Note: It has been brought to my attention that I failed to note that I ultimately chose not to implement the process outlined below. This omission happened while revising the original post and was unintentional. See comments for more.
This winter past I spent a fair bit of time thinking about how best to finish the editing process of my short story collection, The Year of the Elm. In particular I considered a number of possible proofreading solutions in order to track down as many typos and errors as possible. Along with hiring an editor or doing the work myself, I came up with what I thought might be a way to merge the inherent functionality of Smashwords with the goal of open-source proofreading.
In an exchange of emails, Smashwords CEO Mark Coker graciously helped me refine the idea in a manner consistent with the Smashwords TOS, which states that only finished works can be published through the site:
9d. You further warrant the book represents a complete work:
• this is not a work-in-progress
• the uploaded file is not a partial sample or sample chapter, or is not a collection of sample chapters
• the uploaded book represents a complete story with a beginning, middle and end
Because any work (fiction or nonfiction) that is ready for proofreading should be finished in every other respect, the proofreading process falls into a gray area relative to this requirement. For that reason, I need to stress that the proofing I am talking about is just that: a final attempt to track down typos and other miscellaneous errors after the entire work has been written, revised, edited and checked by as many eyes as possible. A work that has errors on every page, or obvious mistakes in abundance, is in need of copy editing, and is not what I would deem a finished work.
As Mr. Coker pointed out, the final, last-ditch proofing that any work goes through is already part of a transitional process in the traditional publishing industry. Whether referred to as advance reading copies (ARC’s) or uncorrected proofs, these pre-release versions of the final product serve useful marketing and fact-checking functions.
As I thought, Smashwords is perfectly positioned to replicate these functions with electronic works. Mr. Coker explains:
The reason we have a rule of “only finished works” is that we don’t want Smashwords to be viewed as a place where you post works in progress to gain feedback. There are dozens of writing communities that already do an excellent job of this. We’re for finished works that are ready for readers and distribution.
However, you have an interesting situation here. This is really for advance marketing, with the side benefit of crowd sourcing typo discovery.
Your book is essentially and advance reading copy, also commonly referred to as an “uncorrected proof.” Its what publishers would send out for reviewers as an ARC. Why don’t you label it as such. Above the title, add the words (centered):
ADVANCE READING COPY – NOT FOR SALE
ON-SALE DATE: JANUARY XX 2010
After you publish it at Smashwords, go to your Dashboard’s Channel Manager and opt it out of the distribution channels (this is optional. Just understand that the day the book goes on sale, it’ll take the retailers up to several weeks to catch up and apply the new price).
As originally conceived, my plan involved putting the final draft (galley/proof) of The Year of the Elm on Smashwords for free, then asking readers to let me know if they found any typos, mistakes, etc. The idea was to crowd-source the proofing process by giving early-adopters a chance to read the whole work for free. After the proofreading period I would then price and publish the work. (I briefly toyed with the idea of providing a reward of some kind to people who found mistakes, but decided against it because of the record-keeping involved.)
Mr. Coker expanded on my plan, and added a number of ways in which Smashwords’ functionality (including coupons) could be utilized:
In your promotion, let your readers know it’s for advance promotion purposes only. Maybe say something like, “As with all ARCs and uncorrected proofs, the book is complete but you may find typos. If you find a typo, please report them to me. I’ll mail a free signed printed copy to anyone who discover a typo.” (or whatever spiff you want to offer readers. It could also be something as simple as recognition on your blog, or a coupon code to download the book for free upon official publication)
As you discover and correct typos, you can go back to your Dashboard and click “upload new version.”
Throughout the ARC period, anyone who downloads the book will automatically have access to the most recent version. People can download the free version without registering.
Once you arrive at your official “in print date” you can assign a price to it. Once the book is purchased, they’ll have access to the most recent version plus future updates, if any.
The best extension of Smashwords’ functionality would probably lean more toward the ARC, precisely because any last-ditch proofing should flow from the fact that the work has already been heavily edited and otherwise completed in every respect. In such situations the ARC can be used as a marketing vehicle for engaging readers and reviewers, while also providing an opportunity to catch unlikely typos along the way.
The traditional publishing work flow, including the editing and marketing process, still makes sense. What’s needed now are tools that individual authors can use to replicate and facilitate this process as much as possible, thereby allowing authors to bypass the political and economic roadblocks that dominate decision making in traditional publishing houses. The inherent ability of Smashwords to facilitate galleys and ARC’s is just another indicator that e-books and self-publishing are maturing, and will inevitably take hold across the breadth of the publishing industry.
— Mark Barrett