Does A ‘Writing Community’ Really Foster Writing? Or Community?


‘Connect With Readers While You Write Your Book’

That’s the brand promise of a site called Tablo. Familiar with it?

It’s the work of writer and developer Ashley Davies of Melbourne, Australia. That’s a city we Australian Open tennis viewers feel we know very well after two weeks at the Rod Laver Arena (and two weeks of the Melbourne tourist authority commercial on ESPN2 and Tennis Channel).

A colleague brought Davies’ site to my attention through Paul Sawers’ write-up of it at Venturebeat, Tablo: Discover books from new authors as they’re being written.

As Sawers writes:

In effect, you can garner feedback from other users as you’re writing the book, with the platform serving as a Twitter-style social network that connects authors with prospective readers. The interface looks somewhat like Twitter too, but we digress…Tablo currently lays claim to more than 20,000 authors from 130 countries, who between them publish north of one million words a day.

Tablo is not new. What occasions Sawers’ write is the launch of a new app that, he writes, “lets you peruse by opening paragraphs and summaries and swiping until you see something you like.”

And what does that remind you of? Of course, Allen Lau’s Wattpad.

As Ashleigh Gardner, the content chief of that much larger platform likes to stress, Wattpad’s leadership doesn’t think of the site as a publishing site but as a social medium. It’s a place that emphasizes the social interactions of members encountering and interacting with each other about writing and reading what somebody is writing.

Wattpad’s site tells us that it has 35 million members who spend nine billion minutes each month on the site. That’s a lot of community.

But it’s all the rage, isn’t it, community?

If it takes a village to write your book, is it your book?

How about a community to support and promote community?

We’ve got that, too. A site called introduces itself to you with these lines:

The Internet makes it possible for communities to create anything. But communities never create anything without leadership. You can’t just put up a website and expect that bridge to get built, you have to talk to people, build relationships, send emails, tweet, host events, recruit volunteers, ask for donations…and you have to do all of that at a scale much larger than yourself. You have to lead.

Aimed not at the bookish world, per se, but at pretty much all of us out here, NationBuilder is the descendent of White House 2, both the work of the talented Jim Gilliam. The NationBuilder site is tagged “the essential kit for leaders.”

And of course that tells us that leadership today is tightly tied to ideas of community – no surprise there. This is a top-level marketing and corporate development trend. We are just gaga for community. Who knew everybody was so damned lonely?

The Internet has enabled an historically unprecedented faculty for getting people together around an idea or event. You just have to wonder if that’s always such a good idea.

Not Everybody Loves Community

Introverts look at all this with some skepticism.

We find that our energies are more drained than increased in being around others. This was affirmed for many by Susan Cain’s very effective book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway Books, 2012).

It’s not very convenient, on most days, to be an introvert in a community crazed era, frankly. The world is not kind to someone deemed “not a team player.” Me, I won’t even watch doubles tennis, speaking of the Australian Open. And I follow professional singles tennis over other sports, the entire ATP World Tour, because it’s one-to-one, person-to-person. No team spirit, thanks. I like to see what a lone player can do when faced with another sole operator.

I have to think that the viewpoint of introversion is part of what calls so much community into question when it comes to the writing life. In so many areas now, writing is talked about and even promoted as a group effort, a thing of community.

Even if you’re not a member of a big community like Tablo or Wattpad, you might have a critique group to which you’re frequently submitting your work for feedback. This is, as someone noted lately, a lot better than foisting the stuff off on your friends and family, sure. But at what point do you find yourself writing for that group? — instead of for yourself.

What your readers will buy, if they do buy your book, will be something that’s really yours. What if it’s not really quite so much yours anymore because it’s got the community’s fingerprints all over it?

But Everybody Wants Readership

Here’s a new site devised by Sam Rennie and funded by serial entrepreneur Tom Chalmers (IPR License, Legend Publishing) called Readership. Brand new, don’t feel bad if you haven’t seen it yet.  In a handy distillation of how this one works, we read:

  • Writers upload extracts
  • Readers vote Yes or No
  • Readers add donations to every Yes vote
  • Every title that reaches its target will be published
  • Every writer who doesn’t reach the target will be eaten by lions

Okay, I made up the last one. It doesn’t say that about the lions. Not yet. And in the FAQ, you discover that:

The target for all books is currently £500 [about $750]. We’ll be looking at experimenting with this and querying it with our community to get a target amount everyone’s happy with. In the future we’ll look at implementing the option to choose your target based on what you want from publication. For example, if you already have a cover for your book, we can decrease the target if that cost doesn’t need to be covered.

If a book gets the target level of donation (thumbs up!), then the company designs your cover, does the formatting conversions, gets the book into “all major ebook distribution channels,” and promotes it “in every relevant online space”… which could be a lot of relevant spaces.

Chalmers is a good guy and the right temperament in an author might make Rennie’s concept a viable way to go. Maybe a bit gladiatorial, is it? Dodging those thumbs-downs from the crowd? Well, there will always be gatekeepers, it seems, and in this case they look a lot like your readers.

And who owns the rights to your book once Readership publishes it and pays you a 70-percent royalty rate? Rennie tells us: “If a book reaches its target and we publish it, we will own the digital rights only. But authors can cancel with 60 days’ notice, and will retain their copyright at all times.

“If a book is on the site and still being voted on, we won’t own any of the rights to the work, and again the author will have full copyright of their work.”

If you’re interested in Readership, there’s more information on it in my colleague Rich Bellis’ Q&A with Rennie, just out at Digital Book World.

And meanwhile, Readership offers community of a different kind: you’re amassing a crowd that pays, in effect, to condone your work. And influence it? I’m envisioning, “I’ll donate £10 to see this draft published but I’d really rather you make your protagonist female.”

Not how Faulkner did it, no, but does that make it wrong?

Is It The Dawn of ‘Lifestyle Writing’?

In the larger picture, these various instances of community (and there are many more) may, certainly, be beneficial. Who’s to say that shaking up the fundamental creative dynamic is harmful?

But it’s also a moment to watch carefully. Remember Clay Shirky’s  Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin, 2008). This was a prescient development of the digitally enabled communal force in play.

And if it takes a village to write your book, is it your book?

We may be moving, in the experience of many authors, from an ages old model of write-it-first, then-then-they-read-it, to write-it-with-everybody’s-input and they-affect-it-as-you-go.

The longstanding (which does not mean outdated) format for an author’s career has been that rather stark, sometimes monastic seclusion, the cloistered loner. What’s produced in that setting may well be quite different from what’s produced in a write-a-little, get-a-little-feedback setting.

Take care: I’m not saying that what comes out of the everybody-helps-you-write-it model has to be less good. I am saying it may be different.

  • What does it do to the work if it’s affected on a daily basis by others’ opinions?
  • Is your work being seen prematurely when your very first pass at a section or chapter goes to your buddies online?
  • How much input is too much input? Can you tell? Can you tell in time?
  • Who are you, finally, writing for?
  • What if self vs. community is as pressing an issue these days as self in community?

The colleague who pointed out the Tablo story to me had some very firm ideas about whether writing-for-committee — as it can become — is the best thing for the writer.

Her note to me read:

I think [writers at community sites] are trying to ‘be’ writers and misunderstanding how much time should be spent on making the book good. They think part of it is a lifestyle, putting stuff out, getting into communities. They may not be trying to evade, as such, but they’re probably misunderstanding what a good writer does.

These apps, sites, forums, all invent new places for people to hang out & pretend. But they don’t know how much work you have to put into the darn book.

What writer in their right mind would ever let their manuscript go public in a half-finished form? #Cmonson

Is it possible that writing communities are havens for people to “hang out and pretend”?

I have seen a couple of major online writing community sites at close range, and I did think most of the interaction was social rather than professional, more given to camaraderie than to making books, much more about the act of writing than about the stuff  written.

What I see most is people talking about (a) they’re “about to write,” (b) they wrote well yesterday or they wrote badly yesterday, and (c) more of they’re “about to write.”

An awful lot goes down, in my experience, that isn’t about the work but about how the work is going, how hard (so hard!) writing is (sniffle, snuffle), and how deeply everyone needs and appreciates everyone else’s support. Kumbaya, my Lord…

So I think there’s a lot to what my friend is asking, and I think it’s worth our consideration.

What if community is the main thing in these settings and writing is frittered away in incremental posts of unready material, which comes back turned in all the wrong directions by fellow members because they didn’t see a work finished enough to be able to perceive its intent correctly. Now they’re giving skewed feedback based on what they guessed the unready material was supposed to be.

Can we seriously ask ourselves such questions? Or are we so given to the communal embrace that we’re now being sucked into “lifestyle writing”?

And what if we’re not getting “far from the madding crowd” enough, Mr. Hardy, to even ask these questions?