Crowds and Empowerment

Crowds and Empowerment


Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power (Penguin Books in the UK, FSG in the US) has been with us for decades, but arrived too early to look at questions of what crowds can mean in publishing.

And with the advent of the digital dynamic comes the idea -- the ideal  -- of crowd wisdom, of crowd leverage, of crowd choice, and, of course, of crowdfunding.

What Canetti, a 1981 Nobel Prize laureate, described were concepts that would come to be called by many of us the "crowd mentality" -- basically, turning over one's own discretion and judgment to a group or community...or mob.  The less attractive term might be "running in packs."

Crowds and PowerWhat happens to the individual conscience when it's suddenly a member of a mass movement? As we know all too well from major-event stampedes, the answer can be disastrous. On the whole -- and there are exceptions -- these considerations of crowd-think don't end well.

With the "democratisation" thought by many to be inherent in the rise of the Web, ideas of crowd-power frequently take on far sunnier aspects.

  • Need money? Turn to the crowd.
  • Need ideas? Turn to the crowd.
  • Want to generate interaction with readers? Turn to the crowd.
  • Want to send a message to this mean corporation or that mean government agency or the other mean politician? Turn to the crowd.

Recent examples of the concept in its widest play in publishing have to include the efforts of Authors United, led by novelist Douglas Preston, to influence Amazon's "negotiating tactics" with the publisher Hachette. That's a crowd of about 1,000 writers, some of them huge household names, working to address other crowds -- the public, New York Times readers, the board of Amazon, the US Department of Justice -- on its collective opinions about Amazon's handling of its vendor relations.

David Gaughran
David Gaughran

And, hey, here comes another crowd, the self-publishing-based resistance to Authors United. Today in The Bookseller on the stands in London, turn to Page 33 to see the author-activist David Gaughran declare the "innate elitism" of the Authors United (traditionally published) group. He dismisses the Prestonites' efforts as "hilarious really."

Indeed, reactions to Amazon's sales-page handling of its negotiations with Hachette, have revealed an ugly, bitter rift between many successfully traditionally published authors and what appears to be an angry, sarcastic self-publishing community.

The independent crowd asserts that the major publishers' authors want to protect their success as corrupt and disingenuous aristocrats. In actual fact, far less is said -- you hear almost nothing -- about the independent crowd by the Authors United corps. At this point, the hostilities seem to be flying one way.

And none if this may be the warm-and-fuzzy idea of Internet "democracy" anticipated by many, huh?

Follow the money

Easily the most coveted approaches to crowded dreams of success are various takes on funding built on the shared small donations of the crowd. Most are familiar to you: KickstarterIndieGogoUnboundPubslush, and -- a new one in the States -- InkShares.

Of course, the numbers you don't hear much about are the ones that describe the "failed to fund" cases.

Kickstarter has an especially helpful, constantly updating set of statistics on its own operation.

  • A quick check indicates that as of this writing 5,953 projects relating to publishing at Kickstarter have succeeded to find the funding they sought.
  • However, 13,197 projects relating to publishing at Kickstarter have not found their funding. Well more than twice as many publishing projects went down in unfunded flames by comparison to the ones that succeeded.

So ubiquitous are crowdfunding campaigns for books and other publishing efforts that many journalists -- I include myself in this -- have to cordially decline to report them except as parts of other stories. If we begin by going to press about every crowdfunding book project, we'll end up covering nothing else.

And questions for our #FutureChat group today must include a key one relative to bookish crowdfunding -- when does the fatigue set in? Is "the crowd," that amorphous but fervently assumed entity "out there," already tired of being nickeled-and-dimed by this crowdfunding campaign and that one?

The crowd-creative

And what of the idea that "the crowd" thinks, has ideas, can come up with resourceful intelligence of a goodly, even aesthetically intelligent kind?

Cracked EyeJust a couple of hours after one crowd, attendees of The Bookseller's Children's Conference #kidsconf14 left Southbank Centre yesterday, Thursday, an as=yet-unlaunched digital magazine from publisher Michael Cameron called Cracked Eye held what it announced to be "the world's first crowdsourced Twitter story."

Using the hashtag #ShortStoryHour, the effort started with the line:

Sandra could hear people behind the door, but no one answered.

Participants -- "the crowd" -- was asked, then, to follow up by tweeting the story to @theCrackedEye, hashing it #ShortStoryHour.

You can see some of the results here in this Storify-ed sample of lines offered by "the crowd."

Hector Macdonald
Hector Macdonald

Earlier this week here at The FutureBook, we had author Hector Macdonald's article on his new Advance Editions effort in crowd-criticism of new works. As Macdonald writes in 'The crowd' and innovation - a small publishing Advance:

Sound terrifying?  Some authors certainly think so.  Reactions have ranged from “I can’t think of anything more horrific” to “I’d be too frightened to write another word”.  Others have been quick to see the potential, especially those who have had glaring mistakes pointed out in their own printed books.

And, as my colleague Philip Jones wrote in his column, Publishing's whirli-dig on Tuesday, such efforts are part of the shake-and-rattle of the innovation landscape in publishing today. Nothing is holding still for long:

Is there really any sense that the market is settling? Not from where I’m sitting. From the launch of Advance Editions, to the rollout of YourFry, this is a world that remains in flux, ripe with opportunities and rich with possibilities. If anything, we remain on the cusp of this digital revolution, barely even at the end of the beginning of it.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

Jones' comment leads us to another of our key questions for #FutureChat consideration: Are these many forms of crowd-effort events something you think we'll see, say, 10 years from now? Or is the fundamental concept of digital's ability raise a crowd just an early-days concept, low-hanging fruit we can all understand and grab for now before far more sophisticated, targeted means of digital distribution and discovery are turned up by our innovative safaris?

We'd like to know what you think:

  • About crowds in general and this idea of a digital cavalry coming over the hill to do this or that.
  • About crowds as money-raisers, in particular: how dependable a way to raise funds is crowdfunding?
  • About crowds as big smarties: how much genuinely useful thinking goes on that way? Is it possible that many minds make only lightheaded work but have such fun community frisson that we overlook the skinny returns?

Please do join OUR crowd -- the best one, of course -- The community in its weekly #FutureChat and give us the benefit of your, ahem, individual thoughts on these and other crowded questions. We'll be glad to have you with us.

We’ll be live on Twitter, at 4 p.m. London time, 11 a.m. New York time, 8 a.m. Los Angeles, 5 p.m. Berlin, 3 p.m. GMT.

Main image - Shutterstock: estherpoon