Changing the culture of production

What role does collaboration play?

Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act.
—Tom Clancy

The emergence of online book production tools is of course bringing writers online. Authoring books online seems to bring two apparently opposing dynamics into play – the social web and the author. The production in the context of the increasingly noisy, social web seems at odds with the typical conception of solitary writer and the juxtaposition simultaneously brings into focus the potential for collaboration or ‘social production’ together with questions of authorship.

We must first recognise that 300 years of copyright and a long era of romantic authorship has left us with inadequate tools for engaging in the collaborative process. It is difficult to get beyond our deeply internalised ideas of book production; we find ourselves unwilling to leave behind the romantic notion of single authorship. Collaboration, on the other hand, has an army of derisionists in the wing like Tom Clancy, not to mention the academic and commercial publishing worlds that are invested in devaluing it. Can books really be produced collaboratively and what does the process offer? It is difficult for many of us to answer these basic questions whereas we feel we understand the value and the offer of sole authorship.

In order to ease into the question it is perhaps worth avoiding the word ‘author’ to describe the book production process. Instead of talking about the author, or even multiple authorship, lets forget the word all together and re-frame it in another way. I propose we instead think about strong and weak collaboration.

It is evident that the books you see in the stores in your town are not produced by one person alone. Let’s imagine that someone did in fact write the entire book and it was untouched by an editor’s hand – we can at least accept that the sole writer did not design the book or the cover or take the entire bundle to the printer to be produced. There may be some cases where this has happened, certainly in the self-publishing world this is not uncommon, but let’s talk specifically about the established publishing industry. That book by Tom Clancy had at least one person, and likely many more people, involved in the process (unless Tom is hiding his Desktop Publishing talents from us).

However, lets just limit our focus to possible collaborative relationships which affect the actual text. There is practically no book that goes through the publishing process entirely untouched. At some point someone made a modification, even if it only resulted in a small improvement. Did Tom do a thorough grammar check? Were there any proofreading or editorial comments made before printing?

This kind of textual interaction is minimal or weak collaboration. More than one hand was at play to make that exact text which appears in the book; this was a collaborative effort, albeit an extremely weak one.

Now let’s move up the collaboration scale a bit. A writer and an editor might interact a lot with the text as it is being produced. The editor offers suggestions for improvement, or edits the text directly. This could be characterised as having a stronger collaborative nature than the previous example.

Stronger still is a relationship of two or more writers working very closely together to produce a text. This is evident in any number of ‘single author’ classics like Frankenstein which is attributed to Mary Shelley but Percy Shelly clearly had a strong hand in some of the text. Another example is the Wasteland which has been discussed by many as a case in point where T.S Eliot collaborated closely with both Vivienne Elliot and Ezra Pound in its production.

Lastly, at the far end of the scale, we have intense collaboration where the delineation between ‘who wrote what’ disappears even to the collaborators themselves as they are producing the text.

As it happens most books feature not just collaboration but strong to intense collaboration between writer and editor.

If we allow ourselves to do away with the notion of authorship and instead characterise the interactions on a spectrum we can see that collaboration already plays an important role in a ‘typical’ process, and it has more value than we may have first thought. Book production is actually a collaborative process. The publishing world has hidden this from the reader largely because the legislative and market forces have favored the promotion of single authorship. But collaboration is a technique we use to produce and improve all books, and we should stop ignoring it. We need to bring collaborative production into focus and explore it.

The advantage of producing books online is that we have an enormous scope of collaborative activity available to us. Until now exploration of the possibilities has largely been limited because of our investment in myths of authorship but if we discard this notion we can explore the opportunities the web offers. The good thing about the net is that ‘the door’ can be regulated depending on the production needs. We may wish to fling the door wide and invite anyone to come in and work on a text, or we may shut the door completely and work in isolation. We may need to, for example, remain in a weak collaborative position for quite some time as we flesh out a work. Later, when we ask for feedback we move slightly up the scale, and later still when the first manuscript is in the hands of an editor we move up the scale to strong collaboration. The point is, we have the choice, and much more choice than we had before.

With thanks to Benjamin Mako Hill for asynchronous inspiration and collaboration on this text.

This post and all others by Adam Hyde are CC-BY-SA

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