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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Beta Testing Your Novel

Trying to finish up a draft of the new novel now -- which is why I'm so fascinated with this:

Beta-testing a novel using Amazon's Kindle

via Ars Technica by Nate Anderson | Published: January 09, 2008 - 11:01PM CT

Novelist Daniel Oran was finishing up his second book, Believe, when the Kindle (see our review) launched. Reviewers saw a cool device with some odd quirks, but Oran saw an opportunity to use the device for beta-testing his book. Users don't like to read long works on a screen, nor do they like printing 300 pages (even on the office printer), and print-on-demand made distribution too expensive. But the Kindle's superb screen, high profile launch, and easy distribution methods made it the perfect platform for launching Oran's work-in-progress, so he slapped his book up on Amazon's site for a buck and asked for feedback.

I spoke to Oran today about the project, which he characterizes as a "chance to really have readers help you arrive at something that's most appealing to the audience." In his view, that's not pandering, it's collaboration—and it requires a respect for one's own readers that not all novelists possess.

Though in draft form, the novel is complete and polished. But before finalizing the text, Oran wanted feedback from readers. Did they like the book? Did they have ideas for improving it? If software processes could benefit from iterative development and many eyeballs, then why couldn't novels?

It's an approach that appeals to Oran in part because of his own background in software. He was a team leader at Microsoft in the Windows 95 era, and his name actually appears on the patent for the "Start menu" that's still with us today. He's now a full-time writer (a move which he terms a "career migration").

Believe is loosely based on Oran's pre-Microsoft experiences of working at New York's Bellevue Hospital. It tells the story of a patient with amnesia who stumbles into the ER at Christmas and turns out to have amazing talents. A young doctor works with the man to figure out what's happening to him.

Throwing up content on the Web and asking for feedback isn't new, but Oran argues that the Kindle makes reading large amounts of digitally-distributed text easy enough that beta testing a novel is a real possibility. While he's hoping for plenty of user comments, the book has only been up a few days and has yet to receive any.

When he published his first novel, the thriller Ulterior Motive (involving a Seattle company called, not coincidentally, "Megasoft"), Oran went the traditional publishing route. While enjoyable, the only feedback he received was sales figures. By making the book available on the Kindle and asking for feedback, he hopes to change the "nature of the relationship between writers and readers" and get fan feedback before the novel's text is finalized. (One wishes that George Lucas had adopted the same strategy with his Star Wars prequels.)

This makes the creative process a more collaborative one, and it's a bit at odds with the traditional "artist at a typewriter" method of crafting fiction. Unlike truly collaborative projects like Wikipedia, though, Oran will retain control over the text, incorporating only those suggestions that seem like good ones.

In the end, Oran still plans to publish the traditional way, as publishers are still the only reliable way to get a title carried by bookstores. Kindle is great for the cheap distribution of long-form writing projects (Amazon makes it simple to upload content to the system, and the process is free), but e-book readers are still no substitute for a paperback on a bookstore shelf (and they don't impress your mother nearly as much).

One of the ironies of the whole experiment is that Oran doesn't have a Kindle; in fact, he hasn't even seen one. They've been out of stock at Amazon for some time.

Beta-testing books via Kindle may not turn out to be the future of novels, but it's worked out well so far for Oran (he's donating all proceeds from the beta to charity). The media coverage of his experiment has pushed the title as high as 80 on Amazon's Kindle sales charts—not bad for a beta. Even if the feedback from readers turns out to be unhelpful, the publicity certainly can't hurt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I assumed this was done much more frequently. Given the insecurity of most authors [I did read that somewhere, right?] I just assumed that most authors had some objective readers critique their work prior to publishing.