Remix vs Shuffle

One of the key memes in free culture has been the remix, freely licensed content combined to make something new. Remixing of books is of obvious interest and there have been many explorations of this in various forms including the Rice University project Connexions. FLOSS Manuals has had the ability to take existing manuals about free software and remix it since 2008. Remixing of books is of obvious interest and there have been many explorations of this in various forms including the Rice University project Connexions.

FLOSS Manuals has had the ability to take existing manuals about free software and remix it since 2008. It’s easy to use this mechanism to add a chapter or chapters of a manual with other chapters from other manuals. The output is templated HTML or customised PDF. Although the remix feature (very easy to use with a nice drag and drop process) always gets very positive responses when demonstrated, however, it does not get used very much.

After some years thinking about this lack of use, I have come to the understanding the ‘remix’ as such has only a limited use when it comes to constructing books from multiple sources. A remix of a book in this fashion is not a good remix as we might understand it. DJs make good mixes out of several tracks but they have various tempo, tone, and volume controls to integrate the sources. A book remixed by the (outmoded) remixing tool we built for FLOSS Manuals is not like a music remix but more like playing back selected tracks using shuffle. The chapters are not integrated to flow well into each other, they are instead compiled into some kind of anthology.

The difference is not subtle and it’s easy to understand the problem when you look at the obvious popular example of remixes in DJ culture. A DJ takes multiple sources – some complete – some snippets – and works them into a continuous whole. For the DJ, remixing is part-curatorial process and part-production. The curatorial process is the choosing of the works and considering where and when the selected pieces will fit into the whole. The production process is changing the tone, speed, and colour of the sound and making it all work together. Without the production component, it’s not a remix at all – it’s just a shuffle of sound snippets.

Text requires the same kind of shaping. If you take a chapter from one book and then put it next to another chapter from another book, you do not have a book – you have two adjacent chapters. You need to work to make them fit together. Working material like this is not just a matter of cross-fading from one to the other by smoothing out the requisite intros and outros (although this makes a big difference in itself), but there are other aspects to consider – tone, tempo, texture, language used, point of view, voice etc as well as some more mundane mechanical issues. What, for example, do you do with a chapter that makes reference to other chapters in the book it originated from? You need to change these references and other mechanics as well as take care of the more tonal components of the text.

This is why remixing in itself is not that interesting and also another argument why some free licenses should be banned for free book production. An ND license (non-derivative) renders a ’free’ work useless for combining with other works. You can separate it from its original corpus but you cannot make it fit easily within a new one. You have no licensed right even to change the mechanical components. You cannot create chapters that will smoothly exit one book and enter another. You actually have to produce the mixed material to make it all work together – there is not really much point to trying to avoid this issue.

As a consequence of these experiences, at FLOSS Manuals we designed Bookspark to enable importing of chapters from one book to the editable environment of another book and we ditched the old remix approach. This means you can import chapters from other books and then edit the chapters to make them fit the context. That is the only sensible way we can work with this kind of re-use/remix.

See to view and share free educational material in small modules that can be organised as courses, books, reports or other academic assignments.

Books as Learning Environments

Books are of course learning environments. However, this is usually understood from the perspective of the reader. What is often forgotten is that book production itself is a tremendous learning process. As people work together to write/illustrate/create a book together they are learning a tremendous amount about the subject.

Kieran Nolan, a teacher at DkIT1 in Ireland, asked students to create a book together using Booktype. The project was for a module called “User Theories” for fourth-year students in the BA (Honors) program in Communications and Creative Multimedia. The course looks at different interactive media types, different user groups and the creative ways in which people repurpose and reuse all the digital creation and distribution. In Kieran’s words:

“The topic we had last week in class was ‘Emotive Design’ and trying to reduce user frustration with interactive media. In other words, looking at ideas of giving interactive products personality (for instance, avatars) so that users feel some sort of connection and less alienated to the product. So the students are being asked to reflect on the readings and come up with their own idea for an ‘emotive interface.’”

Rather than creating the content individually, Kieran’s students are creating a book collaboratively. Kieran liked producing a book collaboratively online because the class could share their ideas, learn from each other, and learn about collaborative production by doing it. The fact that students can produce a book from the result adds another dimension for Kieran: “It bridges the gap between digital and print media and produces a tangible product.”

Kieran utilised the history feature of the production software to track a student’s contribution to the project. The work counted for 15% of the final mark.

Over the space of two weeks, the class collaborated online both in the lab and individually at home to create a compendium book of 21 original design concepts.

The students I teach are well accustomed to using the online space as a learning environment. While a lot of material can be covered in the space of a single lecture, extra time is often needed to help students absorb and reach a deeper understanding of their source material. Online discussion of in class topics helps facilitate this. So too experiential learning is essential for reaching a deep understanding of a subject.

We can, of course, imagine a perfect perpetual production book machine – students write textbooks together and learn the subject and get evaluated on their contributions- the next year’s students improve the textbooks and hand onto the next year’s students and get evaluated on their contributions etc. Students produce their own textbooks for their school and to fulfil their own learning needs.

There are some experiments going on in this area but not nearly enough. The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is largely stuck in traditional publishing work processes. With time, hopefully, the value of learning within the book production processes will be understood and utilised to produce more open textbooks which students need.


Federated Publishing

Federated publishing takes all of the concepts I have dealt with so far – ease of online book production, collaboration, reuse – and applies them to a new networked model of publishing.

In the social software circles, there is a movement that advocates a Federated Social Web. The main advocates are ostatus and the free software micro-blogging platform The Federated Social Web is a vision of inter-operable social network platforms enabling “people on different social networks connect with each other as friends and colleagues,” says Evan Prodromou.

Federation of this kind is not new to the web, and there are many online services which work like this. Email is a federated system – it doesn’t matter where you have your email account, you can still communicate with other people who have email accounts elsewhere. However, federation of this kind is not the architecture of choice for monopolistic social network enterprises like Facebook. Facebook will not enable you to install your own copy of Facebook for your business or school, nor does it enable communication between users on Facebook and users on other social networks.

What we need is a federated architecture for online book production and publishing. Anyone should be able to set up their own online book production/publishing service and share books with other book production/publishing networks, enabling anyone to reuse any book, anywhere.

Federated publishing supports traditional, established book production techniques while fueling radically different approaches. To achieve healthy federated publishing on the web, four key elements need to be built up:

  • Fee content
  • Federated book production platforms
  • People participating
  • Suitable economic models

There is currently no prolific exploration of this model. Federated publishing is currently only illustrated, I believe, by FLOSS Manuals. In FLOSS Manuals, anyone can clone or migrate a book to another platform, reuse and change the book without permission, and publish it wherever they like. That is federated publishing.

Federated publishing was anticipated by this astonishing passage from Marshall McLuhan in Predicting Communication via the Internet (1966), in an interview with Robert Fulford, 8 May 1966, on CBC’s This Hour Has Seven Days):

 “Instead of going out and buying a packaged book of which there have been five thousand copies printed, you will go to the telephone, describe your interests, your needs, your problems, and they at once xerox with the help of computers from libraries all over the world, all the latest material for you personally, not as something to be put out on a bookshelf. They send you the package as a direct personal service. This is where we’re heading under electronic conditions. Products increasingly are becoming services.”

This passage is usually quoted as a prophecy of the Internet to come. However it is not a vision of the Internet, rather a vision of the book-as-service through federated publishing – an open network of book production platforms connecting people and books.

In contrast, proprietary publishing dominates the search for new distribution formats and economic models, reward systems for authors and others, and fuels an unwillingness to make content interoperable on a technical, legal, or social cultural level. It was this context McLuhan imagined we were escaping.

Through collaborative publishing projects, we have found that not only is federated publishing highly productive, exciting, and fun but there are also economies evolving around it – organisations and ‘crowds’ pay to have books produced this way, and they pay you to help them to do it.

Ease of Production

Around 1460, the entrepreneur Johann Fust (commonly confused with Johann Faust) took some of the Gutenberg bibles to Paris to sell. Paris did not know of the printing press and rumours started. How could someone produce so many books so cheaply? How could they possibly be made so quickly and with the exact same rendering of all characters on all pages? The apparent ease and speed by which these books were produced had the feeling of witchcraft.

It’s a good story and a popular one, although it might actually be apocryphal. It seems, according to Elizabeth Eisenstein [see The Printing Press as Agent of Change, Cambridge University Press 1979, p50] that at that time, the “increase in output did strike contemporary observers as sufficiently remarkable to suggest supernatural intervention.” This story helps us imagine how Gutenberg’s Press changed the world forever, simply by making the production of books easier and faster. Before this, books were created by scribes copying the content by hand – a process which took tremendous time was prone to error and was very expensive. The newly invented printing press meant books could be made quick and cheaply. As a result intellectuals and artists were starting to work closely with printers, print shops became places where these people would meet and where knowledge started to cross disciplines, publishers eventually evolved, the economics surrounding knowledge changed, book production was made accessible to a vastly larger section of society, literacy increased, and knowledge was transmitted across societies and boundaries in ways previously unimaginable. Making books easier and faster to produce changed everything.

Because books are now web pages, book production again becomes easier. All the tools required to produce beautiful books can be accessed through a browser. ‘Web-based workflows’ for book production begin with an empty book and take you through the entire book production process without needing to leave the browser. Easy-to-use tools take you through this workflow and in so doing they change every part of book production. The book becomes something you can make, not something that publishers make for you.

This ease of production is assisted greatly by the development of online print-on-demand services and ebook distribution channels which integrate APIs. An API is an ‘Application Programming Interface’ – jargon for a technical process that enables websites and online services to integrate and work together. Using APIs, you can utilise the services from another website in your own webpage. For example – one of the world’s largest online print-on-demand services – allows you to upload books directly to their service from your own website. That makes web-to-new book production models and print workflows a whole lot easier and faster. Ebook distribution services are also offering APIs so platforms can push ebooks directly into their channel.

Book production coming online means new book production models can evolve and new kinds of publishing can emerge. Book production can become faster, publishing becomes something anyone can do, people from all over the world can share distributed workflows and work on the same content simultaneously. Book production is open to more people, and anyone can produce an array of books from best sellers to niche texts. Peer production markets of skills and knowledge can ben generated to enable the production of the books we want – faster, cheaper, and better than the current state of publishing.

Book production platforms to enable these advantages are just starting to appear. Wikis were, and still are for many, the default knowledge production platform and have been used many times to make books. But Wikis are not designed for making books. Not only do they do this badly but they do not foster a ‘book writing’ mindset. Wikis tend to be used for short form texts and often as a kind of textual mind map. Wikis do not deliver the ease of production we are looking for.

The same is true of blogging software. Blogs do seem to build a culture of slightly longer and more structured narrative forms which does help but blog software is not intended for producing books either. It is intended for producing another kind of text. It’s true that blogs like WordPress can be bent into many shapes and WordPress is often considered by many to be a Content Management Tool rather than a blog, but at the end of the day, building a non-blog becomes more work using WordPress than if you had chosen a tool built for that purpose.

Essentially Wikis, Blogs, and CMS all have very specific roles.  Bending them to fit book production may work for a while, but they lack the possibility to richly explore online book production because they were not built to do this. They might be a useful shortcut for rapid prototyping but their inherent paradigm will soon get in the way. If you want to do something, then it’s usually more effective to use a tool built for that purpose. Additionally, it’s not just the tool’s purpose that counts: the culture surrounding how the tool is used is also important.

Having used a wiki to build a publishing system, I can say from experience that we soon ran up against core design principles of the tool that made it hard to make it do what we wanted. We could do all the basics but when we really started working in an immersive way with online book production, we found that there were many issues that a wiki could not handle without significant re-development of its architecture.

When building a software for book production there are some features and issues that need to be considered as part of the core paradigm. First – any platform operating in the world of open or federated publishing MUST be open source. Open content on a closed platform is a hypocritical position. You deserve to be skeptical of any platform like this and its relationship to you, your privacy, the ownership and control of content, the distribution paths open to you etc. Beyond the primary necessity that the platform must be open source there are 4 key features that should be easy to manage :

  1. it’s easy to create a new book
  2. it’s easy to add and edit content
  3. it’s easy to manage the table of contents
  4. it’s easy to export to a book format

These are the basic 4 necessary ingredients.

Beyond this, there are some very important issues that need to be managed, either in a second tier of interface or done ‘automagically’ using default settings or presets:

  1. copyright license management
  2. attribution
  3. well designed output

That gets you to a basic ‘plain vanilla’ online book production environment. Of course it looks easy but it’s not. Realizing this simple vision is pretty easy if you wish to produce EPUBs. However, if you wish to support multiple output formats, it gets trickier. Paper books are especially tricky because you have to deal with the page – a real paper page. Paper pages need left and right margin control, page numbering, accurate linking of the page numbers to the table of contents, and not to forget bi-directional text rendering and widow and orphans control. Not only are these not very simple issues to resolve technically they are also offer very many questions about usability. How many of these options/parameters do you manage ‘by magic’ and how many (and how) do you expose to the user to control? This is when the going gets tough.

We are seeing a few online platforms evolve that are embracing some or all of these notions. The variety of feature sets and strategies is large but the following three online book production platforms are the ones I believe have the highest claim to having a stake in the game to date :

  1. PressBooks – a service started by Canadian Hugh McGuire who had previously experimented with a book platform called the Book Oven  (which is now closed). PressBooks is based on WordPress and has a good workflow if you are familiar with the popular blogging tool. Unfortunately the platform, while built on top of an open source software, is not open source software. It is a free (gratis) service but closed source. PressBooks does not currently hold high collaborative potential but it is very useful for writers who wish to work with an editor or editorial teams to compile anthologies. PressBooks is focused on extending the traditional publishing cycle online. The development team is spending a lot of time working on good formatting for book-formatted PDF. PressBooks also targets the web as a book output.
  2. Inkling – a service which is free to use but all content must be sold through the Inkling sales channel. Inkling derives a royalty for each sale through this channel. It is closed source and targets the iPad and the web as output formats. Inkling is targeted at textbook publishers and sells content in the form of books and chapters. Inkling is not open source and is targeted at traditional (but distributed) online publishing workflows for traditional publishers.
  3. Booktype –  of the three listed here, Booktype has been around the longest – formerly known as Booki and originally developed by FLOSS Manuals, it has been around for almost 6 years in various functional prototypes. Booktype is now developed by Sourcefabric and is open source. Booktype has a very flexible workflow which is ‘native to the web’ and is designed for non-publishers and publishers alike. Booktype can be a highly collaborative environment and is the platform of choice for rapid development processes such as Book Sprints. Booktype outputs to web, iPad, Kindle, print-on-demand, text document formats, PDF and many other formats. (Disclaimer : I am the project lead for Booktype).

These three are the 3 best platforms on the radar for easy online book production right now. The web being what it is, means there will be more to enter the market and this will probably happen quickly. The iPad iBook Author is not mentioned here because although easy to use it is not an online tool and I believe this is a critical missing feature for reasons that will become clearer later.

I believe these three outlined above change the game and interestingly have their own distinct primary use cases and strategies. There will be more to come. If you believe Gutenberg’s efficiencies changed society forever then what effect will tools like these have? It’s a giddy question and from working with book production like this for 5 years now, I firmly believe making books in the browser is not just a matter of having an easy way of making books – it will have an enormous impact on society as a whole.


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.