Zero to Book in 3 Days

One of the burdens of book creation is the enormous time periods involved. Ask any publisher for a timeline for producing a book and you will be surprised if you get back an answer this side of 12 months. In this day however that timeline is looking increasingly glacial. How can we accelerate book production? How fast could it get? How does three days sound? Enter Book Sprints.sprint_booksThese three books were created in a three-day Book Sprint and output to paper, MOBI and EPUB on the third day.

Book Sprints bring together 4-12 people to work in an intensely collaborative way, going from zero to book in 3-5 days. There is no pre-production and the group is guided by a facilitator from zero-to-published book in the time available. The books produced are made available immediately at the end of the sprint in print (using print-on-demand services) and ebook formats. Books Sprints produce great books and they are a great learning environment and team-building process.

This kind of spectacular efficiency can only occur because of intense collaboration, facilitation and synchronous shared production environments. Forget mailing MS Word files around and recording changes. This is a different process entirely. Think contributors and facilitators, not authors and editors.

There are five main parts of a Book Sprint (thanks to Dr D. Berry and M. Dieter for articulating the following so succinctly):

  • Concept Mapping: development of themes, concepts, ideas, developing ownership, and so on.
  • Structuring: creating chapter headings, dividing the work, scoping the book (in Booktype, for example).
  • Writing: distributing sections/chapters, writing and discussion, but mostly writing (into Booktype, for example).
  • Composition: iterative process of re-structure, checking, discussing, copy editing, and proofing.
  • Publication

The emphasis is on ‘here and now’ production and the facilitator’s role is to manage interpersonal dynamics and production requirements through these phases (illustration and creation of other content types can take place along this timeline and following similar phases).

Since founding the Book Sprints method four years ago, I have refined the methodology greatly and facilitated more than 50 Book Sprints – each wildly different from the other. There have been sprints about software, activism, oil contract transparency, collaboration, workspaces, marketing, training materials, open spending data, notation systems, Internet security, making fonts, OER, art theory and many other topics.

People love participating in Book Sprints, partly because at the end of a fixed time they have been part of something special – making a book – but they are also amazed at the quality of the books made and proud of their achievement. The Book Sprints process releases them from the extended timelines (and burdens of guilt) required to produce single-authored works.

Here are some interestingwrite-upss that provide more detail on the process:

Originally published on O’Reilly, 28 Jan 2013

Fork the Book

As one of the first mass-produced industrial artifacts, the book remains a solid signifier of stability. That aura is pretty strong and makes it difficult to think about books as being anything other than static. It appears to be part of their DNA.

While we continue to refer to ebooks as ‘books,’ this genetic legacy seems to be inherited along with the name. Books are stable. Websites are not. That’s the lore.

However, this distinction is more than a little arbitrary and it’s interesting to consider what advantage there might to destabilising books. What would we gain and lose if books became unstable and staticness was viewed as a property of a particular era intimately linked to the days of the printing press and paper books?

The technology is right here to make books unstable. EPUBs, for example, are easy to re-edit and ‘re-publish’. In early 2012, I made a demo with Juan Barquero to demonstrate this reality (the ebook itself is no longer online but Phil Schatz took up the idea and you can see something similar here.

The demo uses EPUB as a storage mechanism and the editor enables you to edit the ebook directly. You can edit the pages in the ebook itself. While this is in itself interesting, it doesn’t offer much more than what you can do with word processing now. It is true that the book can be generated as an EPUB on the fly, but this is optimisation of current processes, it in itself doesn’t offer anything new. You could do the same with MS Word files, it would just take a little longer.

What is more interesting is that the demo uses GIT as a back end (Adam Witwer and the O’Reilly crew have also been working on using GIT with Atlas). GIT is a technology programmers use to collaborate on code. It allows programmers to copy (fork) code, work on it and then re-combine (merge) the changes with the work of others. The git demo opened the door to cloning, editing, forking and merging the book into infinite versions. Clicking the download button gives you a new version of the book in its current state, immediately, but there could be 5 different versions of the same book in production. Or 50, or 100. Creating a new version is simply a matter of clicking a button and the book will be forked to its own repository. Further, it is possible that each fork can inherit the improvements in other forks by merging the content of several versions into one.

What does this point to? It points towards a particular kind of book instability. However, while it is technically feasible, the question really is – does this kind of book instability have any value? I believe it does. I would go as far to say that this kind of book, which I would prefer to call a ‘forkable’ book, is more valuable in many situations than stable books.

As a very small case in point, let’s have a quick peak at the life of a forkable book. The Cryptoparty Handbook.

The CryptoParty Handbook was created in Berlin during a 3 day Book Sprint last October. It consists of over 440 pages of information for those wanting to be safe online. The speed with  which the book was created was as fast because it reused content from two existing books (licensed under Creative Commons): How to Bypass Internet Censorship and Basic Internet Security. Both of these publications were also created with Book Sprints the previous year.

Creating The CryptoParty Handbook was simply a matter of forking (copying) each of the other books and merging them into a new container. Easily done. The team, under my facilitation, then structured a new table of contents, removed chapters that were not necessary, identified content that needed to be created, and then started writing and illustrating. It didn’t take them much time to produce a book which was immensely useful for their audience and which could also be easily remixed and translated.

The handbook has now been forked quite a bit. The first version hit 30,000 downloads in the first few weeks. There have also been some interesting forks, including one by the Liberation Tech list hosted by Stanford University from where it has been forked again another 50 or 60 times. The book is now being used by CryptoParties all over the world to train people in small informal workshops. As if this isn’t enough forking, the foundation books, from which the Crytoparty handbook was based, have also been forked into many many other books.

This is just one example highlighting what can happen when we allow books to be forkable. They become extremely powerful bodies of content that can be re-purposed infinitely for whatever context is necessary. That’s pretty valuable.

As a final note. This is not some kind of hippie content love-in. There are economies in action here. It takes skill to curate and corral content, shape it, get it to meet the needs of a specific audience, and find experts to fill in the gaps. It takes experts in facilitation and curation — and that points towards new sets of skills required in the emerging publishing practice.

Originally posted on 22 Jan 2013 on O’Reillys Tools of Change site: