Walter Isaacson turns to crowdsourcing to edit his book on innovations

Walter Isaacson, author of 'Steve Jobs,' has posted excerpts of his new book on multiple websites for others to add 'notes, comments, and corrections.'

Patrice Gilbert/AP
Walter Isaacson is the author of the biography 'Steve Jobs.'

Technology has changed the way we write, read, and now, edit books.

Walter Isaacson, author of the bestselling Steve Jobs biography, is turning to crowdsourcing to edit his latest book, which is about modern innovations.

Isaacson has posted chapters of his untitled book online for people to read, comment, and critique. Interested readers can head to LiveJournal, Scribd, and Medium, where Isaacson has asked for “notes, comments, corrections.”

Considering the content of his book – “a narrative about the people who helped to create the most important innovations of the digital age” – crowdsourcing appears to be an entirely appropriate avenue to pursue, Isaacson has said, pointing out that collaboration is critical to modern-day innovation. 

“I got to the point of the book where people started using the Internet to collaborate,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. “It didn’t take a genius to say, ‘Why don’t I use the Internet to collaborate?’”

And it turns out readers have responded in droves. Some 18,000 people read one post on Medium and Isaacson has received hundreds of comments and e-mails from the different websites, including “close to 200 suggestions that I would consider substantive and useful,” he told NPR.

Among the respondents was Stewart Brand, a primary subject in Isaacson’s book who was a key figure in Silicon Valley in the 1960s and '70s. Brand wrote a long response to one of Isaacson’s posts on Medium which will likely figure prominently in the book.

The crowdsourcing approach has its drawbacks, however. Isaacson was flooded with emails in response to his Scribd post, including spam, and he’ll likely spend a great deal of time sorting through and making sense of all of the responses. What is true in the kitchen may be true in the writing and editing process: Too many cooks spoil the broth.

“You can take this too far,” Isaacson said. “There has to be someone in charge.”

Not surprisingly, then, he still has at least two traditional editors and two fact-checkers at his publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Nonetheless, this novel idea has us wondering – is crowdsourcing the future of book editing? Or to venture farther afield, can the Internet, as Bloomberg Businessweek asks, “redefine the very idea of what constitutes a book?”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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