Bookimobile takes to the road

Last week the new Bookimobile took to the road. It’s a van that has everything inside to produce books, a mobile book production lab and powered by Booki!

Bookimobile in Barcelona

The van is a VW T4 and has the following equipment:

Fastback 15XS Binder
Ideal electric paper guillotine
Samsung 2851 ND duplex black and white laser printer + ink
IP4000 color inkjet
Heaps of paper (A4)
Card for covers
Scissors, rulers, paper knives, cutting boards etc
Power cables, extension boards etc

With all this, you can make books!

The idea is based on the Internet Archives Book Mobile. We pretty much stole the idea from them (we asked first 😉 and loaded the van with everything needed to make books and drove it on its first outing 2000km from Berlin to Barcelona. It was a long haul.

The process of making the books takes some time to refine but we learned a tremendous amount. In short, the process runs like this:

  1. create a book in Booki (we used existing books)
  2. output A5 book-formatted PDF from Booki
  3. print the PDF as a ‘booklet’ using the duplex (for double-sided printing) printer
  4. cut the book to size using the paper cutter
  5. bind the spine using the Fastback 15XS
  6. print the cover
  7. work out where to crease the spine to wrap nicely around the contents
  8. add the cover to the contents (it adheres with the binding spines we use for the fastback)
  9. trim the book nice and tight with the cutter

That’s it! Once printed, the procedure takes about 5 minutes and the total cost for a 100-page book is less than a Euro. The books look great!

Freshly cut book

The Bookimobile is designed to take book production to the world. With Booki and the equipment, it’s possible to go to schools, events, festivals, streets and make free books…

Booki User Guide

We will document more of this shortly on the blog and talk more about the Bookimobile and the process of producing books. We will also work on Booki to help the production of books using home or office duplex printers.

The Bookimobile is sponsored by Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, Mozilla, iCommons, CiviCRM and the Internet Archive. Many thanks to these organisations for making this possible.

The Book as Motivator

It is amazing what a great motivator it is to say to anyone, “you will be part of making a book.”

It sounds exciting. It is! It has more power than saying, “you will be part of making a PDF or web page.” Although… that’s actually what we are doing, creating it via a website interface, it is not nearly as magical. We are making a PDF that we send to a printer. Or we are making an EPUB/ebook or series of templated-HTML pages… etc… but that reality contains no magic. As Arthur C Clarke once said:  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Enabling people to produce that magic themselves is very powerful. We have come to think of the book production process as something only publishers can do. However, we now have that magic in our own hands, enabled by a wonderful array of technologies such as digital file formats, digital networks, the web, standards, protocols, rapid binding technologies, cheap and fast printing, and online book production platforms. Each part of this technology chain might be familiar enough to us that we don’t think of them as magical but we put them together and something magic happens.

The invitation to make a book is a very important motivator – but don’t take my word for it, here are some nice quotes from some participants of collaborative book projects I have been involved in:

"This week has been amazing! ... I know I did NOT expect to have a book in print within the week!... Four books in one week, from 29 people. I still can't believe it."
"Last week I wrote a book! Three of them, actually :) ... it was a (very!) collaborative effort. I’m exhausted, as I said, but also inspired...and I’m incredibly proud of what we produced. It would be a respectable outcome from several weeks of work, and we managed it in barely three days."
"I had no idea when the week started that we were going to write a book in a week, nor that it was possible to do that."

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the speed of making a book that generates this feeling of magic. The rise in popularity of print-on-demand illustrates that people love to make books even if it costs them more for a book ẃhich is sometimes of a lower print quality than mass-produced books. But that’s not the point either. The point is that it is their book, one they participated in producing. That is the magic and the motivation and the faster the book is produced the stronger that motivation.

Of course, what people are actually doing is not ‘producing books.’ They are collaborating in a very special way to produce knowledge and culture, a way that is almost egoless, amazingly energising, and can only occur because of free culture. That is what is really magical and the idea of producing a book is a great motivator to getting us there.

[Produced somewhere around 2010/2011]

What is a Free Book?

To get the rewards of collaboration and reuse, content must be easily shared and that means content must be free. What is ‘free content’?

What is ‘free content’?

Since 2001, there has been a movement called Creative Commons [ see ] which is the latest in a long line of projects to produce copyright licenses that allow the copyright holder more nuanced control over the rights reserved and conferred. The ‘standard’ and default copyright license is ‘all rights reserved’. That means no one can do anything with your content without your permission. That license, for example, makes criminals out of students that photocopy chapters for their personal use. It is actually more complicated than that, as each country has its own specific laws governing copyright. However, copyright law for all countries has the same general intention – to stop anyone other than the copyright holder from reusing the copyrighted work without permission.

Creative Commons gives more control over the rights the copyright holder transfers to others. For example, the Creative Commons Non-Derivative licenses allow others to copy the work legally but not to change it. The Creative Commons Share-Alike license allows anyone to reuse and change the content, as long as they transfer the same right to others who utilise the derivative work

‘Free content’ is a condition of reuse and collaboration. It is extremely hard to work collaboratively within a constrained copyright environment and almost impossible to reuse such content. So is making content free simply a matter of choosing a Creative Commons license? No, it is not. To understand why we can start by looking at the requirements of software freedom as outlined by the Free Software Foundation:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The sub-sector which labels itself ‘Open Publishing,’ while advocating Free Culture as the way forward for publishing, largely doesn’t seem to abide by these kinds of freedoms, especially with regard to making the source available for change, which is stated as a precondition for two of the above ie. “Access to the source code is a precondition….”.

‘Open’ mostly means ‘free to distribute’ in the open publishing world. It does not mean or imply the right to have access to the editable sources, nor does it mean the right to fork. The reluctance to embrace these freedoms is closely related to the fear of losing control of a book and the fear of ‘poor quality’ creeping in. Hence open production seems pretty untenable for the majority of the open publishing world.

If it is going to differentiate itself from merely ‘open distribution,’ ‘Open Publishing’ must address these issues. It might be good to develop a similar ‘Four Freedoms’ manifesto for free books. It is important to do this because so far we have got it wrong: Creative Commons licenses, for example, do not require the source to be available. However, freedom is not just about licenses and we shouldn’t rely on others to define free culture for us: we must generate a culture where we acknowledge and uphold the values and consequences of free content. If we don’t do so, we will not be able to take advantage of the immense value Free Culture really offers.

Books should be free, they should always be available to be used, transformed into other formats (an especially necessary freedom in this day of multiple ebook readers), re-used, translated, remixed – whatever you want. Books should not die on the shelves, or as a PDF-only release, or in an archive.

In the discourse of free culture, however, the discussion of what constitutes a free book pretty much starts and ends at the license. Is this a free book? Does it have a Creative Commons (or similar?) license? Yes? Then it is a free book. Solved.

We need a culture that embraces the values and consequences of free content, not a culture that worships licenses.

A free license does not mean that a book is free. The following are common strategies for copyright protection that are exercised by producers of ‘freely licensed content’:

Not-free free license

A not-free book in this context uses a license that appears free but isn’t really. Licenses like the Free Documentation License and those Creative Commons licenses that have Non-Commercial (NC) or No-Derivative (ND) conditions are not free. I don’t want to get into this here, as it is a lengthy and (in my opinion) boring conversation, but the bottom line for me is, can you use this book in any way you want? If the answer is no, it’s a not-free book.

Ambiguously not-free

Many publishers use two licenses for their content. Strange but true. They use a standard copyright ‘all rights reserved’ license and something like a Creative Commons license, or sometimes there is just confusing and conflicting information. If you want an example, take a look at page vi of the following Ubuntu manual

It states :   This book is published under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 license

Sounds good but it is soon followed by a lengthy ‘go away’ clause that reads :

This publication is protected by copyright, and permission must be obtained from the publisher prior to any prohibited reproduction, storage in a retrieval system, or transmission in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical photocopying, recording or likewise unless permitted under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

That is, in my opinion, confusing to most readers. CC-BY-SA is one of the most-free licenses but the clause reads like a standard ‘all rights reserved’ (proprietary) license and would send off the same signals to the average reader ie. go away and don’t even bother to try and do something with this book (other than reading it). This is not-free.

Practically not-free

This is the worst type of not-freedom as it is essentially a trick to appear free while actually employing a mechanical form of copyright protection. Many books might use very good free licenses and use very bold, unambiguous and clear license statements. So, does this make it free? Well, no. The reason is that in order for something to be re-used it needs to first be in a state that enables its re-use. For example, PDF is not a good re-usable format. Printed books are also not a good re-usable format. Both of these formats allow content to be copied but this is not the same as re-used. This kind of trick is often used by publishers wanting to gain currency and favour in the Free Culture or Open Educational Resources sectors. To them, we can only say : WE NEED THE SOURCE.

Many otherwise very good free content fails to even offer the content in formats that can be easily transformed. ‘Offering the source’ would allow readers to create other formats. One very good example is the Theory On Demand series (which is freely downloadable here ) which only offers PDF and online FLASH player versions of the books: you cannot get the sources so you cannot create EPUBs for your iPad or Mobi for your kindle.

However if ‘free’ means that only copying is allowed then it is a poor freedom to have. We want to be able to change books, convert them to other formats, translate them, improve them – as free licenses suggest we can. What if I want to change the contents of a book how do I do it? If I have to first reproduce the book by manually typing out 40,000 words then the book is practically not-free. It is for this reason that free culture licenses should mandate that books (must be specified as this clause is not applicable to all media) must provide the source somewhere (online is suffice) in plain text or other standardised popular format. Currently, most free licenses do not require this, so many books can avoid this issue while still calling themselves free.

A good analogy exists here with free software. For example, a PDF is essentially a binary and distributing a PDF and calling it ‘free’ is like distributing a software binary and calling it free. Free software is aware of this catch and hence for a software to be free you must be able to access the source code. You have not only the right to change free software but the means to change it. The same understanding should exist for books. Can you get access to the content so you can change it easily? If the answer is no, then it is not a free/open book.

Further to this, I would argue that all books must make it known through the appendices, colophon, or in the body of the text itself, where the original raw sources can be found.

On this topic, Creative Commons licenses are actually ill-equipped to tackle this issue. The source of books should be available for anyone to access so they can easily work with the book, and if we must (yawn) live in a world of copyright, then the license should at least require that the book source is available. Currently, Creative Commons licenses do not require this, whereas the General Public License (and others) do.

Access to the editable source of a book is a pre-condition for a free book.

Not-free mandate

Lastly, let’s re-examine the culture of proprietorship. In the world of software, there are two main types of software – free/open and proprietary. The former is licensed with open licenses enabling reuse and alteration etc and the later licensed under closed all-rights-reserved copyright licenses and complicated end-user agreements. Suffice to say that the effect of proprietary software is that you can’t mess with it.

However, free software can also suffer from cultural proprietorship regardless of the license used. Essentially if you do not feel that you have the mandate to change something then you are not empowered to change it. This can often be the consequence of the culture of a free software project – many of which are not open cultures by any means. Mostly they are male-dominated meritocracies which intimidate many would-be contributors.

The same scenario can exist for book production regardless of the license being used. In fact, books have a heavy cultural legacy of proprietorship that we must work hard to overcome. Books are made by “authors” and it is difficult to challenge the domain of the author even if the author is obviously not a single person. Evidence of collaboration in the production of a work is not the same as enabling an open mandate to change or fork (copy-and-change) a work. We must overcome this by celebrating the possibilities of forking and altering other people’s works. We do this by doing it. Without doing this – without actively participating and taking advantage of the riches that free culture production offers – we are maintaining the processes and values of proprietary (closed) culture.

[Produced somewhere around 2010/2011]

Google Summer of Code Book Binding Party

A few days ago, I facilitated the Google Summer of Code Book Sprint. We had already written one book last year in a 2-day sprint, so this year we updated that book and added a second. ‘Flip bits not burgers’ (the student guide) was written in just two days by a great team of experienced GSoC mentors. After writing the book in Booki, we output the text to the US 1/2 letter format (8.5 inches x 5.5 inches) which is the closest to the European A5. The book-formatted PDF produced by Objavi (the Booki publishing engine) looked fantastic so we printed the interior and I designed a cover in Inkscape ( and printed the colour covers. We then cut all the content and had a binding party!


Google Summer of Code book binding party!

To bind, we used the Fastback 9 and the results looked fantastic. It was really good to write the book and then print and bind the book ourselves immediately after.


Mentor & Org Admin Guide (right) and Students Guide.

The interior looked pretty cool too.


Interior produced by Objavi in about 2 minutes.

Arctic Perspective Initiative

There are some interesting projects utilising Booki to create books. Some are groups, others individuals, some work with Book Sprints and rapid development strategies, others try the Book Slog… Of course, Booki being what it is means you can also help these projects ‘get written’ (or illustrated, edited, proofed etc) or you can also just open up the book-in-progress and watch it develop over time.

One project I want to highlight is the 3rd book in a series of 4 by API – the Arctic Perspective Initiative .

This project is a large collaborative effort made up of people from all walks of life from all parts of the globe. Many of those involved gathered for a conference in Dortmund (Germany) a few days ago to talk about the project and to also kick start a book on Arctic Technologies. This book is, of course, being created in Booki and you can follow its progress here (log in first).

API is, to quote from their website, :

“Arctic Perspective Initiative (API) is a non-profit, international group of individuals and organisations whose goal is to promote the creation of open authoring, communications and dissemination infrastructures for the circumpolar region. We aim to empower the North and Arctic peoples through open source technologies and applied education and training. By creating access to these technologies while promoting an open, shared network of communications and data, without a costly overhead, we can allow for further sustainable and continued development of culture, traditional knowledge, science, technology and education opportunities for peoples in the North and Arctic regions.”

API are using Booki as the centre for a collaborative process to create a book on Technology in the Arctic.