In this maddened and maddening stream of real-time communication, from which occasional works of startlingly genuine value do surface, are authors required to engage a community? Is this community-building a keystone service for publishers seeking to survive by adding real value for authors? Can publishers thrive by providing community-like engagement with the book, even if the author moves on to other works? The answer to all these questions is that there is no single approach to writing a book, marketing a book or building an enthusiastic word-of-mouth community. Many authors and publishers will find the investment in engagement pays dividends, perhaps with increasing returns for each title that builds on initial success. Publishers can offer to take up the technical and financial burden of these communities, which can be slight when aggregating dozens or hundreds of audiences, as part of the new service they provide authors, who naturally want to focus on the books they write (books, however, will not be just text, as we’ll see later).
To our peril, we live in the golden age Erasmus described as he joined Aldus’ Academie and reveled in the revival of culture and humanist debate of the early decades of the 16th century: He felt world peace and prosperity was at hand because of the energetic dialogue erupting all around him, very much like techno-utopians see the Internet-connected world in 10 to 20 years. As Erasmus found out by the 1520s, when the Reformation had wrenched his world apart, launching the schism that would kill millions during the 30 Years War, freedom was a messy and dangerous business. After learning that his friend Thomas More, the progenitor of the concept of “utopia” latter canonized a Catholic saint for his refusal to declare Henry VIII the head of the newly formed Church of England, had been beheaded, Erasmus lamented that his times had become “the very worst century” ever, a declaration that anticipated the ironic critique offered up for contemporary contestants for pop cultural supremacy by Matt Groening’s The Simpsons.
The Shack may be the last of a new incunabula, print books that succeed wildly based on online word-of-mouth without providing its own branded online experience. Publishers have discovered how to market with the Web, but not how to extend the experience of reading on the Web. This time around, because technology has distributed opportunities to innovate in authorship, publishing and marketing, there will not be one Aldus, there will be many Aldi.
Even though William P. Young had built many Web sites as a part-time developer, his personal engagement with community once the The Shack hit the best-seller lists has been cursory at best. Yes, his book rocketed up bestseller lists on the tidal wave of emails sent by readers, but the greatest contribution to the word-of-mouth phenomenon was the more than 3,200 customer reviews on Amazon.com, and comments posted on his blog and at the book’s Web site, which is primarily a place to order The Shack with a forum where approximately 9,000 readers have posted 135,000 times about more than 5,300 topics related to The Shack, individual chapters and personal testimonies. Even the 500+ bad reviews on Amazon seem to have helped propel the book forward, because they are cast as polarizing responses to the 2,500 or so positive reviews that a browser must test by reading The Shack themselves. And it doesn’t hurt that, as Motoko Rich of The New York Times put it, “Sales have been fueled by a whiff of controversy.”[i] Young is surprisingly quiet online, investing much more of his time