I'm letting the publishing world in on a little secret: the Internet is not destroying literature. In fact, a recent examination revealed scads of words spread across the Internet. Almost a Web, if you will. This "Web" is itself organized into pages, much like what we commonly call a book. I'll even go a step further: the new medium could breathe new life into a few old ones.
I recently convened what is, to my knowledge, the largest collective reading exercise in history. This summer, thousands of people from all over the world are reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods. They will then discuss the book using Twitter, a new-fangled technology that's doing for the epigram what Anne Frank did for diaries. HarperCollins could sell thousands of copies of American Gods, to say nothing of the needed revenue at small and large booksellers alike. You'd think, given the size of this largesse, that I had institutional support and publicity department powwows to help me along the way. Nope. In fact, I couldn't get most publishers to return my calls.
How did I do it? First, by adapting to the new rules, instead of trying to impose the old ones. About six weeks ago, I posted the following passage to my blog, crowdsourcing.com: "I have a dream. An idea. A maybe great notion. As Augie March might say, ‘I got a scheme.' What if everyone on Twitter read the same book at the same time?" I called it One Book, One Twitter and presented it as something of a lark. As it happens, other people found the scheme appealing, and because I didn't try to impose my own rules on it, my scheme metamorphosed into a movement.
Next, I didn't take my inspiration from the "book club," a venerable institution rooted in the lyceums of Victorian-era America. I was inspired instead by a more recent convention—what the NEA calls Big Reads, and what the innovative librarian Nancy Pearl calls If Everyone in Seattle Read the Same Book. What happens is that a lot of people with absolutely nothing in common suddenly have at least one thing in common. This builds what academics call social capital. Social capital is the WD-40 in our lives, the connections that result in new jobs, new spouses, and new friends. It's why George Bailey is the richest man in town. And what social scientists call "bridging" social capital allows connections to form between people who have nothing in common. Except, perhaps, that they happen to be reading the same book.
People have noted, with some disdain, that Twitter isn't conducive to book clubs. This ignores that One Book, One Twitter isn't meant to act anything like a book club, in which people who know each other offer lengthy, personal exegetics about a book, becoming closer to people they already know. In this case, thousands of people who've never met will gather to dish out insights, questions, and commentary in the machine gun bursts that are Twitter's native form (Twitter constrains each entry to 140 characters). If someone writes something especially witty or incisive, it will invariably be syndicated ("retweeted," in the jargon of the technology) by others, so that it reaches many eyes. There's no pretense that one might possibly know everything else one is saying about the book. Instead, it's a fire hose of commentary, much of it inane, some of it funny, a bit of it brilliant. Each person—and that includes me—will get to dip a thimble.
Finally, I cheerfully conceded any ownership over my project. Who started One Book, One Twitter? Me. Who runs it? Dunno. The people reading the book, I guess. That's what this new world, which Clay Shirky aptly calls an age of organizing without organizations, looks like. And One Book, One Twitter is what it looks like for book publishers. A lot of people reading, a lot of people buying books, but doing so of their own accord. In one week they've created soundtrack accompaniments to the book, Google map mashups showing the global distribution of our readers, and logos to be displayed in bookstores. No one directed them to do any of this. The last paragraph in my book on crowdsourcing ends with what I call a cardinal rule: "Ask not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community." Replace community with readers, and you have what could be a blueprint for a book publishing strategy.
Jeff Howe is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a contributing editor at Wired. Crown Business published his book Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business in 2008.