Be Social, Be Fun

Once you are up and running, energy needs to be put into the ongoing growth of the contributor base (assuming you haven’t hit capacity), and energy needs to put into keeping the current contributors active and involved. Again drawing a parallel between book development and code development, many open source projects have fulltime community managers. Jono Bacon is one such person – he is the community manager for Ubuntu and wrote the excellent Art of Community Book which is well worth reading, but please keep in mind that book community management doesn’t map directly onto free software community management.

Keeping the contributors involved can be a great job but it also has some gnarly issues. The vast majority of the work is social and some logistics – making sure that the technology for contributing is working and is not a burden, for example. You might not have to do any tech work yourself in these cases, but you will need to find the person that will do so. One thing that has almost universal value in this role is the ability to keep a one-to-one interaction feeling with active members of your community. You are a central pin in the entire mechanism and people like to be close to the action. Keep communicating with people, keep them talking, put them in contact with others working on similar issues, expand their networks, in other words – keep it social.

In addition to this, another secret ingredient is fun. Don’t make the mistake of taking things too seriously, and if you do, make sure that others don’t see it. It’s ok to blow your top occasionally – its actually good to be seen to be fallible –  however, you should apologise as soon as possible and get the good feeling back in the air. For the most part, however, it is very important that the community enjoys the ambiance – this might seem an intangible ‘fun factor’ but it’s more likely that it’s carefully engineered by you than it ‘just happens’.

Another very important issue, is learning when and when not to channel attention and requests to members of the community. Those that are active will become natural pivots on the center of your community, and that redirection to them can turn into a burden for those core individuals if not managed with care. Make sure you are keeping an eye on their frustration levels – if you see they’re getting too much of a load put on them by normal community processes, then you may need to step in and redirect or take on some of that traffic.

These core members are very important to the health of the project, so don’t be disappointed when they leave. Communities have natural cycles and, in addition, community members have other lives. When they inevitably move on, make sure you acknowledge them in front of the community – this is not only a good thing to do, it will relieve any disappointment you may feel and it will signal to the community that everyone is respected and valued as individuals – not just as production engines.

Also keep in mind that, although natural hierarchies will evolve, it is quite important to keep the community in an egalitarian mindset. All contributions should be valued, and all contributors should be valued. That also means that you must keep the balance of power even. Core contributors will naturally get more say in how things go, so ensure that channels are open for all voices in the community to have their say. It is also for this reason that it is not a good idea to bring any publishing world hierarchical structures to community management. Don’t think of editors and writers, think of collaborators and facilitators.

If people are enjoying themselves and enjoying the social environment, they are of course not necessarily being productive. My experience is that people involved in this kind of project generally like being productive. If they are talking, it’s usually a sign they are working.

Facilitators not Editors, Collaborators not Writers

First step towards managing the social fabric around a book, is to see the book as a community. It is a living body of text and people, and your job as a community manager is to keep it alive and help it flourish.

The vast majority of this role is managing the social processes surrounding the book. This means putting energy into people so they will put energy into the book. At the beginning, it is necessarily a 90% lossy conversion of energy! 90% of the energy you put in will see very little or no return. But that 10% that makes something happen is a foothold and that’s enough to help you build up a successful community around the book. These small successes build up and it is possible, in time, to walk away from the book and it will continue to grow by itself.

It might sound hard, and it’s not always this way, but it is mostly this way. The same is true for the development of open source code communities – simply putting the code in a source management repository does not mean an instant community will turn up and write the software for you. Source code repositories like Sourceforge and Github can be seen, to some large degree, as graveyards for thousands of projects that started and died quickly through the founder’s lack of a real understanding of how to build communities.

There are some ways, of course, that you can improve the odds. The first is by starting a book project that you just know there is a huge need for, or something people are just going to get excited about – then announce it through the available channels. If people are out there just waiting to contribute to that x factor project that gets them excited, then you can have success overnight. Of course the thing is – if you are starting a book project, you probably already believe that it has that x factor – but it might not! There is always the chance nobody sees it as being as exciting as you do.

Other factors that affect the initial uptake and contribution rate include your own profile within the sector you are addressing. Brad Pitt could probably start 1001 really boring books and get good starting contributions across a good percentage of them. That really helps a lot. You can act strategically on these issues of course – if you are not well known within the domain of the intended book, approach someone that is, and see if they will come on board early. Through strategic invitations you might end up with a good alliance of profiled contributors who may or may not do much work, but who will certainly attract others to the job.

Also of course, the actual offering itself affects the uptake. Send out an egocentric request to help *you* finish the book *you* always wanted to write, and you will probably get no takers. Send out a request for involvement that is friendly and open and which provides a good argument why the project would be a good project to get involved in – targeting your contributors own egocentrism (!) – is probably going to have a better effect.

That message should also go through the right channels too, of course. Think of the channels you need to get that message to, its tone and content – even design issues if necessary – and think about who that message should come from. In some cases, for example, its better to have someone with a reputation in the target contributor group to communicate the call to action.

This is your first step in community management – making your community an attractive prospect.

Formless Content

There is a lot of interesting stuff happening to the page right now. The page is changing in so many ways – time-based media is making its way into book pages, reactive content, scrollable space, and a multitude of differing display devices make designing pages pretty hard work these days. How to design for so many possibilities? How to understand so many possibilities?

Craig Mod of flipboard makes a very compelling argument for two forms of page in an article he wrote for Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto : formless content and definite content. (This was the first book to be produced by PressBooks.)

Craig’s argument in a nutshell and in his own words is:

The key difference between Formless and Definite Content is the interaction between the content and the page. Formless Content doesn’t see the page or its boundaries; Definite Content is not only aware of the page, but embraces it. It edits, shifts, and resizes itself to fit the page [...] Put very simply, Formless Content is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas.

Craig argues that most book content we know is formless – the text can reflow into other containers without affecting the meaning.  It’s a really well-argued position and one that is in tension to the current design methodologies of book designers today. Book designers are taught to design contained space – books are a very definite context in which they work. Desktop publishing applications are built to meet this methodology and are designed to enable pixel-perfect manipulation within a strictly contained space. If the designed digital article does not exactly match the printed artifact then something went wrong. A lot of energy has gone into this process.

Formless design principles are uneasy to consider for traditional book designers – how can you design for a page that does not yet know its container? It is literally like asking a book designer to design a book without telling them the page dimensions.

As it happens, web designers have been thinking about page design too. For a long time now web designers have made pages that embrace differing containers – they have been working, at least in part, with formless content.

What is missing, however, are good tools for taking the web designer’s aptitude for working with formless content to enable them to produce books. A good tool set for designing formless books should not work with constrained page dimensions. It is tempting, for example, to think of working with a design environment with constrained page-like artifacts – think of Google Docs as an example. Could something like Google Docs with its digital, scrollable, yet fixed page size be a good starting point for some kind of design tool? Place layout and typographical controls on top of Google Docs and do we have the next book design environment?

I don’t think so, because it is exactly the kind of idea that is blinded by the media of the past and cannot accept that things have changed. We must design tools that enable book design for formless content. What those tools look like is a very interesting question and one which Aleksandar Erkalovic (Booktype lead dev) and I have been working on with students (Hannes Bernard and Aiwen Yin) from the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam.

Our argument is that the design of formless content is really a partially constrained environment, since elements within the page have some kind of relationship to each other. This is an argument web designers are familiar with when using design tools like position:relative – a rule which sets a relative position relationships between objects. Relationships can be constrained or shaped by rules which will be at least partially preserved when displayed in different contexts. The meaning is preserved by the relationship between the elements, more than by their relationship to the constraints of a page.

This is the reasoning behind Cascading Style Sheets – the design language of the web. It is rule-based design and even partly conditional. It is possible to express conditions in CSS even though it is not done that often. A CSS rule such as :

h2+p {page-break-inside:avoid;}

is a conditional CSS rule which will apply the style only when a paragraph follows heading 2 (h2) element.

Web designers know this kind of thinking, but book designers are going to have to let go of pixel-perfect design and enjoy thinking and designing this way. It seems like a simple idea but it takes a lot to overcome legacy. The legacy is so strong that designers are pretending the issue does not exist. There are tools now appearing and sold as design environments for iPad books. They give near 1:1 page relationship between the design environment and the final result. However, we all know what happens to digital hardware – it changes. What is true now will not be true 5 years from now, so the idea that an ebook is a contained space is very appealing to traditional book designers but it will be a short-lived myth. iPads might keep the same form for 5 years, they might not but they certainly will not keep it over the next 5-10 years. Better to learn how to design in the new way than be fooled into thinking you can bring all the old methods to a new medium and get away with it for long.

What we are working on now, is a way to meet the designers half way – a visual design environment which is used for rule and condition based design. Can book designers accept a tool like like this? Will web designers just step in and take the role of book designers? Its an interesting question and one we hope to have some more experience with soon.

CSS is the new typography

The new layout language for the book is HTML. It has never been easier to make web content using HTML, hence it has never been easier to make a book.

Generally speaking, HTML is frowned upon as a source file format for books because it is seen as worst practice. Best practices require complicated file formats like “docbook” or, worse, Latex. These file formats have been designed to contain and describe content so that beautiful books can be made. Unfortunately, the process of creating docbook and Latex is extremely complicated. Getting a new user to work with either of these formats is quite a process. On the other hand, WYSWYG editors which produce HTML work very much like simple text editors. It is trivial to create HTML with a WYSIWYG editor or similar tool and it can be done online.

HTML is a very established, very well used, and very well distributed format. There are already an enormous number of people using HTML, and an enormous amount of content already stored in HTML. That content and those people are networked, and HTML has a rich legacy of tools that enable transformations into other formats. HTML is the new source format for books.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is the syntax that controls the look and feel of HTML. E-readers and web-browsers can read this syntax and present the content accordingly. Book production platforms such as Booktype enable the customisation of CSS for ebook output, but, more interestingly Booktype also enables CSS to control the look and feel of paper books. Designing in this way takes some thought since it is usually disorientating for book designers to ‘design in code’ and it is equally disorientating for web designers to use code to design material products.

The W3C CSS Working Group1 (responsible for overseeing the standard) anticipated the intersection of the book and the web some time ago. In the latest drafts of the CSS standard, new additions are almost entirely focused on typography2 . As a consequence of this emphasis, this area is starting to blossom. There has also recently been a sharp rise in the websites offering tips on CSS typography3 and an explosion of web fonts. (If you are interested in a very good insight about how fonts get to the web please watch the Unbound Book video presentation by Otmar Hoefer, the Director of Font Marketing at Linotype Library4 ).

There are also some very interesting JavaScript libraries available that are trying to make up for what is lacking in CSS typographical controls. Most are based on the well-used and prolifically distributed JQuery JavaScript libraries.

Of particular interest is the kerning.js library which combines the previously available lettering.js library. What these libraries do is to make each glyph (letter/number) into its own element, each of which can then be transformed by CSS-like rules. In plain speak, these code libraries allow you to change each letter individually in a paragraph or heading etc.

There are some nice demonstrations online about why this is interesting, of which the most interesting demo can be found at kern.js. Try visiting that page, double click the big blue circle, then click on and drag the letters individually.

If you then click ‘Finish Editing,’ you will get the CSS controls necessary to implement this effect (if you had kerning.js linked from your page).

There is also another interesting typographical library called colorfont which enables dual toned glyphs.

It is a pretty good trick they used to achieve this. Essentially they created two fonts from the same master font, each displaying just partial glyphs. When overlayed, they display the full glyph. Hence each ‘layer’ can be targeted with a different color.

With libraries like this, it is apparent that JavaScript has a future with web typography but maybe it doesn’t stop at that. These kind of tricks can also be implemented with ebooks and with more and more book designers entering the world of ebook design, I am sure we will see a growing need for more of these libraries.

Good nuanced control over font rendering is good enough at the moment and getting better quickly. However, many e-readers and all web-browsers do not support all of the CSS controls and most ebook readers do not currently support JavaScript. This will change in time, especially since ebooks are becoming a revenue stream for Apple, and Apple (together with Google) is behind the development of webkit – the rendering engine behind iBooks, Safari and Chrome. Good support of CSS typographical controls is on its way and we can expect more web designers to start designing books, and to see more book designers learning code.

What is dismaying, however, is the current trend of vendors like Apple to use non-standard CSS controls to layout the books. Baldur Bjarnasons has written some very good blog posts about this. The strategy by Apple is to make any book authored by the iBook Author software only work (or work well) when viewed with the iPad. I do not really understand this strategy – yes it is the typical platform / sales channel lock-in that Apple is known to perpetuate. However, it means that content creator content has limited distribution because of this. Apple might wave this away by saying that it is ‘innovating,’ but innovation like this cannot be seen without a degree of skepticism about the intended goals.

Nevertheless, it is possible to say with some confidence that CSS and JavaScript will come to be seen as an important development in the history of typography. Just as Gutenberg “was concerned only to imitate the book of his day – which was handwritten”5 but unintentionally gave birth to new aesthetics, we can imagine the new CSS typography to have similar consequences.

  1. http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/members.en.php3^
  2. http://dev.w3.org/csswg/css3-text/^
  3. http://www.1stwebdesigner.com/css/advanced-css-text-effects-web-typography-tips/^
  4. http://vimeo.com/24415178^
  5. Jan Tschichold, The New Typography, University of California Press, 2006, pg 15^

Content Production Markets, Long Tales, and Chapter Sales

Content Production Markets

A very speculative model which we have yet so see emerge is the development of book production ‘content production markets’. Code development has had this for a long time with sites like freelancer.com where project managers can find freelance programmers. Project managers post specific jobs to freelancer.com and programmers make bids for the work. The project manager then evaluates the bidder’s experience and client feedback against the amount the bidder posted.

It is very easy to imagine that this kind of business could evolve for book production. There are many people in the world with skills relative to book production that can be executed online – editing, writing, illustration, research, fact checking – you name it. Development of a formalised and informal trading of these skills could create significant revenues for participants and could really explode the current book production model and the revenues available for producers.

The long tale

Lastly, The Long Tale. The long tail was popularised in the age of the net by Chris Anderson. It’s the familiar strategy of selling a large number of books to small niche markets. The idea being that a lot of sales of niche items adds up to a good profit or as he put it in the title Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.

However there is another possible ‘long tale’ market here – instead of seeing a total inventory as having a ‘long tail,’ each book in itself can be customised for resale over a number of smaller markets. One book distributed over several markets, each with its very own version of the book. We have experimented with this a little in FLOSS Manuals – customising the same book for specific markets. Remixing books can be considered to be exactly this strategy but on a very small scale. Many workshop leaders use the remix feature of FLOSS Manuals to generate workbooks with content taken from several existing books. We have also encouraged consultants to take books from FLOSS Manuals, clone them, and customise the book to speak directly to their potential and existing customers. It is a powerful pre- and post-sales device. The long tale here has a market of 1 – the client. This is the very end of the long tale, but the return can be lucrative for the consultant that secures a sale or return sale because of their valued added services powered by customised documentation.

I believe there is a business here – either customising content as a service or providing the tools for people to customise heir own content. It is also very possible that one book could in itself provide a lucrative ‘long tale’ business if the tale was long enough.

Chapter Sales

Some are putting their money on the sale of book components – selling parts of a book, typically in chapter form. This necessitates closed copyright as a rule. O’Reilly have been experimenting with this for about 5 years and it seems to be their darling, the newest iteration being the Inkling project which is strongly backed by them. Inkling markets educational material in chapter form.

I think this is a very interesting strategy but I don’t like it because the sale of content like this always works against reuse and collaboration. If the bottom line is still in resale of the artefact, this will always work against free culture and movements like the Open Education Resources movement. From this perspective this process is flowing against new forms of education processes. I can’t help but be cynical to think Inkling will make more money from a single book through chapter sales than they would ever make from selling the book as a whole. If you look at some of Inkling’s titles and total up the price per chapter against the total number of chapters then it is apparent the cost to the buyer exceeds the cover price of the entire book. It’s a cynical move. Real innovation in this field would construct markets for chapter production with the contents being free to distribute and reuse as mentioned above. Unfortunately, chapter resale in the form that O’Reilly and Inkling pursue is going to have a successful market but it’s working against more enlightened approaches to education and the future of the book in the long term.