Crowdsourcing Content and Demand: Andrew Sullivan's "View From Your Window" Book

For three years, Sullivan had been inviting his blog community to upload pictures of the view from their windows. He wanted to compile a selection of these images into a book that captures the breadth and width of the web.
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Earlier this summer, Leigh Haber, (longtime book editor and Blurb consultant) surfaced a wonderful book opportunity with Andrew Sullivan and his The Daily Dish blog, published by The Atlantic. For three years, Sullivan had been inviting his blog community to upload pictures of the view from their windows. He wanted to compile a selection of these images into a book that captures the breadth and width of the web... without words.

Although images are quickly becoming the lingua franca of the virtual 21st century, they also ground us in "real" space. They give form to our spectral selves. However, while images make things real, tangibility makes them matter.

At Blurb, we hear this all the time. We take more pictures than ever before, but we see fewer and fewer of them as they are digitally lock-boxed away in some suspended pixel animation state. When the content we view is just a mouse click away from deletion, the act of choosing what to memorialize in physical, touch-it, feel-it, smell-it form takes on new meaning. We are saying, "These things matter."

Sullivan's book also says, "You matter to each other." Compiling these digital images into a physical book, a book of great beauty, was sublimely contrarian. Offline becomes the new online. Here is an excerpt from Sullivan's initial call for submissions blog:

One of the strange things about having a blog, especially a one-man outfit like this one, is that, over time, you get to find out more about me, but not much about each other. Yes, you get to read some of the smartest emails on the web, but you don't get to know who your fellow-readers are, where they live, what they do, what they see as they look out their window each morning. I get a little sense of it from the roughly 500 emails I get a day. But it's still opaque.

Hence this idea, which may be nuts or it may be inspired. We'll find out. This week, get out your digital cameras, and take a picture of the view from your window. It can be your living room window, bathroom window, car-window or office view. If you're serving in the military, or traveling, it can just be the view from where you are standing or sitting. Email it to me, put "View From My Window" in the contents line, and I'll post as diverse and as interesting an array of reader photos as I can all week. ... So show me - and every other reader - your world. Don't pretty it up; just show it as it is - a glimpse through the looking glass of a blog, at the world its readers live in.

As you can see from the above, the original idea was to capture images over a week's time, but the View From Your Window became so popular, Sullivan found it had a life of its own. The community had voted, and they wanted to know who else was out there.

The next challenge was selecting and sequencing the images into the book; the natural answer became to let the community decide what made it onto the front and back cover, while enabling The Daily Dish staff to determine the book content itself. Time and place became the other construct for the book design; it starts out at dawn with palm trees and a barbed wire fence in Los Angeles and ends at dusk with a photo of a snow -covered McDonalds parking lot in Cheektowaga, New York.

The next question became how to produce, print and fulfill orders for the book. Not surprisingly, Sullivan selected the more nimble print on demand model that Blurb offers vs. a legacy book publisher. Why? Complete creative control, time to market measured in days and weeks, and -- perhaps most importantly -- who knew what the market for this book looked like?

Sullivan's book is 95% user generated content, but why not crowdsource demand as well? Could Sullivan de-risk an order for an offset run by having folks pledge their orders ahead of the actual printing? Color offset runs can deliver considerably lower costs than print on demand, but typically start at 1,000 copies and require the publisher -- in this case the author -- write a check up front. Alternatively, print on demand offers just that -- each book is printed on demand, as a unit of one, and thus there are no economies of scale, so the cost per book is higher -- but then again, no one has to write a big check.

So the question for Sullivan was, could he crowdsource demand via his blog not only to assess market size, but also to offer his readers a reduced price if they placed advance orders.
Here's an excerpt from his post on the topic:

We hope to save you at least $10 a book by crowd-sourcing the advance printing.

No old-media publishing house would give you those options. The combination of a blog and print-on-demand publishing can. And if this model works, it could help launch a whole new wave of books created with user-generated content and priced with crowd-sourcing efficiencies. We hope the Dish will help pioneer this, and help do to the book publishing industry what blogs have helped do to MSM establishment journalism. A four-color 200 page book is an ambitious place to start, but, as always at the Dish, our attitude is: why the hell not?

The result: within 5 days Sullivan had enough pledges to place an offset order and offer his customers the reduced price. He's now talking about books number two and three.

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