The Art of Losing Control

The production of a book is usually very tightly controlled by the author(s) and publisher(s) that produce it. We have come to accept that as just the way it is. You want to write a book, then naturally you have the right to decide what the text of that book will be.  Seems almost non-controversial.

So, it’s normal to be asked how can you exercise a similar amount of control over a book in Booki. Its an understandable question but very difficult to answer. Difficult because the answer has to cross paradigms – the first paradigm being the established book production and publishing model that we all know, and the second being book production with free licenses in an open system. So I usually find myself answering questions like this with a simple “You can’t,” and waiting for the reaction. It’s intended to be a provocative answer and the further the eyes roll back in the skull the more I know I have to unwrap the concept of ‘publishing’ in the new(ish) era of free culture for whoever it was that asked the question.

But the reality isn’t so simple – it’s much more interesting.

First, there seems often to be an unspoken assumption that control is necessary. Along with this comes the assumption that open content must be protected. Protected from harm – not just the malicious kind, but harm inflicted by contributions that lower the quality of the text. My experience from four years running an entirely open system (FLOSS Manuals) is that there is little to fear except spam. In four years running FLOSS Manuals, I have not seen a single malicious edit. It seems to be the case that if people are not interested in your book they will leave you alone. If they are interested, I have found that the approaches to the text are sensitive and respectful and more often than not they improve the work – sometimes in very surprising ways. On one book I worked on, a retired copy editor went from top to bottom of the 45,000 word text in his afternoons and made an incredible improvement to the text. I would like to have thanked him but I never met him.

The trick is not to protect the text but to manage it. To do this, first, you must make a decision on what kind of development process this will be and what kind of contributions you would like.  From my experience, the best strategy is to try and relinquish as much control as possible in order to achieve the right kind and amount of contributions. To this end, Booki provides some very useful tools to help you. If you want to keep your book very quiet, then you can hide a book so that it does not appear on Booki at all, except on your profile page. Privacy through obscurity. If you want to keep things really really quiet, then you can grab the Booki sources and install Booki on your own server (or laptop) somewhere out of reach of anyone. Or if you want the book totally open for anyone to jump in, then that is the default position with Booki all you have to do then is get the word out as much as you can and invite people to contribute. If you create a new book or chapter then that information gets broadcast on the front page of Booki, however, it is often harder than you think to attract attention and contributions. It often relies on how effectively you can get the word out and how attractive you make the offer. You need to reach out to people and inspire them. The more direct the approach the better – personal emails work best – and emphasising concrete outcomes is very likely to improve results, as is making the offer fun, relevant and illustrating a real need. But the usual rules apply for attracting volunteers in any realm – it’s a mix of luck and getting the tone and channels right.

Once the contributions start rolling in, then it’s up to you to manage this process. To this purpose, there are a number of tools available in Booki – most importantly the history tab where you can view changes and roll back to earlier versions of any chapter as you wish. If things get out of control, you can clone (copy) the entire book and decide on a more moderate development approach. However, the best tool for managing input and getting the book to where you want it to be is social management. You need to coerce the contributors to come along with you and share your vision of what the book should be. At the same time, you need to also be able to make the process satisfying to them. There are tools available to help with this communicative process (chat, notes etc) but it’s often reliant on your tone and approach.

‘How to control’ a book is a question I would like to see asked more often with more nuance and colour to the question. However, I think if you can lose the feeling that you must control the book and instead relinquish as much control as possible, you will be surprised and very probably excited by the results. In a world of free culture, it’s all about the art of losing control…


The Model, The Model

So what are the revenue models for collaboratively produced free books? Seems like a very difficult proposition. Not only do you have to find some way to sell something that is free, always at least a little tricky, but you have then split that revenue between multiple authors, not just one. Sounds like a losing game to many publishers, I am sure. The ‘traditional’ model, or at least the model that is re-establishing itself through app stores, to sell the final product. App stores sell electronic books very very cheaply and make them easy to access – the theory being that you will buy something if it is cheap and not a hassle to get. You are in effect paying for a service, not the book. So the theory goes – it can also work for free content since the book is not the commodity but the service.

This could be the way and it at least appears to be working for some publishers, if you believe the evangelism for this model at places like the O’Reilly Tools of Change conferences. However, I think there are more interesting possibilities.

Recently a free book developed in FLOSS Manuals by a single author (James Simmons) was put onto the ‘crowdsourcing’ platform ( The Rural Design Collective put the book there to raise money to do the design and production of it. As they stated in the project summary:

How We Will Use The Money
 Our program will take place during the 2010 summer months, June – August. Using our collaborative work on the FLOSS Manual as a guide, we will build a three month course around eBooks. Custom-designed physical copies of the FLOSS Manual will be created by the participants in our program to continue to raise awareness and funds for our work. In addition, a stand-alone website will be created containing code samples and utilities to help others get started working with eBooks.

So they were pitching the book as tool that would have a very real and tangible output – a 3-month course on eBooks. The project effectively then has at least 2 tangible outcomes – the book and the course (plus the website etc). This is pretty much considered ‘best practice’ when pushing things on crowdsourcing platforms. Make the proposition tangible and real.

The Rural Design Collective raised $2130 US dollars for the project. Not a sum most publishers would be interested in but it does raise an interesting point – people are prepared to fund a book that they want. That’s quite a reversal – the consumer is actively switching sides to become ‘part’ of the production team by helping finance the product. The advantage of this process is that if you can raise the funds for the project like this then you don’t have to rely on sales to recover your costs or make a profit. That means there is a better chance for the product to be a ‘no strings attached’ free product. The content can actually be free because no one is anxious to recover their costs from sales. That also means that the post-production can focus on distributing the content as far and wide as possible because at that stage the return is recognition through distribution. This can, if done well, help with the next project that needs funding…the better you are known for producing good quality free products the easier it will be to convince people to help pay for their production.

But…’what about the real money’? Surely a question on every publisher’s lips right now… how to find people that want books to be produced and get them to pay for them. Universities want books? Get them to pool their resources and pay for the books’ entire production. NGOs want books? Same deal… turn the economics on its head. Don’t take the risk of getting a return from sales, find the people with the money that want to pay for the books before you produce them, and have your incoming revenue stream solved before you write the book…. Why do it collaboratively I hear the attentive reader asking? Because you can do it fasterthat way, and if you have someone paying for something, you don’t want to make them wait. Book Sprint it. This model can work for you, it can work for the ‘commissioners,’ and more importantly, it can work for free culture.