Before inviting the web to create a collaborative novel using a wiki in 2007, Jeremy Ettinghausen asked, "Can a community write a novel?" The answer is yes but a terrible one! A year later the Penguin publisher told researchers at De Montfort University (Penguin's partner in the project), "It's the best thing I've ever done...but I would never do it again." Which means "The book was awful but I'm not going to insult the 1500 people who wrote it for me." Of course no one expected the novel to be any good — the excerpt below is about as terrible as one would guess. That's why this was a great project for Penguin.
After all, you release some trendy high-concept book, and for every person who reads it there are a hundred who just enjoy the concept and ten people who buy it just to put on the bookshelf. Hell, I had more to say about Freakonomics before I read it than after — I got the point by the time I'd read a review and half of the dust jacket. So if the book doesn't have to live up to its publicity, why not come up with a clever idea and outsource the actual writing?
The deep waters, black as ink, began to swell and recede into an uncertain distance. A gray ominous mist obscured the horizon. The ocean expanse seemed to darken in disapproval. Crashing tides sounded groans of agonized discontent. The ocean pulsed with a frightening, vital force. Although hard to imagine, life existed beneath. It's infinite underbelly was teeming with life, a monstrous collection of finned, tentacled, toxic, and slimy parts. Below its surface lay the wreckage of countless souls. But we had dared to journey across it. Some had even been brave enough to explore its sable velveteen depths, and have yet to come up for precious air...."
But the project itself is ripe for sociological study. It's a fully and publicly documented interaction between over a thousand would-be authors, a postmodern literary critic's orgiastic wet dream. And the recently released analysis from De Montfort is a good read. The researchers study the actions and psychology of the most active editor, "Pabruce," picking apart certain edits, describing his relations with other editors, and guessing at his motives.
This is also the only research paper to ever include the heading "YellowBanana — genius, vandal or troll?"
So Penguin gets some academic attention, some PR, and no real lost respect for this side project. Plus they get to test some tools that might help when they really are farming books out to writing groups. I wish I got that much out of my last terrible novel.