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…

 

The Model, The Model

So what are the revenue models for collaboratively produced free books? Seems like a very difficult proposition. Not only do you have to find some way to sell something that is free, always at least a little tricky, but you have then split that revenue between multiple authors, not just one. Sounds like a losing game to many publishers, I am sure. The ‘traditional’ model, or at least the model that is re-establishing itself through app stores, to sell the final product. App stores sell electronic books very very cheaply and make them easy to access – the theory being that you will buy something if it is cheap and not a hassle to get. You are in effect paying for a service, not the book. So the theory goes – it can also work for free content since the book is not the commodity but the service.

This could be the way and it at least appears to be working for some publishers, if you believe the evangelism for this model at places like the O’Reilly Tools of Change conferences. However, I think there are more interesting possibilities.

Recently a free book developed in FLOSS Manuals by a single author (James Simmons) was put onto the ‘crowdsourcing’ platform Kickstarter.com (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/rdcHQ/rural-design-collective-2010-summer-mentoring-prog). The Rural Design Collective put the book there to raise money to do the design and production of it. As they stated in the project summary:

How We Will Use The Money
 Our program will take place during the 2010 summer months, June – August. Using our collaborative work on the FLOSS Manual as a guide, we will build a three month course around eBooks. Custom-designed physical copies of the FLOSS Manual will be created by the participants in our program to continue to raise awareness and funds for our work. In addition, a stand-alone website will be created containing code samples and utilities to help others get started working with eBooks.

So they were pitching the book as tool that would have a very real and tangible output – a 3-month course on eBooks. The project effectively then has at least 2 tangible outcomes – the book and the course (plus the website etc). This is pretty much considered ‘best practice’ when pushing things on crowdsourcing platforms. Make the proposition tangible and real.

The Rural Design Collective raised $2130 US dollars for the project. Not a sum most publishers would be interested in but it does raise an interesting point – people are prepared to fund a book that they want. 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 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.

But…’what about the real money’? Surely a question on every publisher’s lips right now… how to find people that want books to be produced and get them to pay for them. Universities want books? Get them to pool their resources and pay for the books’ entire production. NGOs want books? Same deal… turn the economics on its head. Don’t take the risk of getting a return from sales, find the people with the money that want to pay for the books before you produce them, and have your incoming revenue stream solved before you write the book…. Why do it collaboratively I hear the attentive reader asking? Because you can do it fasterthat way, and if you have someone paying for something, you don’t want to make them wait. Book Sprint it. This model can work for you, it can work for the ‘commissioners,’ and more importantly, it can work for free culture.

Barcelona Bookimobile

Barcelona now has a Bookimobile. We introduced the new Bookimobile to Spain at the Kosmopolis 11 Literature Festival.

The stamp we put on all books made by Booki with the Bookimobile

Booki Mobile Barcelona

We have worked here now for two days doing workshops, helping people produce books produced in Booki, and talking to people about book production. Tomorrow we have workshops and presentations. It has been loads of fun and we made a lot of cool books and also worked a lot making pleigos. Pliego is a small book format that can be made from a single page (folded into 8 or sixteen pages and ripped along the edges to make a book). It is an extremely simple and beautiful format.

The Bookimobile was designed to take the ideas of Booki to people and make real books that have been created in Booki. It now exists in Berlin and now also in Barcelona. The first Bookimobile (now in Berlin) was based on the Internet Archives Book Mobile. It was also initially sponsored by Mozilla, CiviCRM, Archive.org, Franophonie.org, and iCommons. The binder for the Barcelona Bookimobile was donated by Google Summer of Code.

Circumvention Book Sprint II

I just finished facilitating a Book Sprint about circumvention called “How to Bypass Internet Censorship”. We spent 5 days outside of Berlin updating the book we first created in a Sprint in 2008. It was a ‘re-sprint’ if you like and was extremely successful.

New Update – http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/how-to-bypass-internet-censorship/15054026

Right now, you can buy this book from lulu.com and you can also contribute to it through the FLOSS manuals installation of Booki – http://booki.flossmanuals.net/bypassing-censorship/edit

It will also be available shortly on the FLOSS Manuals website – I just need to finish the integration with Booki.

The first version of this book was extremely successful – being translated into Burmese, simplified Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, Spanish, French, Farsi, and Spanish. Most of these were also distributed in perfect book form.

English, Russian, Arabic, Spanish versions

The book-formatted PDF for the above books, including those with bi-directional text (Farsi, Arabic etc) were all generated using Booki.

The new book is *much* better with beautiful illustrations and cover provided by Laleh Torabi  and many new chapters, updates of old chapters and some new sections. Buy it now or wait a few days for the free version…

Please Kill Non-Commercial Free Culture

The death of copyright is not as radical as it appears. It is not necessary to have copyright to have effective business models. The publishing industry already makes a lot of money this way – Penguin Books, for example, does quite a lot of business from classics by very famous authors such as Jane Austin, Chaucer, and William Shakespeare – all authors whose work is out of copyright.

Unfortunately for now, we are stuck with copyright. The temporary remedy is to use a ‘Free License’ such as those coming out of Creative Commons. However “free licenses” are not a cure, they merely diminish the symptoms and should be considered a temporary hack, and hacks sometimes diminish our need to address the real problem.

Copyright is the problem, free licenses are the hack. The free culture movement actually avoids identifying and addressing the real problem because they are focused on advocating a temporary solution.

Additionally some free licenses are extremely bad hacks. To cure us of copyright, new economies must evolve from open content to displace closed-copyright models before copyright itself will be seen as hampering business. Then copyright might go away. Howeve,r many free licenses have a specific “non-commercial” clause which means that free culture works cannot participate in emerging free culture economies. Free culture is, in a way, working against its own aims by implementing ’free’ licenses with Non-Commercial clauses.

Someone please kill NC – then copyright itself.

Why ISBN does not work

ISBN stands for “International Standard Book Number”. It is a 13 digit number that identifies your book. No two ISBN numbers are the same and they usually appear on your book in numeric form and as a bar code. Generally, you buy ISBN numbers and each country manages this slightly differently. Some countries require you to be a publisher before you can order an ISBN. In the USA, I believe, you buy them in blocks of 10, whereas in New Zealand you just apply for them – they give them away.

If you wish to distribute a book through established book channels then you mostly need an ISBN. Book shops such as Barnes & Noble or your local book shop require ISBN so they can track, sell and order stock (books). Most online retailers of any size also require this – Amazon, for example, require an ISBN if you wish to sell through their channels. However, some online channels do not require ISBN – lulu.com for example.

The big problem with ISBN is that you need a new ISBN for every new edition. So if you release a book and then edit it and re-release it you need two ISBN numbers. This can take a long time to order and process and it can be expensive (depending on how you get your ISBN).

This is not the real issue. Admin takes a long time, we are all used to that. But sometimes an administrative system gets built to work for a certain model and when that model changes, then things stop making sense.

ISBN works well in a publishing world where books take years to produce and the products are identifiable as distinct bodies of work. However, in the world of Booki, this is not the typical process. For example, when working with a Book Sprint team, we typically write and release a book in 5 days. You can register the ISBN before the event, no problem. However, quite often after the event we may ‘release’ a new version of the book  – 5, 10, 15 times in one day. Some of these releases may be substantial revisions. This quite clearly does not sit neatly with the slow ISBN process. Even with a more conservative development cycle for a ‘Booki book’ the implication is clear – ISBN expects content to be static, it does not expect books to ‘live’.

Its a real problem for free content and content that exists in an environment where ongoing contributions to the source are encouraged. If you manage a book like this in Booki and you wish to distribute the book through traditional distribution channels, then there is a point where you must ‘freeze’ the content and release the ‘snapshot’. This is not altogether satisfying since then you must either make the book ‘die’ for a time so the printed work and the source remain equal, or you must acknowledge that the paper version is merely a soon-to-be-outdated archive.

Letting content die, or temporarily freezing contributions, can kill a book, which is not a very desirable result considering it often takes a lot of work soliciting ongoing contributions in the first place. The alternative, accepting that the printed book is an archive, is probably not going to make many distributors very happy since you are asking them to sell an out-of-date product (although this is conjecture since I have never tried this).

My answer to this dilemma is to actually walk away from traditional distribution channels. Free content should travel freely across media and in front of the eyes (and ears in the case of audio books) of whoever wants it and in whatever form they want it. Let the content go, don’t constrain it to these traditional channels.

Typically these channels are pursued however for ‘legacy’ reasons. Some you can’t escape – if you are an academic you live off ISBN and the education system will be slow to change that. However, if it’s a business model you are after, then don’t make the mistake of thinking that selling books is the only way to go… new models are emerging – get people to pay you to write the content, for example. One such successful example of this is the Rural Design Collective who successfully raised $2000 (US) via crowdsourcing on Kickstarter.)

So there are alternatives. ISBN is blocking the way, but it’s probably about time to start believing there are better ways….

 

Importing Archive.org Books with Booki

For some months, Booki has been able to import Archive.org books. This development was sponsored by Archive.org. When importing a book, Booki requests an ePub from Archive.org, converts this to the ‘native file format’ (booki-zip) and loads this into the Booki database. It is then possible to export the same book back into an ePub file.

So, if Booki can import an Archive.org ePub and then export it as ePub what is the point? Seems like Booki is an unnecessary conduit. Well, one point is that with Booki you can export the book into multiple formats – such as book-formatted PDF. That means you can take any of those luscious out-of-copyright books, import them into Booki and make real books from them. This is pretty exciting when you see just how lovely some of these books are. Take for example the copy of Cinderella in the American Libraries section of Archive.org.

Cinderella original edition
Cinderella Edward Dalziel, 1865

This version of Cinderella is out-of-copyright and you can republish as you like. This is a pretty exciting prospect, opening the door for anyone to start their own publishing house importing content from Booki, styling, and exporting to print-formatted-PDF for printing.

However, there are a few steps that you may need to go through first, and this is the real reason why we have implemented importing from Archive.org. All the books in the Archive.org libraries have been created using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) scanning. The process involves loading books onto book scanners and scanning each page.

Archive.org Book Scanner.

However, scanning creates a certain amount of errors. OCR doesn’t render all text correctly and cannot tell the difference between text on a page and text in an image. Hence images with embedded text are usually split up, with the text elements saved as plain text and the surrounding image saved as multiple smaller images. So the OCR-scanned books need proofing and the import feature in Booki enables proofing of OCR scanned books from Archive.org. This means that teams can get together remotely, choose a selection of Archive.org books, and get to work improving them.

While this is all working, we want to build a tighter workflow and a few extra tools to assist the proofing process (if you are a developer familiar with Python and interested in helping us with this good cause then let us know). Douglas Bagnall (Booki/Objavi developer) recently extended the import functionality so that all the metadata imported from Archive.org is preserved. This opens the door to utilising this information to assist proofing of the content – we hope, for example, to eventually be able to show the complete digital image of the original scan, before it was reduced to OCR, alongside the OCR pages to assist proofing. Watch this space!

Incidentally, Booki can import any ePub, so this means that the way is open for the same proofing process to be applied to other OCR scanning projects. If you have a project like this then let us know, maybe we can help.