This post has been updated.
How does WEbook work? According to its FAQ page, writers can initiate public collaboration or anthology projects, to which anyone can contribute, Wiki-style. They can form groups for private collaborations, with a limited number of contributors. Or, if they' prefer to work alone, the WEbook platform can be used to produce a single author work. Completed books can then be opened up to the entire WEbook community for ratings, in order to "leverage the wisdom of the crowd to create, rate, and elevate the very best work..." At WEbook's discretion, those top-rated books may then be published.
I could go on about the tired cliches WEbook recycles (again from its FAQ page: "WEbook is the vision of a few occasionally erudite people who believe there are millions of talented writers whose work is ignored by the staid and exclusive world of book publishing"), or the dangers of putting too much trust in the Wiki model (remember Essjay, anyone?). I could discuss A Million Penguins, a wiki-novel sponsored as an experiment by Penguin UK that spiraled wildly out of control, or I could editorialize on my opinion that "the wisdom of crowds" is a contradiction in terms. Call me cynical, but I did my co-op time in the 1980's, and I don't have a lot of faith in collectives.
During the writing/private feedback stage, authors "retain ownership of all copyrights in the Content authored by each author," and can remove their work from the site at any time. At the start of the public feedback or ratings stages, however, the author (if it's a single author work) or authors (if it's a collective work or an anthology) "immediately grants WEbook the Exclusive Option to Publish...as set forth in section 6 of this Agreement." Their ability to remove their work also becomes restricted.
What exactly does "Option to Publish" mean?
According to section 6, the option term begins when the work is opened up for public feedback, and ends 180 days after the ratings stage has concluded. During this time, WEbook can consider whether to publish the work. "Publish," as defined by section 6, means "publication of a Work or part of a Work in or as a book, an electronic book, a digital book, a magazine, a journal, a downloadable or electronically transferable file(s), an audio-book, online, a format that can be used with products such as Amazon's 'Kindle' or Sony's 'Reader' (or any device created in the future), and in any other manner that exists now or in the future that enables humans to read, hear, or view the Work."
In other words, nearly all book and serial publication rights, in all possible formats. And that's just the start. If WEbook decides to publish, the author or authors must "assign to WEbook all rights, title, and interest in and to the Content...as set forth in section 9.C of this Agreement."
All rights, title, and interest? Does that sound like a copyright grab to you? It sure does to me. Let's take a look at section 9.C (my bolding):
Member grants, transfers, assigns, and conveys to WEbook, its successors and assigns all worldwide, exclusive, and perpetual rights, title, interests, ownership, as well as all exclusive, perpetual, and worldwide subsidiary, derivative, renewal, termination, control, administrative, and transfer rights, in and to the Work/Content.
To enable WEbook to register, maintain, renew, extend, enforce, and protect its rights in the Work/Content, Member hereby irrevocably appoints WEbook its attorney-in-fact with all powers necessary to sign all such documents (including but not limited to the power of substitution). Member shall not at any time take any action contesting or in any way impairing or tending to impair any part of WEbook's exclusive, worldwide, and perpetual rights, title, and interests in and to the Work/Content.
What do writers get for surrendering ownership of their work? According to section 7, a 5% net royalty. No, I did not mis-type that. WEbook pays a royalty of five percent of net. For collaborative works, this amount is pro-rated among contributors--which, depending on the number of contributors and the price of the book, could work out to pennies per author per book (and WEbook doesn't make a royalty payment until at least $50 is due). Single authors do somewhat better--they get to keep a whole 75% of their 5%. The remaining 25% goes to people who provided feedback, "based on WEbook's exclusive and discretionary evaluation of the significance and importance of [their] contributions."
Even PublishAmerica pays better than that.
But wait, we're not done yet. Remember those removal restrictions I mentioned? Prior to the public feedback stage, writers can remove their work from WEbook at will. Once the work has been opened to public feedback, however, and during WEbook's exclusive option term, removal is not allowed. Writers' right to removal returns once the option term has expired--but if they do remove the work, they must agree "in perpetuity to pay WEbook 2.5% of all monies received by Member from Member's sale, license, transfer, or other business transaction of the Content or subsidiary rights in the Content and/or deriving from the Content or subsidiary rights in the Content (including derivative works of the Content)." Essentially, writers must pay WEbook a kill fee if they ever sell an optioned work they removed from the site, or any part, adaptation, or sequel to it.
And we're still not done. WEbook retains "irrevocable" and "perpetual" archival rights to all content ever posted on the site, optioned or not, and "has no obligation to Member to disclose any aspect of how, where, and when WEbook exercises and employs the Archival License." So years from now, your work could still be online--but you'll have no way, other than Internet searching, of finding out where or how.
In my opinion, "rapacious" is not too strong a word for all of these provisions.
Writers using WEbook are not required to open up their work for public feedback. Those who don't will not have to worry about any of the above except for the archival license. A number of groups do seem to be using WEbook for non-publication-related activity: writing exercises, topic discussions, compiling material just for fun. But the lure of publication is strong, and this is certainly what will draw many of WEbook's users--and the site is clearly wooing such users by describing itself (as on its opening page) as an "avant-garde book publishing company [that] applies an interactive approach to the process - in every sense of the word - by using the Internet as a platform to connect truly brilliant writers to print publication."
Proving, yet again, the vital importance of carefully reading the fine print.
WEbook released its first collaborative novel in March. Pandora (currently without a sales ranking on Amazon.com, and apparently not available on Barnes&Noble.com) is described as "a riveting thriller, written by more than 30 writers and other contributors." Only 17 of these contributors appear on the book's cover (only "the most significant contributors" are so recognized, WEbook's FAQ explains). Ten other releases are apparently planned for 2008.
UPDATE 8/22/11: WEbook has changed its focus from a collaborative writing website with a major publishing component, to something more like a writing projects/manuscript display/peer critique website. Services now include
- AgentInbox (which I blogged about in Nov. 2009)--a service that lets writers submit to participating literary agents
- PageToFame--seems to be an Authonomy-like peer feedback and rating service; top rated mss. are placed in a Literary Agent showcase where participating agents can see them
- Writing Projects--online writing that can be single author or collaborative.
UPDATE 2/7/14: WEbook was sold to the owner of vanity publisher Vantage Press in 2011, and quietly closed its doors sometime in 2012, after Vantage went bankrupt. In April 2013, according to Publishers Weekly, it opened up again under new ownership. It resembles Authonomy, in that writers can post projects, get critiques and votes, and participate in a community; it also publishes high-rated projects. Agent Inbox is still available; my assessment of that service hasn't changed.