A Model for Crowdsourced Publishing


Today’s guest post is by Scott Vankirk (@mightyscoo).

As much as we (aspiring authors) tend to get joy and satisfaction vilifying The System, the problem is not really the publishing houses nor the agents that feed them, nor their unhelpful rejection letters. The problem is the sheer number of us. Just about everyone has something to say, a story to tell. Even if you only count the good ones, like mine :), there are simply not enough publishing houses, or agents, to handle them. Traditional publishing is the dam between the great lake of writers and the vast ocean of readers.

With the advent of real opportunities in the self publishing world (see John Locke or Amanda Hawking or Joe Konrath), that dam is starting to crack. When it finally goes completely, there will be a deluge of books flooding the reader ocean. Pushing the metaphor to its breaking point, we are going get the standard bass, salmon and trout—even the ones stuck behind the dam before—but we will also get the catfish (some people like them), the crayfish (same), the bottom slugs (ick), insect larvae, bits of branches (huh?), and rocks. Don’t forget the mud: this dam break is going to muddy the waters something fierce. That’s going to hamper our fishing for quite a while. If you can’t tell if a book is a bass or a rock, you risk going hungry. So the question is, how do you clear away the mud and bring the good fish to the top where they are easy pickings?

The answer is crowdsourced publishing.

OK, so back to our tortured metaphor … no? OK, we will drop the metaphor. Reality is metaphoric enough all by itself. Wikipedia is the original, and the most stunningly successful, crowdsourced application to date. Its store of knowledge is staggering. It’s even got a great definition of crowdsourcing.

So how would this crowdsourced publishing work?

  • You would want it to be open and transparent.
  • You would design it to be self supporting.
  • You would make it as inclusive as possible. There should be tools available that will allow any of the hundreds of existing reading/writing/publishing sites to become affiliates with the ability to participate in the crowd.

The goal of this site would be threefold:

  1. Publish and sell high-quality books
  2. Create a reviewing and classifying system
  3. Let people who help make a little bit of money

This site would offer membership to anyone who wants one. Any member of this site would have an opportunity to participate in the publishing pipeline in one or more roles. The goal of all these roles is to get a story published. Each person that is involved with a book project will receive some of the revenues from the sale of these books. The roles and their percentage of the revenues from a sale might look something like this:

  • Writer: 65%
  • Website: 15% (to run site, promote books, print books)
  • Critiquer/Collaborator: up to 20% (agreed beforehand, and writer can also grant from their own percentage)
  • Editor: up to 20% (agreed beforehand, and writer can also grant from their own percentage)

Each member of the website would register for the roles they are willing to perform. Authors would put together a team to perform all the necessary roles in the publishing process. All members of the team gain reputation points based upon book sales and upon grades awarded by other members of the team.

As people perform their roles, their reputation increases or decreases accordingly. This means that someone can have a high reputation as a critiquer but a low reputation as an editor. The higher the reputation, the more in-demand a person will become. As time goes on, people will get better and better fees for a book based upon the publishing team who worked on it.

A vital function for the site would be to make it easy to find books. People should be able to browse by author, editor, reviews, reviewers, ratings, genre, overall sales and by keywords.

Of course, the devil is in the details, but something along these lines might help increase the quality of self-published books. In addition, it allows everyone with a passion for it to possibly make a little cash on the side. It scales nicely, too. The dam is gone, the murk is cleared and the good fish can be easily spotted.

What do you think? Is it worth trying? Any glaring holes? Let’s discuss in the comments.


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Scott VanKirk is a serial entrepreneur. He spent two decades on the bleeding edge of computer programming as a consulting engineer. During that time, he developed online gaming software, websites and commodities trading systems. For the last five years, Scott ran a five-million dollar per year solar energy company, selling, designing, and installing photovoltaic or solar thermal systems. Scott has written six novels in the science fiction, children’s fantasy and urban fantasy genres.

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  1. Very cool post, and the idea is a great one. It’s one of those things that could become huge but would need so many things going it’s way (mainly luck). It’s ultimately going up against the Amazon’s and Apple’s of the world, which is terrifying. 

    Yet these things happen in forums all the time (a writer shows toa  critique, and maybe even gets someone to design their cover) so why could something with some actual structure behind it not work?

    I for one would love it and it’s something you can only hope happens. Sign me up Scott :)

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  2. You need to add the computer web-builder who can write HTML5, the SEO expert to make the website nimble enough for topic search on a tablet or cell phone (not index searched), a publicist marketing expert who shouts gaming fun fabulous circus content to draw readers… and two million in start up funds. How can you interview each and every person involved as to the quality of thier work, the passion in their belly and the work ethic they demonstrate? If you don’t build a team of excellent people from the artist who does covers, editor who likes all genres etc it can’t work.  I have managed teams and without great people and leadership it can’t be profitable.
    Caroline Gerardo
    Author, Poet

    • Hi Caroline, If this were a standard business proposal, I would heartily agree with everything you’ve said, but what we want to tap into the enthusiasm and passion of the writers and readers.  Think more Wikipedia and YouTube than Amazon.  With proper crowdsourcing, the crowd itself becomes the source of talent, the guardians of quality and the marketing department – all in one

  3. This is spooky. I was working on just such an idea a few months back, in some areas with almost exactly the same implementation, but I abandoned it for one reason: no one should give away the rights to their work. Assume someone took a 5% share of the royalties to typeset a print version; they then have an interest if the author wanted to sign a print deal with a major. Contractually it’s a nightmare. I love the idea in principle – getting skilled creatives working together on a common goal – but I just can’t see a way to make it work as a sustainable business.

    • I’m not really thinking that the authors would give up their rights to anything.  If an author signs a deal with a major league agent/publisher then they are a great success for the site.    

  4. The big issue is the marketing costs…publisher discounts are 40% to 50% that is the trade margin for physical books which have scalable volumes. … crowdsource could work perhaps only for e books

  5. This is great but as he says ‘the devil is in the details.’ I’m self-pubbing my debut novel, got really good praise from agents and other writers – reminds me of Oscar Wao, nice voice Curious Incident of Dog in the Nighttime, engaging writer – but no one wants to pick me up. This kind of thing could be great for an author like me. Let me know if anything develops and I’ll offer my services.

    • Hey Juan, I feel your pain.  This is the refrain to our chorus.  There are a lot of details  which is one of the reasons for this blog.  I’d like to get a group of like-minded people to hammer this idea out.  I’m sure the final product would be different – and better – than the concept as it stands in my head now.

  6. An interesting idea. Let me make sure I get this: 

    So if I’m a marketing / PR guy, and I want to participate, I have to find a writer whose book I want to promote.  How does that work? Do I have to scroll through a jungle of book proposals before I find the one I think will earn a buck?  

    I’m comparing this to Wikipedia’s system of finding articles that need to be written or edited — they’re a mess!  If I had to crawl through the same pile of junk to find one book I want to promote, that just seems too much like the current publishing system.    

    • I had not originally considered marketers/agents as one of the providers on this, but I can see how it would be important.  The whole streetcred/reputation model doesn’t fit quite as well for marketers  because I would assume that a a lot of your success will happen off-site where we cannot measure your success.  Lets see if we can make a compelling case for this.

      You set up your shingle on the site as a marketing/PR guy so that people looking for you can find you.

      1) Authors wanting publishers will be able to make a pitch to you for their book.  Depending on where they are in the publishing process, you will be able to look at the publishing team, note their reputations, read the pre-release reviews.  If that looks compelling to you, you can actually ask to read the book, if you like it, then you can strike a deal with the author. The agreement would probably be outside of this site since not all of the income would be coming from it.

      2) You can peruse the list of books newly published that have received high ratings in the genre you want to represent and contact the author’s to see if  they would be interested in your services.

      3) The author would rate your services over time.  As you build up more of a reputation, more people would want your services.  We might also be able to take some 3rd party publishing data from retailers like Amazon and B&N and have sales info be part of your reputation.

      4) I could also see you taking on more of a complete Agent role where you would put together the publishing team, maybe people you have worked with before, to publish the author’s work.  You would be free to use people registered on the site or not.  I think it would benefit everyone to have them listed as part of the project. Again, any agreements would be between you and your author.

      What do you think?

  7. I would love for this business model to work, especially since it would be working for me. But I’m still left wondering how would quality writing get pushed to the top of a pile of 10,000 stories. I know SOME would, and I think you explained it, but your promotion isn’t apparent to me yet.  I think most members of the organization would be writers as oppose to reviewers and editors.

    Maybe you could make a criteria that says: for every story you, as an author, want reviewed, you have to edit someone else’s piece. 

    There are two literary sites that accommodate parts of your model. They are: Booksie.com and TheIndieView.com.  Neither of these sites deal with money so they ARE different. But you should check them out anyway.

    • Again, this is a great idea in principle, but by not giving away a share of the book rights, the author is asking individual contributors to work for a share of a non-guaranteed royalty. Any book project can achieve low sales – most do – which is fine, and it leaves it up to the contributors to back an author/leader in whom they have faith. It’s a gamble, but through feedback/reputation and research you can reduce the chance you’ll end up working for free. My concern, which I hinted at before, is what if an author hits the eMarket with a fantastic book – edited, proofed and typset by talented contributors, with a great cover, and hyped by a PR team member in all of the right niche communities, and immediately gets an offer from a major publisher? The contributors have no rights to a share of any advance or the royalties from that version of the book, and the publisher will want the crowdsourced version pulled immediately, so they end up having worked for free. I know I’m sounding negative, but these were issues I was working to solve, and couldn’t, and I’m interested in seeing them solved as I think it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, neither Scott’s idea nor libboo’s implementation seem to provide an answer.

      • It looks like Libboo actually contractually assigns rights to the work to the team jointly.  That seems to address your question or am I missing the point?

        • I don’t think they assign rights to the work (as confirmed buy Chris, below) but there seems to be a legal right to royalties earned by the contributors. As this all comes from the team leader’s (author’s) share, there shouldn’t be any issue when dealing with publishers, but it does mean that the contributors are entitled to their share of the author’s profit on that book in perpetuity. What if the author pulls the book from sale? As a contributor to the project with rights to royalties, does the editor have a say in that? How about if the editor thinks that a publishing deal with a major will pay less in the long term than going straight to Amazon through Libboo? Does the editor have a say? As long as the book stays within the Libboo ecosystem, everything is great, but I don’t see a clear statement of what happens if the book is moved outside of it, and that’s where I think the problems will start. Again, I know I’m sounding very negative, but I honestly want Libboo, or a similar project, to succeed, as I think it’s the best way to raise the quality of self-published works.

          • Hi Steven,

            So here’s a typical way people use Libboo and what happens to the stuff that gets created.

            Someone with an idea starts a project (Team Leader, or Author). They can create this idea by themselves, or they can use our Team Wizard to construct a team from the community of Editors, Writers, Illustrators, Marketers (a really useful one!) etc. When the Author invites someone, they allocate a share of royalties – not copyright. This means the Author is free to make any decisions they like without seeking approval of others (including Libboo).

            So once the item is created, the Team Leader can publish the item in one of 2 ways:

             – Vanity – whereby it’s free to download/read on Libboo. The advantage of this is that it’s open to everyone and helps build your reputation (which we measure) in whatever role you had taken in the project and whatever subject (we call it Roles and Professions)

            – Team Publish – whereby Libboo does the dirty work and gets it put on sale on online storefronts. We take care of all the royalty payments to the team members, ensure that there are not terms and conditions being broken, and do the distribution on your behalf. Our ‘fee’ for this is 15% of whatever the team receives – not the retail price (typically works out around 9% of retail). 

            The idea of making it team based is that simply being an Author isn’t good enough now. You need to be a marketer, a proofer, a researcher etc… which of course for most is unbelievable. So having a great marketer on your team, or a good editor, or a good critic, can make or break any project.

            With respect to what the Author can do with the work once it’s done, well – they can do anything they like! If it was vanity published, they can switch to Team publish (and vice-versa) at any time. If they’d like to remove it from Libboo, they can. If they would like to remove it from Libboo and sell it on Amazon themselves, they can. We believe though that having all the royalties controlled properly, the copyright managed effectively, and checking the t&c’s across multiple vendors with multiple content creators is well worth the fee. 15% is what Smashwords charge – but for that, you get very little. 

            And yes, you are correct – creating something on Libboo means the Author is contractually obligated to share royalties at the rate previously agreed. Prior to publication however, the Author can kick any team member out of the team if they have not met the expectation set down by the Author. 

            Here are the T&C for this:Team Leader: http://www.libboo.com/pages?type=leader
            Team Member: http://www.libboo.com/pages?type=member

            My apologies for the long post! 

            Chris Howard
            chris at libboo dot com

          • Hi Steve, I think everything you say is valid and important so I wouldn’t worry about coming across as too negative.  In my mind, it is very important for these sort of issues to be discussed.

            Libboo has two standard contracts which specifies the team leader’s and team member’s role.  Basically, it gives the leader the sole discretion for determining what is going to happen to the book and the ability to toss out any team member.  It’s pretty heavily weighted to the leader.  Not a lot of incentive to be a member. Perhaps what you would want to do would be to create a sort of boiler plate contract between all the parties involved in creating the book where you could check off how each of these issues would be handled.  You would have to shell out some significant money for a good contract lawyer, but that would be preferable to having lawsuits etc.  Good contracts make good friends. 

          • It seems that the Libboo model relies to a certain extent upon good faith, which is a fair assumption, given that an author could get all of the work in, then cut and run to Amazon KDP with the finished product and no intention of paying out royalties as none are reported publicly, but this being the internet, the chances of doing it twice are slim to none. And there are clear benefits to staying within the Libboo ecosystem, as you gain reputation and access to higher rated collaborators. The area I could never hammer out to my satisfaction was the “what if?” scenario. What if an author sold a film option on the book? Would an editor working for 20% of the royalties be expected to receive 20% of the option? Assuming the book had sold well enough to attract that attention, you’re talking about $20-30K. That seems excessive, especially given that the producer is only really buying the book’s premise and characters, which were solely created by the author. How about if they don’t get a share of film royalties? Say the book was something someone picked up from the Kindle Store on a whim and just loved the idea, but the book only sold 500 copies? The film deal would be a direct result of the quality of the book as a whole – something everyone contributed to – but the author makes $100K on the deal while the rest of the team are sharing the receipts from 500 sales. One thing I considered was using a cap on the receipts per contributor, so say an editor takes 20% up to a maximum of $5,000. That would then constitute a buy-out price for the contract, giving authors a way to extricate themselves from the contract if they wanted to sell the film rights or take a publishing deal; they just pay the $5,000 and the editor’s right to a percentage ends.

          • Hi Steven, fantastic points!

            The whole ‘old model’ is broken. It simply doesn’t react to the way in which people want to create and consume content anymore.

            There’s a lot still to iron out – this is why the safest option is to have the Team Leader to own all copyright.

            With respect to ‘what is the incentive to be a team member?’ – well – lots actually and it’s the team-members who drive a lot of what we do.

            Being a Team Member makes you directly benefit from the success of the project. Also, as the project becomes more successful, your reputation as, let’s say ‘an Editor in Science Fiction’, goes way up directly proportional to your talents. No other model can do this.

            We are essentially taking all the waste out of the old model and translating that saving to team members to better incentivise their engagement. So it will become a lot easier to be a professional Editor with our system, or a marketer, or an illustrator… etc etc.

  8. Hi Scott,

    It’s Chris from libboo here.

    Fantastic article and my word… it is pretty much Libboo in a nutshell. But with a crucial difference. We never take any ownership of the content that gets created on our site and everyone is free to use it elsewhere. You can take it down, move it around, share it, keep it private etc. Our only mission is to help content creators help other content creators.

    It wouldd be great great to chat in person. If youd like to, drop me a message at chris at libboo dot com. Oh and thanks for signing up to Libboo!

    • Hi Orna,
      Unbound is an interesting approach, but it really doesn’t help unknown authors like me.  They are just a publisher with an interesting funding model that still relies on agents or previously published authors.

      • They are considering submissions from writing websites like  www.abctales.com andwww.jottify.com. and are looking at other ways…. I think there’s room for lots of different crowdsourcing models. Good luck!

  9. As usual, I’m a bit late to the party. But this is an issue I’ve blogged (tongue in cheek) about for a while. I’m definately interested in the concept and have been struggling for a couple years to put together a team to help produce my brand of western dieselpunk.

    But the obvious problem has always been That I have had to rely on freelance help rather than a vested team of contributors. I’m working on my third novel now and have found some folk I like who are willing to work for a pretty small fee.

    But to expand the project to include stuff like graphic novels, gaming apps, etc. I throw my hands up. I don’t have the set of skills nor the money to keep hiring additional freelancers…

    But I blab on. Within your model how does collaboration begin? Will there be forums around shared interest or genre? Is it up to the author/project leader to shop for potential team membors via profile?

    And would the crowdsource product have a label to go with it? Something readers could learn to trust? (if they saw the final product somewhere like amazon)

    • Since this is crowdsourcing, you have to provide people with as many tools to find each other as possible.  Maybe you could use keywords defined by the users.  I would think that pretty much every participant could put out a shingle advertising their services for whatever it is they do.  You would definitely want a  label.  In the end that is almost the entire point of this.  When someone wants a book they go to this site and look through whats available.  They get a pretty good idea of what people think of it and who the production team is and what their skillsets are.

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  11. You nailed it Scott. I’ll be the first to join the crowd. And there could be millions of others. We all just want a way to express ourselves. To make a difference. To leave a mark.

  12. You nailed it Scott. I’ll be the first to join the crowd. And there could be millions of others. We all just want a way to express ourselves. To make a difference. To leave a mark.

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  15. I love the idea of crowd sourced publishing. Is it sustainable though by finding collaborators who will choose books based on the best books? What do they have to lose if the company publishes poor quality books? The company will go belly up, but collaborators will not lose anything special.

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