Writing has traditionally been a solitary pastime. You lock yourself away in your study, garret or walk-in closet and labor in solitude for a number of months if not years until finally your produce a novel. Hundreds of pages written in isolation, with nobody to keep you company but for the voices inside your head. If you were a working author that meant that every couple of years a book of yours would hit the market, there would be some clamor and coverage (if you were lucky), and then another year or so of silence as you got to work on your next project.

This has changed.

Today authors keep in touch with their readers via blogs, Twitter and Facebook. No longer do they disappear behind closed doors to work in silence and solitude, but can instead opt to remain in constant contact with their audience, blogging about their progress or lack of it, their bouts of manic inspiration or melancholy depression. In effect, authors as Justine Musk points out in this post can now build and nurture active tribes of followers who remain by their side throughout the creative process, interacting and growing ever more engaged with the object of their admiration.

In fact, it can be argued that the advent of social media has changed the playing field, removing the need for a middleman (publisher) and allowing the author to connect directly with their audience. Seth Godin has famously decided to do exactly this, and other writers such as Cory Doctorow are increasingly playing with the idea of self publishing. Social media is reinventing the way novels reach the masses, such that publishers are increasingly scrabbling to define their role as gatekeepers of the written word.

Recent years have shown a number of authors availing their novels to the public for free downloads. Some, in fact, have earned incredible success with this method (Jon Scalzi landed his first fiction contract with Tor as a result of the huge success of his first free novel). It has in fact now become standard policy to release the first few chapters for free on the author’s blog in the hopes of enticing readers to buy the whole thing.

But at heart the business remains the same. Authors write behind a closed door, even if today they now come out to chat on their blog, and produce a finished novel every couple of years for their fans to devour. My question is this: how far can an author take the concept of transparency?

What if an author were to write their novel publicly, in full view of their viewers? Brainstorm out loud on their blog? Refine the plot, detail the characters, create the world where everybody can read it if they so chose? Would that rob the novel of its magic and suspense, or only add to the intimacy a reader might feel upon reading the finished product?

Clearly giving the ending away would be of no advantage to the author or the reader, but what about some world building? What if Tolkien had made available to his future readers details on the mines of Moria, Elrond’s background, the history of the Shire before LotR was published? What if the lives of the major characters up until the beginning of the novel were made available as vignettes or historical anecdotes of the world published on a blog, things of that nature? How much might a reader enjoy reading and learning before the novel was actually released?

We’re seeing some of this with computer games. Heavy Rain planned to release a series of prequels (admittedly after the release date of the original game) featuring the main characters and events leading up to the main game’s plot. They only released the first of the prequels, but I can’t help but wonder: what effect would releasing the prequels before the game have had on its reception? The creators of Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream, did release several preview trailers and playable demos at a gaming convention, but clearly did not feel it a wise move to release the prequels themselves. What if they had?

These are the questions I’m pondering as I begin my 4th novel. Every month it becomes increasingly apparent that the old model of writing and getting published is changing with increasing rapidity. How far might it go, and how close might one step to the edge of the cliff before falling right over?