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.

Economic Models – Make Money then Books

The vast majority of authors under the current dominant model of publishing don’t make any money. Authors do it for the chance to make money, and they do it for the advancement of their careers and their profile. There is no monster financial industry pouring money into culture and knowledge workers, instead they are pouring money into book production and distribution.

I mention this because one argument against free content is that people won’t get paid. However, people often don’t get paid for writing books anyway, so with free content, nothing has changed. Nevertheless, there are many profitable businesses that have for a very long time made a lot of money from the resale of free (in this case, out-of-copyright) material. Take Penguin Books, for example. They can’t stop competition with sales of out-of-copyright classics but seem to be doing all right nevertheless. You can get many of the same out-of-copyright books at Project Gutenberg for free, but that doesn’t stop Penguin Books and many other publishers selling the same material in both paper and digital form and making a good profit. In addition, I believe that free books have revenue models which are more open to content producers than are the existing publishing models.

There are some major changes in the industry that point to this. First, it is reported that ebook sales are going through the roof. Amazon has reported that ebooks are the most popular book format1. Ebooks have lower costs for production, in fact, you can more or less say that producing an EPUB (a very popular and open ‘almost standard’ for ebooks) costs nothing. Find the right software and it’s done in minutes. This puts very profitable publishing in the path of federated publishing.

Second, business models are changing. The biggest shift I see is to put the money at the front of the production cycle instead of at the end. There are platforms like Unbound (http://www.unbound.co.uk/) that are giving this a go, and many successful examples in Kickstarter, such as Robin Writes a Book2  – a book project that raised $14,000 (USD) from crowdfunding. Robin Writes a Book by Robin Sloan is a fictional work funded before it was produced. In a blog post3  on Creative Commons the author states:

"I think the most important thing about a book is not actually the book. Instead, it’s the people who have assembled around it. It’s everyone who’s ever read it, and everyone who’s ever re- or misappropriated it. It’s everyone who’s ever pressed it into someone else’s hands [...] it’s that group of people that makes a book viable, both commercially and culturally. And without them — all alone, with only the author behind it — a book is D.O.A."

That’s a pretty good argument, from the inside of fringe cultural production, that it doesn’t need the current publishing industry to thrive. It also illustrates that social context is important for generating revenue. Sloan goes on to explain secondary economies he is trying to generate from the book.

There are many other examples of very well-funded books ($85,000 USD being the top earner4 for a book project on Kickstarter) that demonstrate a model we can all participate in as cultural and knowledge producers.

Kickstarter approaches have their issues, but they raise an interesting point – people are prepared to fund a book that they want before it is produced. That’s quite a reversal – the consumer is actively switching sides to become ‘part’ of the production team by helping finance the product. The advantage of this process is that if you can raise the funds for the project like this then you don’t have to rely on sales to recover your costs or make a profit. That means there is a better chance for the product to be a ‘no strings attached’ free product. The content can actually be free because no one is anxious to recover their costs from sales. That also means that the post-production phase can focus on distributing the content as far and wide as possible because at that stage the return is recognition through distribution. This can, if done well, help with the next project that needs funding… the better you are known for producing good quality free products, the easier it will be to convince people to help pay for their production. So getting the money before making the book is not only good sense, it is consistent with free culture values.

It is possible to consider at least two other ‘crowdfunding’ business opportunities for books – running a crowdfunding service as some kind of ‘Kickstarter for books’, and getting funding from crowds for your books. Clever publishing entrepreneurs might do both.

Kickstarter.com has taken up this concept of crowdfunding with what seems to be significant initial 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 that pledges meet the funding goal, the money is collected from pledgers, 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 pledges are not donations, as most of the contributions are associated with tangible rewards, nor are they a form of micro-venture capital, as funders retain no equity in the funded project. While crowdfunding need not be limited in topic, Kickstarter is focused almost exclusively on funding creative and community-focused projects. Part of their goal is to create a lively community of makers who support each other. At the end of their first year, Kickstarter gave out a number of awards, including one to the project with the most contributors, the project that raised the most money, and the project that reached their goal the fastest. The award that might be most telling is for the “Most Prolific Backer”:

“Jonas Landin, Kickstarter’s Most Prolific Backer, has pledged to an amazing 56 projects. What motivates him? “It feels really nice to be able to partially fund someone who has an idea they want to realize.”    blog.kickstarter.com/post/318287579/the-kickstarter-awards-by-the-numbers

This model is catching on and we can expect more nuanced and sector-driven approaches to financing book production this way. One such possibility, is finding organisations to sponsor book production and making the argument in business terms.

A while ago I worked with a Dutch organisation by the name of Greenhost.nl. They are a small hosting provider based in Amsterdam with a staff list of about 8. The boss wanted to bring the Greenhost crew to Berlin to make a book on Basic Internet Security and he wanted me to facilitate a Book Sprint to produce it. So we organised a Book Sprint, invited some locals to come and help, and sprinted the book over four days. In total, around 6 people were in attendance (including myself as facilitator) and we started on 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 in 4 days with lots of nice illustrations.

The following morning, the book went to the printers and then was presented in print form, 2 days later, at the International Press Freedom Day in Amsterdam.

The presentation at International Press Freedom Day was complimented by a PR campaign driven by Greenhost. The attention worked very well as the online version of the book received thousands of visits 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 a Book Sprint a very good marketing opportunity for organisations.

There are some organisations that have taken this principle into their business. The President5 is a South Africa (Capetown)-based organisation that has won a lot of awards for their designs. They place great emphasis on book/content design as a more engaging and potent form of marketing for their clients.

There are of course some issues raised here the first being that this will only work for the sponsor if they keep their marketing-speak out of the book itself. If they put marketing texts into the book they sponsor, they are making marketing brochures, not books and they stand to look very bad. Let the book do what it has to do and get the kudos by saying you made it happen.

This kind of press is not only good for the organisations involved and good for the reader but it is good for the book itself because it raises the profile of the book, putting it in front of people that need it and can help improve it. This can, for example, raise the probability that a book will be voluntarily translated. A high-profile book can be an attractive prospect to voluntary translators. Not many people want to spend the hours translating a book that won’t be read, but if it’s a book with an established high profile then it’s a better proposition. To demonstrate this by example, Basic Internet Security (the book made by Greenhost) immediately had two groups start the German and Farsi translations voluntarily.

In addition to this, we also had unforeseen re-distribution channels open up for the book. In the case of this book, someone had gone to the trouble of creating a torrent (a peer-to-peer sharing method) and listed it on Pirate Bay. We didn’t create this torrent – someone noticed the book, downloaded it, and made the torrent themselves. It’s legal sharing and it works in favour of the book and the book’s producers.

Think about what kind of book your organisation may want to bring into the world. Think of a great book that would help make the world a better place. For example, are you a design or typography company? Want to make a book about How to Make Fonts? Are you a law firm? Want to make a book about basic rights in your country? Then design a PR strategy around the book that will justify the expense of its production.

Of course, this approach does not come without its issues. If people pay money to have something produced, then they generally do not like it if the thing produced disagrees or takes issue with them. Worse is the mindset that this 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. Get a good facilitator!

  1. http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1565581&highlight^
  2. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/robinsloan/robin-writes-a-book-and-you-get-a-copy^
  3. http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/23876 ^
  4. http://www.kickstarter.com/discover/categories/publishing/most-funded?ref=more ^
  5. http://www.thepresident.co.za/^

FDL vs GPL – why FLOSS Manuals is changing their free documentation license choice

License Change

FLOSS Manuals is changing the license of all material in the repository from the Free Documentation License to the GNU General Public License (GPL). Why? Well… the issue of licenses and documentation is a frustrating road to travel. There are many ‘free licenses’ in the world, but none of them work well as documentation licenses if you have the following prerequisites:

  • compatibility with the GPL
  • ease of use

Those are pretty simple parameters, but alas there is nothing out there that fulfills our criteria. The Free Documentation License, which we started with, has a number of issues and, unfortunately, the redraft for the license does not make any steps to improve the situation (http://gplv3.fsf.org/doclic-dd1-guide.html).

Problems with the FDL

In particular :

  • the FDL does not allow for easy duplication and modification (an absolute necessity in this day and age)
  • it does not allow for the easy inclusion of documentation in the software itself
  • it appears to be written for hard copy books and does not engage issues of digital documentation very well
  • it is difficult to know how to implement

These issues emanate from the founding rationale of the license.  There are two particular assumptions that lead to problematic clauses:

1. The FDL seems to assume that technical writing should contain embedded free software political editorial. I refer to this statement (amongst others):

"Our manuals also include sections that state our political position about free software. We mark these as "invariant", so that they cannot be changed or removed. The GFDL makes provisions for these "invariant sections". 
http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#WhyNotGPLForManuals

Political editorial is not a prerequisite (nor, in my opinion, desired) for good technical writing.

2. the FDL assumes documentation writing is a book business. I refer to :

 "the GFDL has clauses that help publishers of free manuals make a profit from selling copies" 
http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#WhyNotGPLForManuals

‘Free Licenses’ should not shy away from the commercial use of the substance it is applied to. That is the principle of freedom – to use the software or documentation as you wish, as long as you preserve the same freedoms for others. However, the focus should be about preserving freedom, not preserving particular business models.  This rationale is troublesome, especially when you want to distribute free documentation and the license actually makes it harder to do that.

The above are just the main concerns with the rationale of the FDL. These two issues have consequences in the license that make it very difficult to use if you wish to write free documentation for free software.

What FDL clauses cause problems?

There are many references in the FDL that indicate that the writers could only imagine documentation in the form of a book. There are constant references to ‘Title Pages’, ‘Covers’ etc. One particular clause that is hard to maintain is this section which stipulates that a modified version of a work must:

"A. Use in the Title Page (and on the covers, if any) a title distinct from that of the Document, and from those of previous versions (which should, if there were any, be listed in the History section of the Document). You may use the same title as a previous version if the original publisher of that version gives permission."

There are so many issues with this statement that it’s hard to know where to begin. What, for example, is the role of a ‘History Section’ in documentation that might be one ‘page’ long? The main problem with this clause, however, is that digital documentation, in the FLOSS Manuals world at least, should flow like water from one author to the other with as much flexibility to add, alter, delete, and remix as much as possible. Requiring a ‘traceback’ to the original author so you can use the same title is cumbersome, stifles re-use of material, and logistically hard to maintain in this age of free-flowing digital document distribution.

Here is another ‘book’ issue which limits freedom:

" If you publish printed copies (or copies in media that commonly have printed covers) of the Document, numbering more than 100, and the Document's license notice requires Cover Texts, you must enclose the copies in covers that carry, clearly and legibly, all these Cover Texts: Front-Cover Texts on the front cover, and Back-Cover Texts on the back cover. Both covers must also clearly and legibly identify you as the publisher of these copies. The front cover must present the full title with all words of the title equally prominent and visible. You may add other material on the covers in addition. Copying with changes limited to the covers, as long as they preserve the title of the Document and satisfy these conditions, can be treated as verbatim copying in other respects."

Well, FLOSS Manuals doesn’t care how many documents you might publish. Go ahead, print as many as you like, however you like (well, with a quick read of how to apply the GPL)… as free documentation writers we don’t want to get involved in complex clauses involving ‘Cover Texts’ and ‘Front-Cover Texts’ which are going to limit your freedom to use the documentation as you want.

Can the GPL be used for documentation?

So is the GPL really applicable to documentation? This statement is interesting:
“It is possible to use the GPL for a manual, but the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) is much better for manuals.”
http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#WhyNotGPLForManuals

The FSF further states the GPL can be used for documentation,
“You can apply the GPL to any kind of work, as long as it is clear what constitutes the “source code” for the work. The GPL defines this as the preferred form of the work for making changes in it.”
http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#GPLOtherThanSoftware

Community Building and FLOSS Manuals

FLOSS Manuals community in action.
FLOSS Manuals community in action.

In 2006 or so I started FLOSS Manuals (FM – the old www archive is here). Essentially I got back from Antarctica and wanted to give up the art world. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I wanted it to be a challenge. I also wanted it to be something I built from the ground up. So, I imagined that making the biggest collection of freely licensed manuals for free software would be a good challenge, and along with that a comminty of software documentors. At the time, the state of free documentation was pretty poor with individual projects generally having little or no docs (with a few exceptions).  There were also some old school approaches around, such as the Linux Documentation Project, and proprietary approaches like O’Reilly Media. I respected both but wanted to see free quality manuals out there.

streaming-streamingintro-radio-en

streaming-streamingintro-transmit_server-en

FLOSS Manuals icons.
FLOSS Manuals icons by Lotte Meijer.

This was actually a strange time for documentation. Books still reigned and docs were those things you did when you got time. This created very strange dynamics at times. For example, being ‘the author’ of a book about software that was published (particularly) by O’Reilly made you crown prince(ss) of that project. You were then a star. Many projects, believe it or not, saw this as the only way to make money. They saw publishing as the revenue model. The result of this was that I was often chased away from projects because there was some self-appointed guru who had not yet written the book and they didn’t want FLOSS to steal their fame and thunder. This was really frustrating. I found it particularly frustrating because  I knew that authors who were published generally made little or nothing unless the publication was a blockbuster (which was very rare).

We were patient with these projects. As the years wore on, some software producers acclimatized to the new state of docs on the web and came to be ok with FLOSS Manuals writing (much needed) docs for their projects.

I had some material I had written during a period when as an artist I led workshops about free software t (I traveled the world teaching free software, particularly those softwares related to streaming and sound).  I needed somewhere to house the material, and then I needed to build a community of contributors who would add more docs as well as improve the existing ones.

Hence I started FLOSS Manuals. The first thing I did was build the technology, as I have explained elsewhere. I then put the docs on the new platform and waited for the hordes to come. Of course, they didn’t come. Ah…. I thought, someone forgot to tell me you have to build community. So I went about promoting FLOSS Manuals. Still they didn’t come. Not one. Then I started making more docs to make the site look active. Still no one. Then I registered accounts under many aliases on the site so it looked like there were more people than me at work. Then I waited.

It took quite a while. I don’t actually remember how long, maybe 6 months or so, before I got my first ‘anonymous’ bite. Some nice chap registered on FLOSS Manuals and made some improvements to a manual on Pure Data (Pd). I remember being so crazy excited. At last! I did some homework, trying to find out who this person was. I was so excited, I wrote to them and gushed. Of course, that scared them away and I never heard from them again. Ha!

FLOSS Manuals icons in felt.
FLOSS Manuals icons in felt.

I went back to writing and promoting. Slowly, slowly, the community built up. I can’t remember that period well enough to suggest much secret sauce for the initial moments. These are the most critical moments as each little bit contributes to bringing a community to life. I remember some key characters that got in early and helped bring in others.  The wonderful Mancunian, Mick Fuzz, was one such person – he was the first guy I met that thought documentation had as much potential power as I did. That was liberating and validating for me and I was excited to meet him.

Mick Fuzz far left.
Mick Fuzz far left.

I remember Anne Gentle, a technical writer from Texas who was always looking to discover new ways to make docs. Also Andy Oram from the O’Reilly Boston office gave me lots of encouragement and promoted FM. Janet Swisher (now at Mozilla) helped spread the word a great deal too, and there were many others. These were central characters that formed the basis of a community, the fundamental roots of the organisation. I should say that most likely I didn’t find them, they found me, which speaks of the need to be out there and be seen but also, in order to be taken seriously I think you have to have something to show. A starting point that others can build on.

Andy Oram second from right.
Andy Oram second from right.

At the time I was very sold on the benevolent dictator model. I didn’t have any other models to play with really. I did have community building experience fro my time as a manager of radio in NZ, and from my time as an artist. But I wasn’t sure what I could use from past experiences.

I think I was probably a little over zealous at first. We had a common mailing list and I think I moderated it well but probably I was more focused and engaged than necessary at times.

Janet Swisher, far right.
Janet Swisher, far right.

I learned a lot quickly, however. For example, I became very good at redirecting noisy, distracting, traffic.

Several issues came up over the years that were just a sinkhole for wasting community energy. One such issue was the ongoing blahblah about licensing of the material. FLOSS Manuals required all contributors to agree to licensing under the GPL. For those that don’t know, the GPL is actually a content license, worded to look a little software-specific. Don’t trust my reading of this, but do trust me when I say I talked to many many lawyers and experts on this and they all agreed. The only people that I found that didn’t agree were those that knew little about licensing and those were, unfortunately, the people that ended up on the list. The other problem people had, was to do with the Free Documentation Licence, which is one of the most unfree and ridiculous licenses ever made. FM first used the FDL, as after all, it was made by the Free Software Foundation – the same people that brought us the GPL. So, if it comes from the FSF and has the words free documentation in it, then it must be all right, right? Wrong. As I later discovered, the FDL was written by the FSF when they thought their business model was going to be selling books. Those were the days. The FSF also thought that O’Reilly had stolen their business model and they were pretty annoyed so they made their FDL a very very defensive license. It effectively stops any reuse of the material. It is a terrible license (which is why Wikipedia also got out of using it, but that is someone else’s story to tell).

At first, I used to be very dismissive of these license conversations. I was so sick of following them on the list, I tried to ignore them or stop them. Then I wrote an article about it. Eventually, I set up an additional licensing mailing list just for FM license discussions. I would encourage anyone that jumped into the main FM list talking licensing, to join that other list. I wasn’t subscribed to the FM license list, so it went on its own merry way and it didn’t slow the rest of us down. That was pretty effective.

Another issue that had the real potential for overriding community energy and tiring everyone out was the topic of One Laptop Per Child. At this moment OLPC was more like a religous movement than a technical endeavor. FM had done all their docs and they were distributed via an FM app on the OLPC. That was pretty cool really, and there were a lot of great people in the OLPC family. But the OLPC movement had the ability to also attract real Class A zealots. These were well meaning people, people who actually wanted to change the world. But they could go a ‘little’ too far down that road to the exclusion of all other concerns. This had the effect of derailing any conversation and was a major factor in lowering community energy. I had to work on the sidelines to corral those folk. There weren’t many, but they took some work. Staying positive and constructive was key.

Still, we did write a lot of material about the OLPC. We even had a number of pretty awesome Book Sprints about how to use the open source Sugar operating system it ran on.

Writing the OLPC docs in Texas. Anne Gentle far right.
Writing the OLPC docs in Texas. Anne Gentle, documentation guru, far right.

At the time, I read as much as I could about community building. However there wasn’t that much I found useful. I liked Karl Fogel’s Producing Open Source, and Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community. But much of what I read was about software development, not content development. It helped but not a great deal. I also mined the MIT archive on research about open source-related topics. At the time I think it was maintained by a buddy (Mako Hill) and it contained a lot of material about Wikipedia since that was the hot topic of the time. Still, not much helped. I also attended Wikimania a few times as the Wikipedia community seemed to be the most obvious source of information about how to build open content communities. The Wikimanias I went to were awesome and I learned a great deal talking to people. Of particular help was Brianna Laugher, Erik Möller and a few others. I also loved many of the presentations including one of my all time favorite presentations by Lawrence Liang on the authority of knowledge vs collaboration (which he later repeated at an Amsterdam conference and which is available here).

In short, I was hungry for information and tried to become the expert on building community. Any tool I could use, I wanted to know about.

As it happens, things worked out and FLOSS Manuals became a thriving community. The English community spawned a French community and both are still active. There was also (briefly) Finnish, Farsi, and Dutch communities. We did actually have a lot of material translated into (if I remember) about 30 languages but these were all ‘one offs’ and no language communities other than those mentioned above got off the ground.

French FLOSS Manuals crew.
French FLOSS Manuals crew.

I think I learned a lot from this period of my career. So what remains with me? Well, in terms of suggestions about what is important in building community this is what I have left off the top of my head, I hope it might be of use to someone:

  • have a starting point. Something others can join.
  • make the mission clear and simple. Make sure you feel that there is the possibility others will share the same point of view (even if you have to go out and find them).
  • don’t be a benevolent dictator. The longevity of a project means that there must be shared leadership. Otherwise, if you leave, it will fall apart.
  • take all the hard tasks away from the community and leave the easy, fun, stuff for the community to do.
  • do what you can to keep the community focused on the mission. Don’t allow distracting energies to override the community.
  • celebrate individuals in the community in public as much as you can
  • jump in to help as quickly as possible if a community member needs you.
  • work shoulder-to-shoulder with the community as much as you can.
  • find your protagonists, these people are in themselves community-building catalysts. Bring them in and make them feel at home.
  • make the efforts of the community as visible as possible to those it is trying to benefit.
  • be generous in attribution, including attribution for projects that are competitive to yours.
  • get out there and present the project in as many forums as you can.
  • internal energy is a product of engagement with others on the same mission, perceived momentum, and utility in this kind of community. You have to make these later two visible (momentum and utility) to your community to generate the former (engagement).
  • be careful not to overload people with your own enthusiasm.
  • as one of the leaders, it is all about you, and it is not at all about you.
  • communicate loudly and clearly the pride you have for the project and the pride you expect others to have in the project.
  • be careful with extrinsic incentives, they might not get you what you want.
  • don’t hold ‘what you have’ too close. Let it go and let it have its own life in the world.
  • don’t get discouraged if other projects, especially bad ones, get funding and support when you don’t. Stick it out.
  • forget about the competition, just do what you do well.

And as a happy coincidence, I found this advice I wrote somewhere between 2010 and 2012, which seems pretty right-on. It’s written from the perspective of managing a community of contributors for a book but it is obviously deeply informed by my experience building the FLOSS Manuals community. From:

https://web.archive.org/web/20120320110811/http://booki.flossmanuals.net/a-webpage-is-a-book/_draft/_v/1.0/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 Bacon1 is one such person - he is the community manager for Ubuntu and wrote the excellent Art of Community Book2 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 who will. 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 network, 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 - it might seem an intangible 'fun factor' but its more likely that its 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 it 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 but don't be disappointed when they leave. Communities have natural cycles and, additionally, 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 but 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, however, that people involved in this kind of project generally like being productive. If they are talking its usually a sign they are working.

product_thumbnail

Crazily, you can still buy the manual on FLOSS Manuals we wrote in 2008, here!

Process vs Content Templates in Book Sprints

 I have been working with a group of very interesting people over the last 3 days producing a book that can be used for generating campaigns about Internet Literacy. We generated texts on a large and varied range of topics. More on all this later. One very interesting issue that has been more clearly illustrated for me in this process is the necessity to understand the role of templates when generating content. When I talk of templates here I mean pre-configured templates that are meant to illustrate what the final product of a chapter or ‘content unit’ should look like.

I have always avoided using templates because I think it shuts down a lot of creative discourse about what the content could be and it kills those amazing surprises that can leap out of working in a freer manner. Perhaps even more importantly, templates can confuse people – sprint participants need to first just create what they know or are energised by – forcing output immediately into templates is not helpful to this process. However, I can see there is a role for templates, not as structure for the final content but as tools that can help the process of generating content.

In this particular Sprint, we generated a very lightweight template before the sprint. This is something I really dislike doing for the reasons stated above but the fear was (and I think it is justified in this instance but I would want to be careful before advocating its usefulness in other contexts) that we would float too far in conceptual territory without any boundaries. We wanted very much to glue the creative discourse and thinking at the Sprint to defined actionable units (campaigns). So for this purpose after discussion with one of the initiators of the sprint we generated a very light weight template that provoked only 7 points. Really just the ‘who, what, why’ material that campaigns need to address. This was then used as a process template – a template acting as a foundation for the sprinters to define the context of their content – not a template that would become the structure for the final content.

It worked very well – enabling the participants to let their creative energies flow while providing a backdrop or context within which the content needed to rest. The ‘process templates’ also allowed those who think conceptually to ‘build up’ so to speak, and those that thought in more concrete terms could also define their content. It provided a common scaffold for Sprinters to build in the direction that most interests/energises them.

So while it does not change my mind regarding content templates, I think I have discovered a place for very lightweight process templates that can give some kind of framework for the participants to work with, refine, define, and fill.

How Book Sprints work for sponsors

Manual examples

Last week I worked with a Dutch organisation by the name of Greenhost.nl. They are a small hosting provider based in Amsterdam. They wanted to bring their crew to Berlin to make a book on Basic Internet Security and they wanted me to facilitate the Book Sprint. We got a small team together and sprinted the book over four days. Started Thursday, finished Sunday. Actually one day earlier than expected. 45,000 words or so and lots of nice illustrations.

Illustrations in Basic Internet Security

You can see the book here (all generated with the Booki installation at http://booki.flossmanuals.net):

http://www.flossmanuals.net/basic-internet-security/

http://www.flossmanuals.net/_booki/basic-internet-security/basic-internet-security.epub

http://www.flossmanuals.net/_booki/basic-internet-security/basic-internet-security.pdf

And improve it here:
http://booki.flossmanuals.net/basic-internet-security/edit/

The following morning, the book went to the printers and then was presented the next day in print form at the International Press Freedom Day in Amsterdam.

Reading the bound book at International Press Freedom Day

The presentation at International Press Freedom Day was complimented by a little bit of PR from FLOSS Manuals and a little bit of PR from Greenhost. The attention seems to be working very well as we are getting thousands of visits on the manual and we are also getting a lot of very nice press attention. Now, I don’t care one way or the other about press attention except that in this instance it is working for the book (I believe people need to know about Basic Internet Security) and for the sponsor that put their muscle behind getting the book created. That makes sponsoring of Book Sprints a very good marketing opportunity for organisations. There are of course some issues raised here, the first being that this will only work for the sponsor if they keep their marketing-speak out of the book itself. If they put marketing texts into the book they sponsor, they are going to look very very bad – and let’s not forget it’s free content: if someone thinks your marketing rant is too much, probably they will remove it. Let the book do what it has to do and get the kudos by saying you made it happen. Anyway… here’s some links from the last hours of comments about the book:

http://www.bright.nl/omzeil-big-brother-met-een-boek#comment-292324

http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2694/Internet-Media/article/detail/1884010/2011/05/03/Het-internet-wereldverbeteraar-of-bedreiging-van-de-vrijheid.dhtml

http://www.netzpolitik.org/2011/buch-grundlagen-der-sicherheit-im-internet/

https://flattr.com/thing/183622/Buch-Grundlagen-der-Sicherheit-im-Internet

http://thepiratebay.org/torrent/6369126

http://www.boingboing.net/2011/05/02/will-technology-make.html

http://www.tech-blog.net/sicherheit-im-internet-alles-was-mit-wissen-sollte/

http://metaowl.de/2011/05/05/buch-grundlagen-der-sicherheit-im-internet/

Lastly, this kind of press is also good because it raises the profile of the book and makes it known to people  who can help improve it and distribute it. Take, for example, translation. The profile of a freely licensed book can make it seem a worthwhile prospect to translators. Not many people want to spend the needed hours translating a book that won’t be read, but if it’s a book with an established high profile then it’s a better proposition. To demonstrate this by example, we have already two offers by groups to start the German and Farsi translations:
http://translate-new.flossmanuals.net/basic-internet-security_fa/_v/1.0/edit/
http://translate-new.flossmanuals.net/basic-internet-security_de/_v/1.0/edit/

In addition, in the links above, you may have noticed the link to a torrent file on Pirate Bay. We didn’t create this torrent – someone noticed the book, downloaded it, and made the torrent. Hence others are helping a lot to get the book out there. ..nice.

So… think about what kind of book your organisation may want to bring into the world. Think of a great book that would help make the world a better place. For example, are you a design or typography company? Want to make a book about How to Make Fonts with Free Software? Are you a law firm? Want to make a book about basic rights in your country? … you get the idea…

Improving Dostoyevsky

Largely because of the cheapness of paper and the cultural context arising from this cost, combined with the stardard print production process, we have come to worship the book as a static cultural artifact. It almost seems to us that ‘static-ness’ is a part of a book genetics so much so that many people find it even hard to pick up a pen and write notes in the margin of books. We have forgotten that notes like this (‘marginalia’) were once very common – when paper was hard to come by, sometimes the margin notes were where books were written. There is even a science dedicated to reconstructing manuscripts (‘textual criticism’) which is in part focused on how to construct ‘the text’ from works where the author has commented-on and changed their own works via the marginalia. It is hard to call these alterations ‘comments’ since they are direct interventions by ‘the author’. In the days when margins were used for notes by both readers and writers, it was sometimes difficult for the copyists (the profession that copied books which was common before the printing press) to know which were the author’s additions and which marginalia were ‘by others’. Hence textual criticism is often focused on the arguments surrounding which marginalia should be considered part of the ‘final’ work.

It would make some kind of sense that margin notes might come back into fashion since paper is so cheap that we can easily purchase clean copies of books to replace those ‘contaminated’ by marginalia. However, the choice has been to keep notes in note books, and leave the printed volume unaltered.

There are a few digital projects (notably Commentpress – http://www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress/ –  and some ebook readers) that enable types of margin notes. In the case of Commentpress, these notes are the point of the book – a place to start discourse (almost literally) around the book.

The point is, that now, through projects like Commentpress, we are in a position where we can start to deconstruct the ‘unalterably’ of books. Ironically, we can welcome marginalia again, not because the price of paper is too high that we need to use the margins, or  so low that it doesn’t matter if we use the margins – but because we don’t need paper at all. There is an interesting historical irony at play since we do not need ‘margins’ if we do not need paper. However, we can now feel marginalia is appropriate because it does not alter the source of a book.

It seems we are finding ways to have marginalia that do not contribute to the book but contribute around the margins of the book. Textual criticism in a few hundred years may might be an easy job since the textual critic can just parse the margins notes out of the source. The Foundation of the Long Now might have something to say about this since they advocate that we are living in what will be known as ‘the Digital Dark Age.’ Digital data has a very short lifespan and hence the data for digital-only texts might not exist at all or might only be accessible through forensic means. Still, the point is, we are still not talking about the unalterability of books, and we do not seem to be able to move towards changing the book only working around the outlines. This remains unchallenged, even though we can ‘fork’ books (copy the entire text and work on it leaving the original unaltered) and do with them as we like (especially now that free licenses are becoming more popular). We somehow still cannot bring ourselves to consider changing an existing book. Even harder is to allow ourselves the opportunity to believe that we can improve a book.

Why not? Translation is a way to improve a text. If this was not done then many texts within a single language would hardly be understandable today. Ever try and read some old English? Know what this is?

Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name;
 þi reume or kyngdom come to be. Be þi wille don in herþe as it is dounin heuene.
 yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.
 And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys as we foryeuen to oure dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us.
 And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.

It is this :

‘Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.
 Give us this day our daily bread.
 And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debters.
 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’

The first text is in middle English (which existed in the period between Old and Modern English). In effect the work has been ‘improved’ so we can understand it (not a ‘literary’ improvement as such). Translation like this is a type of re-use. You take the text and transform it into another context. In this example the new context is another time. Translation being what it is, we accept it can always be improved even though sometimes there are ‘authoritative’ star translators – people who have translated a text with such nuance that it is considered hard to improve their translation. The German translations of Dostoyevsky by Svetlana Geier,(subject of the film ‘the Woman with the 5  Elephants’) are almost considered ‘final’ works in themselves. Somehow Svetlana Geier has come to be regarded as some kind of manifestation of Dostoyevsky. Even so, her works are translations and hence it is somehow easier for us to believe we can improve these because they are not the original.

So why not? Why not improve the original? Can’t we take a book, any book, and improve it? Why is that idea so difficult for us to engage with? Why is it easier for us to consider improving a translated work but not OK for us to consider improving the original? Why can we improve the work of Svetlana Geier but we can’t improve Dostoyevsky?.

Before going on – a few seconds to note a great irony here – we have the legal right to improve Dostoyevsky since his works are in the public domain – the copyright has expired so we are legally permitted to do what we like with the works. However we do not have the legal right to improve Svetlana Geier’s translations since they are translated works and as such are considered by copyright law to be original works. Svetlana’s works are still bound by copyright and will not expire for some time. And that, to me, goes to illustrate that ‘free licenses’ have very little to do with free culture..  but that’s another story…

One part of the puzzle involves publishing and authorship of static books building a robust unalterable context for the authoritative version ie the version born from the author. We (you or I) are not that author and so we cannot know the author’s intent with all its nuances. We should not, therefore, meddle with a work because we would be breaking our unspoken contract to preserve the author’s intent. It would not be, even though we have the tools and licensed freedom (in many cases) to change, considered an appropriate thing to do. We do not have the authority to do it. The authority is inherent in the author alone – so much so that the role of the author to the book is analogue to the role of ‘god’ to its creation. The author is the creator.

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies the children use Piggy’s glasses as a magnifying glass to start a fire. However, Piggy was short-sighted and hence starting fires with his glasses would be impossible as they are concave and concave lenses disperse light. You cannot start a fire with a concave lens. And yet would we allow anyone to alter the book to improve upon what is a rather trivial fact? No. No, because the book is Golding’s world and in Golding’s world, concave lenses start fires. Golding is the creator. He has the authority to change his creation and we do not.

So many layers to unravel. Let’s roll back a little to Book Sprints again – they are interesting here because the books are born from collaboration. There is no single author whose intent we need to imagine and hold dear. The authority is distributed from the outset. However, in my experience, it is still difficult to get people to cross that imaginary threshold and improve a work, even though the invitation is explicit. Many people still ask if they can improve a Book Sprinted work even though the mandate to change a work is obviously being passed by ‘the creators’ to anyone.

In fact, there is no guarantee that collaborative works pass on the mandate to change. Wikipedia is an interesting case in point. Wikis and Wikipedia have managed to introduce ideas of participative knowledge creation, but, as Lawerence Liang (http://vimeo.com/10750350)  has argued, Wikipedia is possibly trying to establish itself as an authoritative knowledge base which also has the effect of revoking the mandate to change as has been experienced by many new contributors that find their edits reversed.

I think we will leave this all behind in time but it’s going to be a long time.

All books can be improved – even the most sacrosanct literary works. This is a good example of the ways that change is often not a result of the possibilities of technology but instead a rsult of the possibilities that have been closed to us through our internalisation of old technology. We have inherited a notion of Immovable Type. The only thing that can change that is the shock of possibility, necessity, or time.

Why repositories are important

Booki is for free books only (at least if you use the installation at www.booki.cc). The idea we are trying to engender is that when you create a book in Booki, you are also contributing to a body of re-usable material that can help others make books. The practice of building re-usable repositories in this way is a well-known concept and it’s extremely powerful. However, it takes time to build a corpus that can actually work in this fashion. You really need a lot of material before re-use like this can start having a real affect. I recently saw the first substantial use of Booki materials like this just last week. It occurred  with the FLOSS Manuals implementation of Booki (http://www.flossmanuals.net) which is a repository for materials about how to use free

I recently saw the first substantial use of Booki materials like this just last week. It occurred  with the FLOSS Manuals implementation of Booki (http://www.flossmanuals.net) which is a repository for materials about how to use free software. Last week we had a Book Sprint on Basic Internet Security and we were able to import about 9 chapters from 3 other manuals totalling approximately 15,000 words that we did not have to create fresh. Of course, the material needed some work to fit the new context, but it was still a substantial time-saver and extended the scope of the book well beyond what we could have produced had we not had the material.

This was really quite amazing for me to see. The idea was imagined from the moment FLOSS Manuals was built but, 3 years later, this was the first real case of substantial re-use. It takes time to build up the materials to make sense of re-use in this way, however, after 3 or so years waiting for the moment, I took a great deal of pleasure in seeing it happen for the first time.

I have been working with a group of very interesting people over the last 3 days producing a book that can be used for generating campaigns about Internet Literacy. We generated texts on a large and varied range of topics. More on all this later. One very interesting issue that has been more clearly illustrated for me in this process is the necessity to understand the role of templates when generating content. When I talk of templates here I mean pre-configured templates that are meant to illustrate what the final product of a chapter or ‘content unit’ should look like.

I have always avoided using templates because I think it shuts down a lot of creative discourse about what the content could be and it kills those amazing surprises that can leap out of working in a freer manner. Perhaps even more importantly, templates can confuse people – Sprint participants need to first just create what they know or are energised by – forcing output immediately into templates is not helpful to this process. However, I can see there is a role for templates, not as structure for the final content but as tools that can help the process of generating content.

In this particular Sprint, we generated a very lightweight template before the Sprint. This is something I really dislike doing for the reasons stated above but the fear was, (and I think it is justified in this instance but I would want to be careful before advocating its usefulness in other contexts,) that we would float too far in conceptual territory without any boundaries. We wanted very much to glue the creative discourse and thinking during the Sprint to defined actionable campaigns. So for this purpose, after discussion with one of the initiators of the Sprint, we generated a very lightweight template that provoked only 7 points. Really just the ‘who, what, why’ material that campaigns need to address. This was then used as a process template – a template acting as a foundation for the Sprinters to define the context of their content – not a template that would become the structure for the final content.

It worked very well – enabling the participants to let their creative energies flow while providing a backdrop or context within which the content needed to rest. The ‘process templates’ also allowed those who think conceptually to ‘build up,’ so to speak, and those that thought in more concrete terms could also define their content. It provided a common scaffold for sprinters to build in the direction that most interests/energises them.

So while it does not change my mind regarding content templates, I think I have discovered a place for very lightweight process templates that can give some kind of framework for the participants to work with, refine, define, and fill.

‘Here-and-now’ Production

Book Sprints are not something that should involve a lot of pre- or post- production. In an earlier post, I have listed some reasons why too much pre-production is potentially harmful. Post-production is not really harmful, in fact, it’s most usually a good thing, however, it’s never a guaranteed thing and that’s the problem. If you want to finish a book in 2-5 days then you must bring the focus to the people ‘in the Sprint’ – the book will be whatever they make it. That includes the text, images, formatting, credits, chapter titles, section titles, cover etc etc etc. In a Sprint, you should never leave a task ‘to be done in post-production’. It both removes the emphasis that everything must be done now by ‘us,’ and post-production, despite goodwill, seldom ever happens. As soon as everyone walks out the door to go home, you have lost 99% of the energy and commitment from the people involved. That’s just how it is.

So do not rely on pre- or post-production. Put the emphasis on ‘here-and-now’ production. If you cannot do it here-and-now with the people in this Sprint then it’s not part of the book… You will be amazed at how good a book can be and how many good decisions get necessarily made because of these circumstances.

 

The Art of Losing Control

The production of a book is usually very tightly controlled by the author(s) and publisher(s) that produce it. We have come to accept that as just the way it is. You want to write a book, then naturally you have the right to decide what the text of that book will be.  Seems almost non-controversial.

So, it’s normal to be asked how can you exercise a similar amount of control over a book in Booki. Its an understandable question but very difficult to answer. Difficult because the answer has to cross paradigms – the first paradigm being the established book production and publishing model that we all know, and the second being book production with free licenses in an open system. So I usually find myself answering questions like this with a simple “You can’t,” and waiting for the reaction. It’s intended to be a provocative answer and the further the eyes roll back in the skull the more I know I have to unwrap the concept of ‘publishing’ in the new(ish) era of free culture for whoever it was that asked the question.

But the reality isn’t so simple – it’s much more interesting.

First, there seems often to be an unspoken assumption that control is necessary. Along with this comes the assumption that open content must be protected. Protected from harm – not just the malicious kind, but harm inflicted by contributions that lower the quality of the text. My experience from four years running an entirely open system (FLOSS Manuals) is that there is little to fear except spam. In four years running FLOSS Manuals, I have not seen a single malicious edit. It seems to be the case that if people are not interested in your book they will leave you alone. If they are interested, I have found that the approaches to the text are sensitive and respectful and more often than not they improve the work – sometimes in very surprising ways. On one book I worked on, a retired copy editor went from top to bottom of the 45,000 word text in his afternoons and made an incredible improvement to the text. I would like to have thanked him but I never met him.

The trick is not to protect the text but to manage it. To do this, first, you must make a decision on what kind of development process this will be and what kind of contributions you would like.  From my experience, the best strategy is to try and relinquish as much control as possible in order to achieve the right kind and amount of contributions. To this end, Booki provides some very useful tools to help you. If you want to keep your book very quiet, then you can hide a book so that it does not appear on Booki at all, except on your profile page. Privacy through obscurity. If you want to keep things really really quiet, then you can grab the Booki sources and install Booki on your own server (or laptop) somewhere out of reach of anyone. Or if you want the book totally open for anyone to jump in, then that is the default position with Booki all you have to do then is get the word out as much as you can and invite people to contribute. If you create a new book or chapter then that information gets broadcast on the front page of Booki, however, it is often harder than you think to attract attention and contributions. It often relies on how effectively you can get the word out and how attractive you make the offer. You need to reach out to people and inspire them. The more direct the approach the better – personal emails work best – and emphasising concrete outcomes is very likely to improve results, as is making the offer fun, relevant and illustrating a real need. But the usual rules apply for attracting volunteers in any realm – it’s a mix of luck and getting the tone and channels right.

Once the contributions start rolling in, then it’s up to you to manage this process. To this purpose, there are a number of tools available in Booki – most importantly the history tab where you can view changes and roll back to earlier versions of any chapter as you wish. If things get out of control, you can clone (copy) the entire book and decide on a more moderate development approach. However, the best tool for managing input and getting the book to where you want it to be is social management. You need to coerce the contributors to come along with you and share your vision of what the book should be. At the same time, you need to also be able to make the process satisfying to them. There are tools available to help with this communicative process (chat, notes etc) but it’s often reliant on your tone and approach.

‘How to control’ a book is a question I would like to see asked more often with more nuance and colour to the question. However, I think if you can lose the feeling that you must control the book and instead relinquish as much control as possible, you will be surprised and very probably excited by the results. In a world of free culture, it’s all about the art of losing control…