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Bethesda Start-Up Makes Writing a Little Less Lonely

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008

On the Web, everyone can be a published author.

Amateur and professional writers alike have found voices in blogs and social-networking profiles, bypassing the cut-throat competition of old-line publishing. Now a Bethesda start-up is trying to leverage that community of would-be authors to help write books, or at least improve them.

WEbook, which launched last week, invites writers, editors, topic experts and anyone else who has something to say to put their virtual pens together to work on literary projects. If the finished works get high marks from the site's members, WEbook publishes hard copies and sells them through online booksellers such as Amazon.com and retail stores including Barnes & Noble. Some books can also be read via mobile phones or in e-book format.

WEbook's first published novel, a 58-chapter thriller called "Pandora," was written by 17 people and will hit shelves next week.

By adopting the growing crowd-sourcing model, which aims to tap into the wisdom of a wide range of people, and the collaborative style of Wikipedia entries, WEbook hopes to help frustrated writers realize their potential.

"The idea is that a book would turn out better if the author could get fast, early feedback during the writing process," said WEbook President Sue Heilbronner, a former lawyer whose pent-up creative ambitions drove her to the entrepreneurial world.

Novel-writing isn't considered to be the most social activity, Heilbronner says. That's why many of the 90 projects on the site take the form of anthologies of first-person essays, how-to guides and short-story collections. Current works in progress include "101 Things Every Man Should Know How to Do," a playful tutorial on how to cook a steak or break dance, and "The First Year," a collection of essays about the experiences of first-time teachers.

In addition to attracting writers, WEbook hopes to tap into the expertise of people with detailed knowledge of more esoteric fields. Heilbronner hopes experts in law or espionage, for example, could lend their know-how to make a legal thriller more authoritative.

The company has received the financial backing of Greylock Partners, an early investor of social-networking site Facebook, social-news site Digg and online-ad firm DoubleClick, which was just purchased by Google. In addition to its five-person staff in Bethesda, WEbook has a small development team in Mountain View, Calif., where Google also is headquartered. Founder Itai Kohavi, who got the idea for the company while trying to write a children's book, lives in Israel.

WEbook plans to pull in revenue by selling content produced on the site, mostly through hard copies of books, e-books or even audio books. For works not selected for publication, the company will give members the option of self-publishing their manuscripts through WEbook. Eventually, the site plans to charge for premium listings for highly skilled writers or book promotions.

WEbook isn't the first to experiment with collaborative publishing. Last year, Penguin Books in Britain launched a wikinovel project called "A Million Penguins" to see what happens when dozens of people weigh in on the plot, characters and title of a manuscript. Book publisher HarperCollins tried a similar venture by letting teens contribute chapters for a teen novel, now available as an e-book. Each November, National Novel Writing Month, thousands of aspiring writers gather in groups across the country to hammer out 50,000-word novels in social settings.

Some writers reach out for help on their own, posting parts of their works-in-progress online. John Blossom recently posted the first two chapters of his upcoming book about digital media, "Content Nation," on a blog of the same name to get suggestions from readers.

"Through their contributions, not only do authors get input for the book but they also build up an enthusiastic community to promote the book through word of mouth," said Blossom, president of Shore Communications, a consulting and research firm. "Communities then develop a more perfect rough draft . . . and identify content that is more valuable when it is converted into mass media."

Lorraine Shanley, principal at Market Partners International, a publishing consulting firm, said online publishing models can help break down the barriers involved with entering the traditional publishing world.

"But I would worry that 17 cooks stirring the pot could result in either the lowest common denominator or just a mismatched potpourri of conflicting genres," she said.

Heilbronner said a flurry of different perspectives is exactly what WEbook hopes for. Members can help one another overcome writer's block or add an unexpected twist in the plot.

And on WEbook, writers who don't want everyone to be able to read and contribute to their work can control who has access.

Melissa Jones contributed two chapters to the site's first published book and got so involved with the editing process that WEbook hired her to oversee the site's content. She sometimes makes the final call in disagreements between writers or helps moderate brainstorming sessions.

"There is definitely a lot of back and forth, and a lot more voices involved," she said. "But that's how good ideas come up that wouldn't have come up if it was just me writing."

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