finished writing my book, I would make it available as an ebook on a pay-what-you-want basis (where “pay-what-you-want” means “even $0”). There are a couple reasons for doing this. The first is purely selfish. As Cory Doctorow likes to say, most creative types suffer more from obscurity than from people not paying for their works. Also, as someone who’s been less than a lifelong scrupulous observer of copyright, I’d feel like a hypocrite not doing it. But I’ve recently realized I could take this a step further.

The idea grew out of this post where I wrote:

Easy publishing (and this includes print on demand) opens up the possibility for relatively ephemeral books. If you don’t get it right the first time around, putting out a revised edition is trivial. If your book ceases to be relevant a year after it’s published, that’s okay, write a new one.

I’ve since realized you could take this concept even further, and make your drafts available to anyone who wants to read them online. Call it beta testing a book.

So here’s what I’m going to do: very soon, I will share my draft of the book’s introduction on Google Docs and link to it here. After that, every Wednesday at 11:00 a.m., I will share one chapter. I expect this to last twelve weeks total: introduction, ten chapters, and a conclusion, though that may change. If it looks like I’m about to miss a deadline, my punishment will be forcing myself to share whatever incoherent steaming pile I may have at the time. However, I may choose to step up the schedule if work is proceeding at a solid pace.

At some undetermined point after that, when I decide I’m done making revisions, I will take the text I have in Google Docs and do the work necessary to make it all book-looking. Then I’ll make it available in ebook (probably PDF and EPUB) and print on demand formats, at which point I will take down the versions in Google Docs.

So there’s Chris’ crazy idea for how to write a book in the 21st century. I expect this approach to have a few advantages, but the most important one is it may actually give me the motivation to turn my current steaming piles into something coherent. It’s so much easier to look forward to people reading something next week than it is to look forward to them reading it several months from now.

Ignorable advice for people who want to comment on drafts

I don’t actually know what the most helpful kind of comments to make on a book draft are. But here’s some thoughts on that anyway, which you should feel free to follow or ignore as you see fit.

First, I don’t need proofreaders. Yes I know I suck at proofreading, so feel free to do that for me, but I plan on hiring a professional once I’m at the “make it all book-looking” stage, so that’s not top priority now.

Second, some time ago I got a piece of advice for writers that said when you’re getting someone to read a draft, don’t ask them for writing advice. Probably they’d give bad advice. Just ask them for their subjective reactions. There’s no such thing as a wrong subjective reaction, so there’s no risk of getting that. Their subjective reactions may be unrepresentative, but more often than not if one person has a given reaction, others will too.

Finally, on the topic of unrepresentative reactions, if you have nothing to say except “I loved the part where…” or even “I loved this chapter,” say so! I don’t want there to be a selection bias for people who didn’t like certain parts. If one person tells me they hated a part, having two others tell me they loved it may keep me from making the mistake of cutting it. (This relates to the issue I discussed yesterday.)

But these are just suggestions. All comments are appreciated, however you do it!

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