Exploring Hugh Howey’s Wikify Idea With Some Questions
Posted on September 23, 2013
Recently, Hugh Howey, bestselling author of Wool and the newly released Dust, wrote a blog post titled “Wikify Me” on his website. In it, he expresses an idea of a possible new feature for e-readers and digital books that would allow a reader to mark mistakes they find in a book’s text and what an author could do with the marked passages in order to immediately make improvements on the work.
As Howey puts it, “By marrying Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature and cloud storage, we would get the wikified e-book.” Track Changes within Microsoft’s Word allows for someone to suggest a change, add comments, and the author of the work to accept or reject those changes. It is a common tool used by editors. While I like that Howey pushes the envelope in author and reader interaction, I had several questions about his idea. I read through the comments on his blog post as well as in a writers’ message board, but I wanted to address him directly. Luckily, Howey is an incredibly generous bestselling author who gives a lot of time to readers and fellow writers.
The following is our dialogue about his ideas that are organized into the three categories of reader, author, and editor. Howey was gracious enough to answer my concerns and questions (in italics) to further the discussion of his idea!
Concern: As a reader, I would like to get lost into a story. If I were keeping an eye out for editing mistakes, it would change that experience into one of detection rather than one who is enjoying the art of reading. It would also change the reading community around books from those who concentrate on either the story or the editing aspect.
Question: How do you envision the interactive feature to enhance a reader’s experience with the book/text?
I think the vast majority of readers won’t use the program at all. The ability to highlight typos already exists in the current Kindle e-readers. If a reader encounters a problem (and only a tiny percentage know about this and/or bother to do it), they can highlight a passage and mark it as a “typo.”
What happens next (this is the current system, already in place. I get these emails now, as many authors do), Amazon sends an email to the author to notify them that a typo has been reported. They include the typos in the email. What the author has to do is make the change inside their .mobi file (which requires a bit of knowledge) and then upload the file to KDP again.
What would change with my idea is that the ebook would be viewable and editable inside the KDP dashboard. You could open your book in a live, WYSIWYG editor. If you want to see reported typos, you can enable this feature just like in Word with “track changes.” If you want to accept a suggestion, you click a check mark, just like in Word. Amazon incorporates that change in the live e-book for you. No need to download, unzip, edit, recompile, re-upload.
Concern: As a reader who wanted to contribute by catching what I consider are mistakes, I would want recognition for spending my time from the author. In both comments and in the blog post, the suggestion is made that readers can earn status/rank points with accepted edits.
Question: What is a possible solution for readers if their suggestions are not accepted and they do not earn status/rank points for their participation?
That’s a good question. I don’t know that I would want to go into this, as a reader, in order to compile points. I think what’s more likely is that the people who are already doing this, using the existing typo highlight function, would find that they were rewarded. Maybe they get an email once a week or month thanking them for making books better. This email could come from a template that each author writes. There could be badges and rankings.
Again, this is not for every reader. 99% of readers will continue reading as they do now, which means they would just skip right over the typos, be annoyed by them, perhaps, but they wouldn’t see any highlights or any functions. The ability to highlight these things is already in every Kindle, and most people don’t even know. This is just a way to reward those who are already using the system and a way to streamline the incorporation of these edits.
Concern: With earning status/rank points, the interaction with the book becomes less linear and about story as it is more focused on rewards. This is making the book become less interactive about the story as it is about a game of participation and reward.
Question: Why do you think that a rewards system would benefit readers? Again, how do you see that as affecting the reading experience in a positive way?
I think the readers who are currently highlighting typos would be thanked. And once typos are resolved (and they would be resolved much more quickly than they currently are), no one would ever see them again. The first two or three readers of each book who participated would be the only ones to ever see the mistakes. And then they would be gone, leaving a cleaner path for all those reading behind.
Concern: By having the readers be able to actively participate in the text, it makes the story that the author writes a living text able to change and evolve.
Question: Most authors use a beta reader system where readers can make comments and help edit a work prior to its release for profit. Why do you think that the process should continue after a book has been published?
Because this is the way it works in the traditional publishing world. No book goes to market mistake-free. First editions have typos. As people in-house read those first editions, they mark and call in mistakes to be corrected in subsequent printings. Many second editions have mistakes as well.
I would still edit as rigorously as I do today, and I would continue to use my betas, but this would clean up the handful of typos that persist with every published book. Keep in mind that authors and readers are already engaging in these exchanges. This program is just about using readily available technology to streamline the process, make it easy as a few clicks, plus reward and thank the handful of readers who are already doing this.
Concern: I’m getting ready to release my debut works with a prequel short in November and its related short story collection in December. As a new author, I’m concerned that with your idea, more people might be willing to publish who wouldn’t have done so before therefore increasing the difficulty of discovery. It’s been said before that well-written and edited books rise to the top like cream. However, with an interactive readership that can edit a book after its release, that theory may not work anymore.
Question: How do you think this proposed feature would affect discoverability for authors?
Discoverability is already a nightmare for every author. I can’t imagine this program working on books that aren’t well-written enough for people to want to read or well-edited enough to get through. This isn’t about fixing rough drafts; this is about making great works error-free.
I also don’t think more people will publish rough works than already are. There’s nothing stopping them from publishing now. Admitting that all books need that extra level of polish in no way forgives error-ridden books from going live. I would contend, however, that no one will read nor find those books anyway. They just go unread.
Concern: In your career, being interactive with your readers on several platforms is something you emphasize is important. While the track changes feature is interactive, it seems to be more interactive with the e-reader and its technological parent (i.e. Amazon) as the intermediary rather than directly with you.
Question: In your post, you say that readers who email you with corrections that you reply to and possibly use to edit and update your file can be laborious. Why isn’t it better to personally interact through your direct email rather than through flagged words or passages in your text?
It’s a lot more work. There’s no easy way to directly edit a .mobi file. You have to use programs to “unpack” the file (it’s really just a .zip container), and then you have to access the .html file that corresponds to the individual chapter, do a text search to find the area that needs correcting, make the fix, save the .html file, re-wrap the .mobi, and then re-publish to the KDP store (which can take 24 hours). And then there’s the email interaction.
The new program would make the suggestion show up inside a live file on KDP, give you a check or X, and incorporate the change. Done. Also, every time you unpack and repack a .mobi, there’s the chance that you mess up some part of the formatting. This happened to an author recently, and it resulted in 20,000 copies of a botched file going out! She was slammed with 1-star reviews and returns. It was a nightmare. Every time you edit an e-book, you increase the chances of something like this happening. Not to mention that you have to keep up with your original files, which version is most current, etc. With this program, you could access your book from any web connection, even from your phone!
Concern: The sense is that not everyone’s flagged text will be approved, and that approved changes will affect readers’ status/rank. If someone spends his/her time to make changes only to have none of them accepted, I fear it would risk anger and invite possible trolling that could affect the treatment of and rankings of a book.
Question: How could a track changes system treat every reader fairly so that no one is disappointed in order to help an author avoid unnecessary confrontation about a book?
Nothing about the program is compulsory. I don’t think many more readers than current will participate. In fact, I think it will be far fewer! Because once the typos are corrected, they won’t be there for the next person to find and highlight. Most readers will see a clean text.
I really don’t see readers jumping into this to actively find typos. They’ll just continue to highlight the ones they see (those who even care to do this), and the fixes will be made quicker than ever with a feedback loop right back to the helpful reader.
Disclaimer: I have a BA and MA degree in English, and have worked as a certified secondary English teacher for several years as well as instructing English at the university level. For a year, I worked as a freelance editor to fiction writers.
Concern: The term “editing” covers a wide array of services. Heavy editing, called substantive or developmental, involves making comments about the overall story structure. Mid-level editing, called content or line editing, involves minor notes about the story and characters with grammatical corrections. Proofreading is catching basic grammatical mistakes such as spelling or the absence or need for punctuation. There are different rules to follow, and some that don’t have to be followed. In other words – editing is tricky business.
Question: What kind of editing do you foresee a track changes feature should allow? Where is the line drawn of allowing too much “correction” from a reader?
It can remain a typo check only, if that’s simpler. So stick to a copyediting feature. The developmental stuff (which I mentioned in my post, but was probably a bad idea) is better left to beta readers. I would start with just the typo designation, which is already featured in the Kindle OS.
Concern: Again, there are different rules to follow in grammar. Sometimes the rules are archaic and some are ever evolving. The author gets to choose an editor who makes suggestions, but ultimately the author approves what changes stay.
Question: (Combined author/editor) Doesn’t this set a reader up to catch mistakes that may not be mistakes? Also, doesn’t this increase the amount of work an author has to do on a text that presumably has already gone through an editing process?
Absolutely. And there could be a system on the writer’s side to comment BACK to the reader. I would of course include a pop-up when this is employed to remind the author that all comments should be polite in nature and made with complete gratitude. And of course, the author doesn’t need to do this at all. But when they reject a comment, they could include a brief note, such as “This is how we spell Aluminium in the UK! J”, and the reader would get a note in their Kindle or email with a thank you template, maybe some balloons and flowers, and the nice note on a little card. We can be creative with this! Any problem can succumb to our imaginations.
Concern: While we can all point to examples of errors in traditionally published books, one of the biggest complaints (and myths) about indie authors and self-publishing is that the works are not as well written or edited.
Question: Doesn’t a track changes system where readers can offer edits and a text can be changed live discourage the further use and expense of editors?
It might have the opposite effect. When publishers get a dozen typo finds (or three dozen) in a new book, it could alert them to the fact that they need better editing. One thing that will keep this from happening with traditional publishers is the large print runs they order. I don’t think they’ll be lazy about finding typos before ordering 10,000 or 100,000 print books. No way.
Concern: As an editor, my job is to catch the mistakes as I see them and offer explanations as to why they are wrong with possible corrections. However, I also offer these as suggestions that an author can choose to acknowledge and correct or ignore. My job is to be paid to make those suggestions knowing that they may not be used at all.
Question: For readers who invest themselves in editing a text through your suggested feature, how can a writer positively deal with readers if their suggestions are not used?
I would use the comment system outlined above. Once again, keep in mind that readers are already highlighting typos right now, as we speak, in their Kindles. And they don’t get any thanks, any reward, any knowledge if the typos are even fixed. They just highlight these things because some readers do this when reading (I do it in the physical books I read). All of this is taking place except for the ease of integration and a feedback mechanism (a thank you and a reward) back to the reader.
Thanks so much for sharing these concerns! I think it helps to see where the problems will lie and how best to tackle them. Best of luck with your debut release!
I want to thank Hugh for taking the time to answer these thoughts and questions directly and for being so approachable. He is a great example of how to be a gracious author who wants his readers to be a part of his world. I’m taking copious notes and getting ready!