Can a crowd be wise?

‘The wisdom of the crowd’ is used to justify everything from Wikipedia to AirBnb. But can it work everywhere? And, in particular, in publishing?

We are all concerned with the future of our industry, I’m sure. There are endless debates about the place of the book in our culture, disputing the relevance of paper in a digital world or the value of persistent versus ephemeral information. And probably even more about the evolving relationship between author and publisher – which is different in the different worlds of fiction, education, academia and the rest.

But there’s one constant, which is the desire we all share to bring great content to readers. This might mean entertainment with a new novel, enlightenment in great poetry or enabling them to live a better life with solid educational material.

The rise of the crowd

Among the rise of self-publishing and open-access, there’s another, more concerning trend – ‘crowd sourcing’. The idea here is that, instead of using experts to deliver parts of the publishing process, you ‘open it up’ and let a large number of ‘ordinary’ people do it instead.

In some places, this makes perfect sense. The great folk at Unbound, for example, use crowd sourcing to deliver the financing for their books. This has two great values. It demonstrates that there is a market for a particular book before it’s produced (assuming that you did a decent job of describing and marketing it). And it brings in the money from customers before the book is produced.

The big reason that this works, though, is that all money is the same. It doesn’t fundamentally matter whether your money comes from a big corporation or a thousand individuals – it has the same buying power.

The end of the editor?

In many other places, though, the logic fails. And, in particular, it’s where the quality being contributed by the crowd isn’t equal everywhere.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to see efforts to crowd-source editing. That is, instead of paying an editor to edit a book, you get a group of random people to do it (usually for free). The appeal is obvious – who doesn’t like free? But there’s a big problem.

Most experienced writers value their editors hugely. The skill and dedication that editors bring to their books makes those books much better than they would otherwise have been. And, true as this is in the world of novel-writing, it’s vastly more true in non-fiction (excluding academic, for the purposes of this argument!). This is because most non-fiction is commissioned, and the entire book is conceived, directed and delivered by an editor.

Remove the editor and you remove the single factor that distinguishes a textbook from Wikipedia. And it’s surely not a stretch to suggest that relying on Wikipedia to pass your exams would be a risky strategy!

 The mercy of quality

When an activity requires skill and dedication, it’s not readily amenable to crowd-sourcing. This is why sites like Quora don’t generally become go-to destinations for quick fact-finding. (Conversely, it’s why Stackoverflow works – as a single-domain site populated by expert programmers, it’s full of people who can answer specific questions. But it’s still not where you would go to learn to program a computer!)

When you need skill and focus, you need one or a few people dedicated to your job. If we continue to allow editors to be removed from the publishing process, we’ll destroy our industry – because our products will be no better than the random stuff on the internet.

Worse than that, removing editors would mean that we would have much worse experiences as readers. Because we’d only have the choice between best-sellers (50 Shades, anyone?) and the unfiltered morass. Sure, there are gems there. But you would personally have to sift through a lot of mud to find it!

Posted on 16 Feb 2015
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.