There’s no doubt that readers have strong opinions about books. We see them expressed every day in Amazon reviews, in book clubs and a plethora of blogs. After giving up many hours of our time to a book, after investing emotionally in its characters or rationally in its arguments, it’s not surprising we have a lot to say. The question is, should the author ever listen?
When Ian Fleming received a letter from a reader politely suggesting his fictional hero be issued with a rather more powerful firearm, he took the advice and gave James Bond a Walther PPK. But he had to live with the fact that Bond, in his first five novels, had trusted his life to “a lady’s gun,” as his correspondent Geoffrey Boothroyd described the .25 Beretta. With the technology of the day – printed books and typewritten letters – reader feedback was slow in coming.
By contrast, several small factual errors in my latest novel, Rogue Elements, have already been corrected by sharp-eyed readers, long before the book is printed. I referred to a “private” in the Coldstream Guards; it turns out the junior rank is “guardsman”. I placed the top brass of MI6 on the fourth floor of the Vauxhall Cross headquarters – it should be the sixth. And although I undertook an exhaustive research trip to Lourdes, my description of the bathing procedure has now been substantially enhanced thanks to a Catholic pilgrim with far greater experience of the town’s miraculous waters.
How is this “crowd-editing” possible? The answer is Advance Editions, an innovative imprint that pre-publishes ebooks and invites early readers to post suggestions for the authors in a structured forum at www.AdvanceEditions.com. The ebooks are not scrappy first drafts; they have been through the same professional editing and proofreading process found in traditional publishing houses. They are as finished as any book on the shelves of a bookstore. But before the book is printed, those early readers are given three months to offer their feedback directly to the authors. Then it’s up to the authors to decide which suggestions they want to take up in their final revisions.
Readers may bring a particular expertise, like Mr Boothroyd or the former intelligence officer who corrected me on the layout of MI6 HQ. Or they may have a strong instinct for story and character, able to spot when something in a book isn’t quite right. One particular scene in Rogue Elements troubled several readers: the hero puts his mission at risk to rescue a teenage boy from a perilous situation. Would he really do that? What’s his motivation? Once the issue had been pointed out by one contributor, another leapt in with a really bright idea for how to solve it. Advance Editions had enabled an online conversation between strangers that helped make a book they’d both enjoyed that little bit stronger.
The Advance model isn’t limited to genre fiction. Another book currently open for suggestions on www.AdvanceEditions.com is Dispatches from the Kabul Café by Canadian journalist Heidi Kingstone. Anyone who’s been to Kabul or who has studied the NATO invasion of Afghanistan will of course have lots to contribute, but readers who know little of the subject are also playing their part. One was able to update Heidi on recent news about Canadian company Tim Hortons, which she discusses enthusiastically in the book. Another drew attention to a particular character who appears fleetingly but fascinatingly – can we hear more about him, asked the reader? And you don’t need to know the first thing about Afghanistan to comment constructively on Heidi’s portrayal of the plight of its women.
Of course, not every reader will want to post their opinions online for all to see, and not every author will want to read them. Some authors would find it impossible to write with an ear to their readership, and others would struggle to deal with potentially conflicting opinions from people they’ve never met. But increasingly authors are coming to appreciate the value of interacting with potential readers to encourage greater engagement with their work and, ultimately, book sales. Authors like Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman who make active use of social media and other two-way channels of communication build intensely loyal followings. In the same way, a positive interaction with an author on Advance Editions, especially one that leads to an improvement in their book, is bound to increase reader loyalty. Moreover, when readers become involved in the process of book creation, it can only strengthen their interest in books more generally.
Advance Editions launched a month ago and we’re excited to see how it will develop. Its first literary fiction title is due to be pre-published in January, and will undoubtedly elicit a quite different type of feedback. In the meantime, if you’d like to try your hand at “crowd-editing”, you can download half of Rogue Elements or Dispatches from the Kabul Café for free at www.AdvanceEditions.com. The full ebooks are available at a 60% advance discount from all the usual online retailers.