Monday, December 20, 2010

Viral Writing

Michael Salsbury
As a writer, I'm always watching for interesting writing tips and tricks.  For example, Ken Rand's "The 10% Solution" claims to reduce the size of your written fiction by 10% while improving the quality, by doing a series of "find" commands in your word processor.  Lots of people swear by that one. I plan to test it and report back to you.

When I heard of "viral writing", I was curious.  A proponent of the technique describes it as a great way to build a book with very little work.  The technique goes something like this:

  • Decide on a topic you want to create a book about.  For example, let's say you want a book of tips on how to tune Microsoft Windows 7 for maximum performance.

  • Draft an email to people you know who have expertise in the subject matter.  These could be computer hobbyist friends, contacts at your local computer store, computer clubs, etc.  The email should explain that you're writing a book on the subject and you'd like to include their tips in it.  You can't pay them for their tips but you can send them an eBook when it's done.  You also tell them that they're free to forward your letter to others who might be able to help you.

  • Sit back and wait for the emails to come in.  When you have enough of them, write your book and be sure to include in it an appeal for "any tips you know that aren't included in the book".  This will get you material for the next edition or a second book.

The idea here is that the people you email will share whatever tips they have on tuning Windows 7.  They may also send your email to friends, who in theory will do the same.  Without doing much in the way of actual content creation, you've built a book that you can write, sell, or distribute without having to pay anyone for their work… apart from sharing a copy of the tips you receive.  (Which, since it's an eBook, costs you nothing.)

I'm not so sure I'd call this "viral writing" so much as "cloud-sourcing" your book.  You're basically asking people on the Internet to write parts of a book for free, while you reap the benefits.

On the one hand, this seems like a good way to build a fairly authoritative and comprehensive book with a minimum of effort on the writer's part.  On the other hand, you're not really an "author" anymore, are you?

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but it seems a bit disingenuous to me to put your name on such a book as the author and collect payment for it.  I suppose you could argue that you had to decide which tips to include and exclude, correct some grammar here or there, perhaps test the tips out, and put some kind of organization around the material.  That still leaves you as more of an editor than an author to me.  I guess if people are willing to share the content with you freely and without payment, that's their problem rather than yours.  It seems to me that it would be a lot faster and more genuine to use "Dr. Google" to help you research the subject and build the book yourself (though even that technique isn't entirely genuine).

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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