Paying for Books that don’t Exist (yet) has taken up the concept of crowdfunding with significant success. The premise is simple: an individual defines a project that needs funding, defines rewards for different levels of contribution, and sets a funding goal. If pledges meet the funding goal, the money is collected from pledgers and distributed to the project creator, who uses the funding to make the project. If the project does not reach the funding goal by the deadline, no money is transferred. Most projects aim for between $2,000 and $10,000.

Kickstarter approaches have their issues, but they raise an interesting point – people are prepared to fund a book before it is produced. Or to put it another way and one which covers a wider spectrum of emerging book economics – people are willing to pay for books that don’t yet exist.

A while ago I worked with a Dutch organisation by the name of They are a small hosting provider based in Amsterdam with a staff list of about 8. The boss wanted to bring their team to Berlin to make a book about basic internet security so they hired me to facilitate a Book Sprint. We invited some locals to help and organised a venue for four days. In total, about 6 people were in attendance (including myself as facilitator) and we started one Thursday and finished the following Sunday – one day earlier than expected. The book is a great guide to the topic and quite comprehensive – 45,000 words or so written in 4 days with lots of nice illustrations.

The following morning the book went to the printers and then was presented  in print form two days later at the International Press Freedom Day in Amsterdam.

The presentation at International Press Freedom Day was complemented by a PR campaign driven by Greenhost. The attention worked very well as the online version of the book received thousands of visits on the manual within a few hours (slowing our server down considerably at one point) and there was also a lot of very nice international and national (Dutch) press attention. This worked very well for Greenhost as this is the kind of promotional coverage that is otherwise very hard to generate. That makes sponsoring of Book Sprints a very good marketing opportunity for organisations.

Many of the organisations I work with approach Book Sprints with similar ideas in mind. They think about what kind of book their organisation would want to bring into the world, then design a PR strategy around the book. The book is often given away free in electronic form to their target market, maximising the reach and goodwill created.

Of course, this approach does not come without its issues. Organisations that pay to have something produced generally do not like it if the product disagrees with them. Worse is the mindset that this possibility can produce in the producers. Anticipating and avoiding disagreement is in effect a kind of self-policing that can stifle creativity, especially when you are working collaboratively. However, this can be mitigated by hiring a good facilitator.

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 creating or customising content as a service or providing the tools for people to customise their own content. In either case, we are seeing a broad willingness for organisations and individuals to pay to get the content they want before it is available ‘off-the-shelf’.

In-Browser Design

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 : formless and definite content in an article he wrote for Book: A Futurists Manifesto – 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. This position is in tension to the thinking of most book designers today. Designers of paper books design contained space and desktop publishing applications are built to manage pixel-perfect manipulation within a strictly defined and known container. If the finished digital article does not exactly co-relate to the printed artefact then something went wrong; it is assumed that either the designer, or the tool, has done a bad job.

Those familiar with this kind of process are uneasy with designing formless content – how can you design a page when you do not know its container? It is literally like asking a book designer to design a book without telling them the page dimensions. Web designers, on the other hand, have been thinking about page design too, and they have for a long time, at least in part, been designing for formless content.

The design of formless content is really a partially-formless, partially-constrained design process since elements within the page have some kind of relationship to each other, and they can have relationships to characteristics of a page, such as top or top left, for example. These relationships are defined by rules, the same rules I have discussed previously – CSS aka Cascading Style Sheets. Relationships can be articulated with CSS which will be preserved when displayed in different contexts. The meaning is preserved by the relationship between the elements and page features more than by their relationship to the the exact x,y position of a page with a specific dimension, although strict placement is possible. This is the job of Cascading Style Sheets – the design language of the web. It is rule-based design with some conditional arguments and it is the method for designing electronic books; it will become, increasingly, the technology for describing the layout and design of paper-based print.

All of this can be manipulated in the browser. In fact, the browser is the best place to design flowable text since it is the flowable type environment of our time and, as mentioned before, the browser (Webkit) is the background technology for many e-readers. We have not yet seen the development of very good flowable design environments in the browser, but that is changing. The closest we have seen so far are the ‘in-browser’ design environments that some internet service providers make available for their customers to ‘design their own website online!’ While actually quite powerful, these environments are generally horrible to use, but this practice is applicable to the design of ebooks.

The desktop publishing world is not taking this lying down, and Adobe, in particular, has been pursuing what they call “Adaptive Design Tools” for the production of ‘liquid content’. Liquid content is flowable content, content that can rescale and position itself to fit the container. Adobe’s tools are intended for content targeted for mobile devices and tablets, although they also identify a role for it in print production. Adobe’s yet-to-be-released Adobe Edge is the product targeted at this flowable design process and their background technology for this design environment is – Webkit, the same browser mentioned earlier. Webkit is the ‘design surface’ for the new generation of desktop design tools coming from established publishing technology providers.

Coming back to the paper book. Until recently it has been extremely difficult to generate a PDF that exactly co-relates to what you see in a browser. Until now the browser accessed the PDF-creation features of the operating system. Hence a PDF from the same browser would look different if that browser were running in Windows, Mac or Linux. Just recently this has changed and the browser itself is now making the PDF. Chrome has been pioneering this ‘Native PDF’ output from the browser and the output looks exactly as you see it in the browser. One to one co-relation of content in the browser to the content in the PDF is a breaking point which points the way to designing your paper book in a browser. We are getting to the point where you can use a browser just as you would a desktop publishing application to design paper books.

The browser can now play every part of the book production process except the actual printing (although from the browser you can upload PDF to print-on-demand services such as

What this means is that you can write a book in the browser, while at the same time it is being proofed and edited, and designed. Each part of this formerly-linear production cycle can now become synchronous. You can now write, edit, proof, design the book ‘in the book’.

Collaboration and Book Production

Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act. —Tom Clancy

The emergence of online book production tools is, of course, bringing writers online. Authoring books online seems to bring two apparently opposing dynamics into play – the social web and the author. The production in the context of the increasingly noisy, social web seems at odds with the typical conception of solitary writer and the juxtaposition simultaneously brings into focus the potential for collaboration or ‘social production’ together with questions of authorship.

The modern discourse around book authorship began in 1969 when Michel Foucault asked, What is an Author? he  drew attention to a shift in the definition of an “author’s” role that represented a “privileged moment of individualisation in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences” ([Foucault 2002]). Scholars and theorists of various academic disciplines have spent the last thirty years responding to Foucault in what has grown into a vibrant intellectual discourse on authorship. We need to enter this debate to discover what might lie ahead for online book production.

One of the foremost participants in this discussion is Martha Woodmansee, who notes [Woodmansee 1992] that the modern concept of author is rooted in the Romantic notion that significant writers, “break altogether with tradition to create something utterly new, unique—in a word, ‘original.’” As Benjamin Mako further discusses [Mako, 1995], this popular belief in an author’s primary, even exclusive, role in the creation of a text, is referred to as Romantic authorship and before the rise, and eventual dominance of this notion, writing gained value from its creative affiliation with existing works, or what Martha Woodmansee describes as “its derivation, rather than its deviation from prior texts” [Woodmansee 1994]. Before this important shift, the authorial role was often compared to that of a commentator, compiler, or transcriber. Woodmansee references a definition by the thirteenth century St. Bonaventure who describes an author as one who “wrote both with his own work and others’ but with his own work in the principle place adding others’ for purposes of confirmation” [Woodmansee 1994] . This thirteenth-century definition of authorship places literary creation squarely within the context of collaboration.

In this time, through the support of author honoraria, the constant production of new work was insured without the need for system of intellectual property or ownership. This arrangement was essential as the dominant models of literary creation were fundamentally intertwined with borrowing and collaboration.

Prompted by the rise of copyright in Britain in 1709, the eighteenth century introduced a new concept of individualised authorship based on the idea of a creative genius working alone. This idea—one at odds with collaborative, collective, or corporate creation—has remained widely influential despite powerful arguments made by theorists like Foucault and Woodmansee and a growing body of evidence that collaborative and collective creation is more effective than individual work.

At its birth, copyright was lobbied for and designed to benefit publishers alone. For at least the first century of its institution, authors continued to write in the ways they had before. They borrowed as they had before; they collaborated as they had before; they plagiarised as they had before. Collaboration in the forms popularised before the institution of copyright remained popular. However, by selling the rights to their ideas, authors were presented with a new system of compensation for their work: a way to “live by their pen.” They realised that by solidifying their access to these rights, they might insure their ability to make a living. This coincided, and was intimately connected, with the explosive growth of the publishing industry in Europe. Authors felt they needed to insure compensation for their intellectual productions and saw their copyright, described in the Statute of Anne and similar acts in other countries, as an available method for achieving this goal.

This is not to imply that collective authorship is not possible today, however, joint authorship operates in an environment hostile to collaborative work, and, as a result, is difficult at best. Under current systems of literary production defined by copyright and Romantic conceptions of authorship, writers have few other options. By emphasizing ownership and control as the primary, and in most cases the only, method of compensation for literary work, meaningful collaboration becomes difficult in all cases and impossible in most. Rather than borrow and work together, authors will work alone. Rather than borrow an idea, passage or theme from another novel and risk a copyright suit, authors are more likely to not include the theme or passage at all. The fact that joint-authorship and collaboration can function at all in this hostile environment, is testament to the power and of collaboration. Without a strong system of control shaping the landscape of literary creation, it is very likely our idea of how books are made would be very different and collaboration would play a central, valued, role.

However there have recently been some changes that affect these issues deeply and there is reason to be optimistic about the future of collaborative book production. Creative Commons is often heralded as a free content license movement. A ‘free content license’ is one which gives more nuanced control over the rights afforded by copyright. Instead of using the standard ‘all rights reserved’ copyright license, more and more people are subscribing to this idea of ‘free licenses’ or ‘free culture’ and producing work under more liberal copyright licenses. This article, for example, uses a Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution license which means that anyone can do anything with it, commercially or otherwise, without needing to get any authorial permission as long as they attribute the source.

Licences such as these are important as legal mechanisms for opening up the opportunities for the reuse of content, however they are also an essential environment for collaborative production. The whole process just becomes more fluid. There is no need to sign ‘work for hire’ or other legal agreements to enable collaborative relationships, one can simply get on with the job. Free licenses provide a legal framework which is not, in itself, hostile to collaboration and from that position we can look at single authorship as a choice, not a given.

However, we must recognise that 300 years of copyright and a long era of Romantic authorship has left us with inadequate tools for engaging in the collaborative process. It is difficult to get beyond our deeply internalised ideas of book production, and we find ourselves unwilling to leave behind the romantic notion of authorship, as it is, well, romantic and very enticing. Collaboration, on the other hand, is difficult to imagine and, we should not forget, it has an army of derisionists like Tom Clancy, not to mention the academic and commercial publishing worlds, that are invested in devaluing it. Can books really be produced collaboratively and what does the process offer? It is difficult for many of us to answer these basic questions whereas we feel we understand the value and the offer of sole authorship.

In order to ease into the question, it is perhaps worth avoiding the word ‘author’ to describe the book production process. Instead of talking about the author, or even multiple authorship, let’s forget the word all together and reframe it in another way. I propose we instead think about strong and weak collaboration.

It is evident that the books you see in the book stores in your town are not produced by one person alone. Let’s imagine that someone did, in fact, write the entire book and it was untouched by an editor’s hand – we can at least accept that the sole writer did not design the book or the cover or take the entire bundle to the printer to be produced. There may be some cases where this has happened, certainly in the self-publising world this is not uncommon, but thinking for now about the established publishing industry. That book by Tom Clancy had at least some one, or more, involved in the process unless Tom is hiding his desktop publishing talents from us.

However, let’s just limit our focus to possible collaborative relationships which effect the actual text. There is practically no book that goes through the publishing process entirely intact. At some point, someone put in their hand to make an improvement, even if small. Did Tom do a thorough grammar check? Any proofreading or editorial comments before printing?

I would characterise this kind of interaction with the text as minimal or weak collaboration. More than one hand was at play to make that exact text which appears in the book: this was a collaborative effort, albeit an extremely weak one.

Moving up the scale. Where a writer and an editor might interact often regarding the text as it is being produced, the editor offering suggestions for improvement, or editing the text directly, this could be characterised as having a stronger collaborative nature than the previous example.

Stronger still is a relationship of two or more writers working very closely together to produce a text. This is evident in any number of ‘single author’ classics such as Frankenstein, which is attributed to Mary Shelley although we know now that Percy Shelly had a strong hand in some of the text, or The Wasteland, which has been discussed by many as a case in point where T.S Eliot collaborated closely with both Vivienne Elliot and Ezra Pound in its production.

Lastly, at the far end of the scale, we have intense collaboration where the delineation between ‘who wrote what’ disappears even to the collaborators themselves as they are producing the text.

As it happens, most books feature not just collaboration but intense collaboration between writer and editor.

As Valerie Peterson warns, “Once you sign a contract with a book publisher, you’re essentially in partnership to create “the book,” and you both have a say in the end-product. From trimming the fat of your language (akin to “killing your babies”) to altering the logical flow of the chapters, your book editor will have much to say about how your text will look in print. While your editor is there to make the book (and you!) sound better–and a thoughtful, skilled editor absolutely will do that–you two may not always agree on what’s best for the finished book. If you’re going to publish, it’s good to be prepared for some “creative differences.”

An  editor may be so esteemed by writers wanting to be published that they choose publishers, where possible, by the esteem they have for the editor involved. A wonderful example of this is found in How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Graydon Carter and Keith Gessen. Choosing a publisher is to choose an editor, which in turn is really choosing a collaborative partner.

If we allow ourselves to do away with the notion of authorship and instead characterise the interactions on a collaborative spectrum we can see that collaboration already plays an important role in a ‘typical’ process, and it has more value than we may have first thought. Book production is actually a collaborative process and quite an intense one. The publishing world has hidden this from view because of the reasons discussed above but we should not be fooled into believing that creating a book involves Romantic authorship. Collaboration is a technique we use to improve all books, and we should bring it into focus and explore it.

The advantage of producing books online is that we have an enormous scope of collaborative activity available to us. Until now, exploration of the possibilities has largely been limited because of our investment in myths of authorship but if we discard this notion we can explore the opportunities the web offers. The good thing about the net is that ‘the door’ can be regulated depending on the production needs. We may wish to fling the door wide and invite anyone to come in and work on a text, or we may shut the door completely and work in isolation. We may need to, for example, remain in a weak collaborative position for quite some time as we flesh out a work. Later, when we ask for feedback we move slightly up the scale, and later still when the first manuscript is in the hands of an editor we move up the scale to quite strong collaboration. The point is, we have the choice, and much more choice than we had before.

With thanks to Benjamin Mako Hill for asynchronous inspiration and collaboration on this text. Many thanks also to Rachel O’Reilly for improving this post.

This version expanded from  (11 December 2012)


HTML is the new paper and the new path to paper online editing environments are becoming much more important for publishing. Dominant until now has been the WYSIWYG editor we all know and…err…love? However, the current WYSIWYG paradigm has been inadequate for a long time and we need to update and replace it. Producing text with a WYSIWYG editor feels like trying to write a letter while it’s still in the envelope. Let’s face it…these kinds of online text editors are not an extension of yourself, they are a cumbersome hindrance to getting a job done.

Apart from huge user experience issues the WYSIWYG editor has some big technical issues. Starting with the fact that the WYSIWYG editor is not ‘part of the page’ it is instead its own internally nested world. In essence, it is an emulator that, through Javascript, ‘reproduces’ HTML. As a walled/emulated garden, it is hard to operate on the objects in the garden using standard Javascript libraries and CSS. All interactions must be mediated by the editor. The ‘walled garden’ has little to do with the rest of the page – it offers a window through which you can edit text, but it does not offer you the ability to act on other objects on the page or have other objects act on it.

Thankfully a new era of editors is here and maturing fast. Still in search of a clearly embraced category name they are sometimes called ‘inline editors’ or HTML5 editors. This new generation takes a large step forward because they enable the user to act on the elements in the page directly through the HTML5 ‘contenteditable’ attribute. That allows ‘the page’ to be the editing environment which in turn opens up the possibility for the content to be represented in a variety of forms/views. By changing the CSS of the page, for example, we can have the same editable content shown as multi-column (useful for newspaper layout), as a ‘Google docs type’ clean editing interface, in a semantic view for highlighting paragraphs and other structural elements (important for academics), as well as other possibilities….

Additionally, it is possible to apply other javascript libraries to the page including annotation software such as AnnotateIt or typographical libraries such as kern.js. This opens up an enormous amount of possibilities for any use case to be extended by custom or existing third-party JavaScript libraries.

It is also possible to consider creating CSS snippets and apply them dynamically using the editor. This in effect turns the editor into a design interface which will open the path for in-browser design of various media including, importantly, ebooks and paper books.

There are various attempts at the HTML5 editor, which might also be called a ‘WYSI’ (‘What you see is‘) editor. The most successful are Mercury, Aloha and the recent fork of Aloha called ‘WYSIWHAT‘.

Each of these is treading their own path but things are really opening up. As an example, and with reference to the last post I made about math in browsers, the WYSIWHAT group is making some giant strides in equation editing. Their equation plugin which was first built by Mihai Billy Balaceanu at the September WYSIWHAT hack meet in Berlin has since been improved and extended by the Connexions team and the good people at OERPUB (including the talented trio of Phil Schatz, Kathi Fletcher and Marvin Reimer). The plugin was made by including MathJax in the page and allowing the editor to interact with that. This was not easily possible with previous WYSIWYG editors.

The progress on the equation front is looking very good but what this shows more than anything is that by using WYSI editors the entire page is available for interaction by the user or JavaScript. Anything you can think of that JavaScript can do you can bring to the editing environment, and that is quite a lot…

Published on O’Reilly, 3 December 2012