Digital Reading: Checking In with Sourcebooks’ Peter Lynch on the Agile Experiment.
Several weeks ago in a DBW webcast we heard from editor Peter Lynch of about the new agile book development experiment going on at Sourcebooks this spring. “Entering the Shift Age,” by futurist David Houle, would be posted online as sections were written, open for comment and then subsequent revision by the author and editor. The first section was posted on June 4. I thought I’d get in touch with Peter and see how the experiment—I mean, the book—was coming along.
AK: So, Peter, how’s it going? Any unexpected turns in the road?
PL: You know, this is the first time we’ve developed a manuscript using agile methodology—the first time we’ve seen anyone do this, in fact. As far as the comments were concerned, we weren’t sure what to expect. One of my biggest concerns was quality, because the entire purpose of the project was to get comments that would actually inform and improve the manuscript. I didn’t know how that conversation would go. In the posting of the first section, the number of comments were lower than the expected, but the quality was extremely good. We’ve had several things identified for us that needed clarification, and a number of people pointed out that the introduction didn’t give enough information. Some people contributed fascinating ideas and insights. One contributor pointed to a visual example for a statement David made about the accelerating rate of change. Not only was it something interesting that he hadn’t found on his own, but the visual helped others get the point.
AK: All comments have been helpful and useful, you say. Have you received any contradictory comments? Did anything come back that you feel was a roadblock in your development process?
PL: Well, nothing that said, “No, you’re wrong.” We’d talked about what to do in that case. The purpose of the model is to engage in a conversation about the topic. It’s the author’s theory, but for people who disagree altogether, I’m not sure what you can do about it. Our idea was to engage those people in conversation. The first set of chapters was mostly introductory. In the second set there will be more to comment on. We anticipate it going down a different path in section four; a number of mini chapters going into separate fields—health care, government, etcetera, in which people will then form groups around their actual topic and provide more detailed insights.
AK: How’s the author responding?
PL: He’s enjoying the conversation.
AK: How about you? As an editor, I think that “too many cooks” would drive me crazy.
PL: David and I had already gone through a number of developmental edits. We decided to do it ahead of posting because I could see things that we needed to do. Still, we did get comments on the intro saying it wasn’t fleshed out, and I could see those people were right.
AK: How many commenters have you registered, minus me?
PL: Over 300 registered for the site or a free e-book. Of those, about 20 or 30 have posted comments—about an expected yield. We always want more people to join the conversation, but I’m happy with the number.
AK: Are you getting industry feedback? Of the 30 commenters, are they citizens or soldiers?
PL: They’re a little of each. That’s another thing we ended up changing: originally we had all comments in one section. We realized we were getting two sets of comments: one, on the book itself and two, on the agile publishing model. So we set up a separate section for posts on the pub model. Industry people were mostly interested only in that, but some people have contributed to both sections. In those cases, I take the industry comments so David can focus on comments related to the book. For every four or five comments about the book we get one about the agile pub model.
AK: Are you reaching out for more commenters?
PL: Yes, and when we get to section 4 we’ll go directly to David’s followers, ID’d by professional field.
AK: And I’d think it would be suicidal to post the earlier chapters again … or are you?
PL: Well, when parts 1 and 2 are complete we’re actually put the two out as a short e-book, for sale in the marketplace, with a section at the end asking people to send comments directly to us. That way we can get additional feedback based on the e-book itself but we won’t post it back to the agile platform.
AK: Is there an on-sale date for this partial e-book?
PL: No, not exactly; as soon as we’re through the process. When ready.
AK: So, you realize the need for changes in process as you’re moving through the process; for example, dividing the comment stream into two. Any other process revisions?
PL: One thing we decided to do that wasn’t on the original plan was to put an actual closing date on comments. Our hope in doing that was to help spur people who were planning to review but hadn’t done it yet to get their comments in. Also as a reminder that isn’t too nagging.
AK: Have you accounted for all this extra time in development?
PL: We have. Now when a section actually closes for comments, so that section can move into a normal copy editing process. Any extra time is in the review period, but we run that parallel to the book production process.
AK: This process, I imagine, in addition to adding more hours to a project, would take more people. Wouldn’t you say that’s true? In the old model, it’d be just you and the writer and a copy editor, right?
PL: Yes, I’d say it takes more man-hours; that same set of people, but all of them involved from the start; not sequential.
AK: Don’t you have digital people on the project?
PL: Yes, we have a cross-departmental team: production, digital and publicity.
AK: I can’t wait to see what happens when you sell your e-book in small bits. I presume you’ll sell another segment as a short, then a final segment, and then you’ll sell the book as a whole. The experiment for me is, will I have exhausted my audience’s potential and interest with my partial e-books and not be able to sell them the complete book? Will I have to start my marketing over gain from zero? As a publisher that’d keep me up at night.
PL: The goal is about getting to the current fans or heavy-interest people in the various topic areas: get to them early and get them excited about it so they can then help us spread the word to the mainstream. The core group that knows of David’s work, or that is interested in trend books—whether they get an e-book or a print book, they’re a set audience. In order to make the book break in a bigger way we need people outside of that group to hear from other people about it and become excited to read it. When we get to part 4, the smaller chapters on individual topics, each topic will be a small slice of e-book for a very low price; a short e-book on the future of health care, for instance. People in the health care industry can spread the word, if they like what they read, and hopefully they’ll be interested in the book as a whole. So, although we run the risk of exhausting the core audience early, the hope is to spread the word outside the core audience.
AK: What’s your next step?
PL: Our next steps are completing changes in part 1; closing commenting on part 2; and creating the e-book for 1 and 2. David is writing the initial text of part 3 and I’ll be working with him on that. Really, just keeping all the balls in the air!
AK: Did you have to clear the decks to work on this one book?
PL: No; it’s more involving, but I do have other projects at the same time.
AK: So, I’ll check in with you next month?