By Leo Babauta

I woke up one day while on vacation on Guam, with an idea in my mind: The Effortless Life.

I’d been tossing around some ideas in my head for months that I wanted to tie together: ancient ideas of letting go of goals and expectations, living mindfully, simplifying, living in the flow of things.

The phrase “The Effortless Life” struck me as perfect, as the exact unifying idea I was looking for.

I was super excited. I instantly opened a new Google Doc, started a quick rough outline of the book, which I wanted to keep short and simple.

I even started writing the intro, then looked up into the right corner of the document. There was the blue “Share” button. For some reason, I clicked on it, and wondered what would happen if I shared it publicly.

What would happen if I allowed everyone to watch me write the book? Then I noticed another option: Anyone with access CAN EDIT.

Now that was an interesting idea.

What if I allowed everyone in the world to edit the book as I wrote it? Maybe they would add contributions that would be better than my own. Maybe the book would be improved by the group writing process.

At the very least, it would be interesting. And there was really no downside — if it didn’t work, I really was no worse off than where I already was, but I would have learned a lot in the process.

So I tried it, and announced it on Twitter and Google+. The response was instantly enthusiastic. People by the dozens came to watch me write, and as I wrote, I could see their different-colored cursors wandering around the text. On the side, there were comments, and people were saying, “This is so cool! I can see Leo typing!”

Then they started to edit, and I suggested some rules — to prefer subtraction over addition. Delete rather than add stuff, unless what you wanted to add really really added something important. They listened, and for the most part, the additions were very useful, and the subtractions were intelligent. I was pleasantly surprised.

I wrote like crazy. The effect of having people watch you write is absolutely powerful. As writers, we write in isolation — the act of writing is a solitary one. But I transformed it to a public act. It can be a bit distracting at first, but also it motivates you to write quickly.

I wrote a ton that first day. At least half the book. I pulled material from previous posts, edited them, added new chapters, all while people were reading, watching me write, editing, and commenting. It was chaotic but so much fun.

Writing publicly motivated me to write quickly. I wrote half the book the first day, but only had an hour to write the second day (we had family engagements) but then mostly finished the book on the third day. Later I added a couple more chapters, but most of the book was written on the first three days.

How I Wrote the Book Publicly

Here are the steps I took, in case you want to follow them:

  1. Start a new Google Doc. Name it.
  2. Write a short outline of chapters, plus an introduction.
  3. Create some rules for your fellow contributors to follow. Be clear that this book will be published and sold, without compensation to the contributors. Create a section at the end where they can add their names if they like.
  4. Share the document publicly, and allow anyone to edit.
  5. Announce it on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, your blog.
  6. Start writing, have fun.
  7. Interact with others in the comments on the side, plus on social media.
  8. Write like crazy. Keep the chapters short and fast.
  9. Incorporate older material where appropriate, but rewrite.
  10. When you think it’s done, close public participation. Shut off the public sharing, and announce that the public period is closed so that you can make final edits.
  11. Read through the book, see if changes need to be made.
  12. Hire a copyeditor to clean up the text.
  13. Hire a designer, or do design/layout yourself.
  14. Publish the book. I published it using the pay-what-you-see-fit model (see below).

What I Learned

An encapsulation of some of the lessons I learned in this experiment:
The editing/contributions will be chaotic. It takes some getting used to. You have to learn to let go of control, and live with the distractions.

  1. One of the biggest problems I faced was how to edit the book once I was done writing it, and had closed off public sharing/editing. While you can compare revisions in Google Docs, you can’t easily see what changes were made in dozens of revisions. This is a problem with Google Docs being used by such a large group. I couldn’t tell what had been changed — maybe something important had been deleted? I was stuck for a few months because I didn’t want to take on the grueling task of comparing dozens of revisions.
  2. My solution: accept the wisdom of the group editing process, and just take whatever changes had been made by the last revision. So I just read the book over, and it seemed fine. I had a copyeditor go over it, and she had very few changes. It saved me a lot of headaches when I decided to just accept things as they were.
  3. Converse with people as you write. It’s part of the public writing process, and it makes a group activity more fun. It’s also good for you to talk with people and set up some ground rules and expectations as they help out.
  4. Writing publicly is very scary, very exciting, very motivating. I’ve never wrote more quickly.
  5. People are really smart. We tend to think of the “crowd” as being dumb, but I haven’t found that to be the case.
  6. I wrote some Zen Habits posts this way too, publicly, but closed editing so that people could watch but not edit. I allowed them to make suggestions as I wrote, via Google+, so there was interaction. This isn’t a bad model either, though less exciting.

I highly recommend that every writer with a decent audience give this a try. It can’t hurt to see what happens, and if you don’t like it, you can scrap it. But if you do like it, it can transform your writing and interaction with your audience. If you don’t have an audience, perhaps ask some friends or fellow writers to join you for some writing fun.

The Pay-What-You-See-Fit Payment Model

When I published the book, I decided to try a pricing experiment — let people pay whatever they wanted. I used as a shopping cart, and within e-junkie you can allow people to change the price. I set a suggested price of $16.95, but allowed people to change the price to whatever they wanted — including zero!

What I learned:

  1. Some people will get the thing for free. That’s OK — they might not have bought it if you charged $10, so you get your book into a lot of people’s hands. They’re grateful for the free book, and are more likely to support you in the future.
  2. Most people — the vast majority — will pay something. Some only paid 99 cents, others paid $1.99 or $2.99, but many paid $12 or the full price or sometimes a bit more. The average payment was about $5.50, even including all the free downloads.
  3. I sold more books (not including the free downloads) than ever before. In the first few months, I outsold any other book I’ve ever sold. This was an incredibly successful.
  4. By letting people set their own price, you’re effectively doing an experiment where you see what people really want to pay. Most of us selling books have no idea what people would want to pay, so this is a very enlightening experiment.
  5. While some people do get the book for free, you have to let go of any resentment against these people. I honestly was happy that they got the book. I got a lot of messages from people who are poor and/or live in Third World countries where $1 is a lot of money for them, so if the book were for sale they would not have been able to afford it. My goal as a writer is not to make tons of money, but to help people. As a side benefit, I actually made a lot of money this way.

I highly recommend this method for every writer. It might be the only way I publish books in the future. I tried to change some of my old books to this pricing scheme but for some reason when I tried it, the price for the book was set at $0, not my suggested price. I can’t figure out why, but I’ll figure it out someday.