Book Sprint Textbooks…anyone?

My role as ‘an educator’ revolves around group processes – namely, Book Sprints. Essentially I facilitate groups of 5-10 people working together in one room over an intensive 3-5 days to produce a book. Zero to book in 5 days (or less). This process is known as a Book Sprint and although it is an uncommon practice, most people who ask for and participate in a Sprint see it as a Book Production methodology. However, I would argue that, in all circumstances, the collaborators walk away having learned a great deal about the subject they have just created a book about.

I also believe that this process can be used by students to write their own textbooks, learning what they write and passing the free textbook onto the next year’s students to improve. I am eagerly awaiting the first enlightened institution that would take this on, and I am sure they would be positively surprised by the results – both in the quality of books produced and by what the students learn in terms of content and collaboration.

Book Sprints utilise collaborative environments. The only Book Sprint (1) I know of before we did them (2) used word processing documents – passing these around via email between collaborators – and a wiki for collecting the articles. Part way through the process, they gathered in person to develop the outline in a one week intensive ‘Outline Sprint’ and then proceeded to collaborate via email and a wiki over a period of 4-6 months. After the material was complete, the group passed the documents through several editing stages. The process cut the standard industry timeline down by about 30-50%. Zero to book in 4-6 months is still pretty good in the publishing industry.

However, for FLOSS Manuals, 4-6 months was too long. We wanted to do it in 5 days and so we needed a quicker methodology and a better tool set. Wikis might come to your mind immediately as they did to us. However, we had already realised that wikis were not built with the right paradigm. Books are very structured and wikis are not. That is the essence of it – I don’t want to get into ‘future of the book’ discussions. Books can be many things, so I am talking here about what ‘most’ people mean by a book. A one piece cover, several hundred pages, table of contents, structured readable and comprehensive content, self-contained with very few references to other parts of the document, and careful use of outside references instead of a welter of back-and-forth hyperlinks. We built a system that could produce this kind of book – paper books – in a Book Sprint environment. Zero to book in 5 days – that leaves about 3 minutes at the end to produce book-formatted PDF ready to upload to a PoD service or send to the local printer. That is what we needed, and wikis don’t enable you to do that. So we hand rolled our own. The first generation was built on TWiki and we pushed it to its outer limits with extensions built by Aleksandar Erkalovic and a PDF renderer built by Luka Frelih. Now we are onto the second generation – Booki (a BOOK-wikI if you will). It does the same job as the first tool set, but does it better – it’s easier to use, more flexible, and it supports a greater number of possible output formats and types.

While Booki does a lot, and it’s hard to imagine a Book Sprint without it, there are limits to working digitally in a Book Sprint. Certainly, we also experience the highs of surprising networked collaboration. One Sprint (‘Introduction to the Command Line’) was written almost entirely remotely and written in 2 days (Mako Hill, FSF Board member and renowned hacker said it was the best book on its topic). However, there are also limits to digital media and digital networks. I believe that there is less knowledge passed through digital media communication channels when collaborating. I firmly believe this – other wise we would have all of our Book Sprints remote – it would cut down on logistics and costs. However text-based chat does not convey enough information, VOIP is terrible for more than 2 people at a time and even then I wonder at its real usefulness in intensive collaboration, and email is just too slow and the ‘unthreaded’ nature of email will soon drive you crazy in this kind of environment. Microblogging is as good as IRC in this instance – ie. barely useful. Sneaker networks are not only faster but more fluid and they enable better-shared understandings, quicker.

In addition, I find it is often good to push people out of the screen and into the book. Since we work fast in Sprints we sometimes realise we need to clean up structural issues. This often occurs when 2 or more people are working on content that needs to fit together – and it doesn’t. Often we print out the necessary chapters, sit on the floor, and (gasp) cut-and-paste the chapters into each other until they work. Same process as a digital text editor, just with a physical tool set – the result is that it gets better results quicker.

The end result of a Book Sprint is a book. That’s a great thing to have. However there is also a mandate to take care of, and content to take care of. How do you enable this content to live? Books do not live by licenses alone – they need help. They need the original collaborators to find the avenues to keep the content alive. One strategy is to maintain this content themselves although, despite good will, this seldom continues beyond some initial edits immediately after the Sprint ends. The original collaborators need to pass on the mandate to others and this is critical for the life of the book. As such I discourage the use of terms like ‘authors’ as this denotes legacies of ownership and does not encourage new contributors to take the mandate to improve the book. Instead, the strategies revolve around keeping the participation threshold low (minimising social filters, using open language, making Booki simpler and simpler to use) and welcoming in new contributions. We also welcome forking books. Take a book – make it your own whichever way you feel is best.

However occasionally Sprinters, caught up in the fervor of intensive production, often get worried about misappropriation or unethical use and erect barriers that do nothing to help and a lot to hurt. They ask themselves questions like ‘What if someone takes the content and makes money? What if contributors spam the book? What if someone changes the tone of the book? Could contributions ruin it?’ This is the ethical quandry put at the foot of freedom largely by the fears and protective necessities of the proprietary publishing industry, We all carry this a little bit and my response is always ‘let it go’. Let the content be free and you will be happily surprised by the results. The irony is that once sprinters are convinced of this idea they are left ‘fighting’ the default – standard attitudes towards publishing and authorship means it’s hard work to get people to uptake the freedoms of free content. Book Sprint collaborators (and free content developers in general) often need to put a lot of energy into reaching out to others to get them to take ownership of the material and make changes, but it can be done with the right approach. I am hoping soon we see will the integration of Book Sprints into curriculum to create and improve textbooks as another way to explicitly pass on the mandate to change,and I’m very much looking forward to seeing this strategy develop…


(1) The idea of a Book Sprint as outlined in the article by Marco Zennaro et al was the brainchild of Tomas Krag

(2) Marco Zennaro, Enrique Canessa, Carlo Fonda, Martin Belcher, Rob Flickenger, “Book Sprint” in The International Journal of the Book (Melbourne, Australia, Common Ground Publishing, 2006) Vol 2 Number 4.

written by Adam Hyde, founder of FLOSS Manuals.


Book Design with CSS

Book creation is usually managed in multiple environments – the simplest toolchain consists of the writing and editing environment – usually a word processor – and the design environment – usually desktop publishing software such as Scribus or InDesign. The transition is time-consuming and ‘clunky’ and made worse if multiple text sources are to be combined in the design processes.

Additionally, this process means there are two sources for the text. Changes made to the text once the source is in the design environment usually have to be copied also into the word processing files if the integrity of that source is to be maintained, and vice versa.

It would be simpler if there was one environment that could be used for creating and editing AND for design. That is what we have created with Booki.

Booki enables content creation through a web interface. Chapters can be easily moved around and content can be easily modified through a very simple WYSIWYG interface. The design environment is also Booki and is web based, and we have developed a technology for creating book-formatted PDF using CSS.

The interface is simple to use – in the ‘export’ tab of any book you can paste CSS into the text field provided in the ‘Advanced Options’ press ‘export’ and a very short time later you have the book-formatted PDF complete with Table of Contents, numbering, headers, and margin control.

While the interface is easy to use, the tool does not ‘by itself’ create a good looking book. The secret to a good looking book is a well-defined stylesheet and time spent manually tweaking some ‘content’ elements in the WYSIWYG editor (paragraph breaks, placement of images).

To understand the relationship between CSS and the final result, there is no substitute for trial and error. Designers must first understand how a ‘web native’ technology – CSS – applies to page-based media (books). This paradigm appears simple but it requires a slight re-alignment of how book designers think about designing books, and to do this, designers must try the process and persevere until they succeed. After that initial success, things become easier.

Probably the best way to start is to take an existing book and look at the CSS, then change it and see what happens. Generating a PDF takes anywhere from half a minute to a few minutes, so this is a pretty quick method for seeing how CSS affects the layout of the book. For experimenting, first,  create an account in Booki  and then visit this page. On this page,  go to the ‘export’ tab and press the ‘Publish this book’ button. The PDF will be quickly generated – beware the ‘progress bar’ is rather fake… the PDF might be ready more quickly or slowly than the progress bar suggests.

Next, click on ‘Show Advanced Options’ scroll down and choose ‘Custom’ from the ‘CSS mode’ drop down menu. Now a text field will appear with the default CSS – the same CSS that was used for the design of the book you just created.

Now either change the CSS in the text box OR visit this site for help.

At the bottom of this page, you will find a link to the CSS used for the print version of the second edition of this book – it’s the same book you are currently working on. You can see that the CSS states:

/* Main CSS File: */
@import url("");
/* Uncomment based on the book size you export: */
/* A5 */
/* @import url(""); */
/* 5.5"x8.5" */
/* @import url("");*/

This is CSS syntax that imports the ‘real’ CSS used which can be found here:

Copy this CSS, change it, and enter it into the CSS text field of Booki, then try exporting the book again. Experiment with changing the CSS and see what happens.


A Web Page is a Book

Most of us know an ebook is a digital file that can be read by devices such as iPads and Kindles. There are many different kinds of ebook formats and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some ebooks made to be viewed on the Kindle, others on the iPad, still others for reading online via a web browser. Kindle, for example, works with the MOBI format, whereas the iPad-iBook reader works only with iBook or EPUB formats. EPUB is one of the most popular formats because no one owns the format as compared to, for example, the way Microsoft owns the .doc format. Anyone can produce an EPUB without having to pay royalties. That makes EPUB a popular type of ebook format for publishers.

What is important here, is that many of these ebook formats share a lot in common with the web page. EPUB, for example, in the words of the International Digital Publishing Forum  (the group taking  responsibility for managing the development of the format), is:
“…a means of representing […] Web content — including XHTML, CSS, SVG, images, and other resources — for distribution in a single-file format.”

EPUB pages are made of HTML, the language of the web. EPUB pages are web pages.

The change of carrier medium for books, from paper to HTML, changes everything. Publishers appear to believe that just the format of the book (from paper to electronic) and the distribution process (from bricks and mortar to net) have changed. These are enormous changes indeed, but what about everything else? What about the rest of the book’s life?

To get an understanding of how this transformation of the content medium from paper to web page affects things, let’s first take a bird’s eye view of the current life cycle of a book. Painting it with broad strokes, the book life cycle (still) looks something like this:

  • Text Production – production of the book. Most recently it has become a very linear workflow with text originating with authors. Editors, proofreaders, translators, researchers, and designers are all involved with very clearly demarcated roles.
  • Object Production – the creation (typesetting, printing, binding) of the paper book
  • Market – distribution to retail outlets and sales through those outlets
  • Life – after being read, the book becomes an archive. The shelf life is connected to the value to the reader or owner (shelf life).

Digital networks and digital books, of course, have changed how publishers work. The disruption, however, has really been limited to the steps of object production and marketing strategies. Many publishers of genres from fiction to scientific journals do not have a workflow for the production of electronic books, they simply send their MS Word files to an outsourced business for transformation to EPUB. In their world, paper books are easier to produce than digital books. Even so, much has changed and can be captured in brief by the following:

  • Text Production – no change
  • Object Production – electronic books added
  • Market – online sales, devices
  • Life – no change or reduced (shelf or digital equivalent)

Arguably, the life of a book has been reduced, as many book formats cannot be transferred from one device to another and so have only limited visibility. Books, for example, produced in Apple’s iBook Author do not follow the standard way of making EPUB and are often unreadable on non-Apple devices. This is changing a little with developments such as the Kindle app which can be installed on iPads and computers for reading books purchased on Amazon. However, there are still many issues.

What is most astonishing to me, is that there has been little or no innovation regarding the production of books. Sure paper and pen were replaced by typewriter and then a computer and word processing software. But these technologies largely support the same methods for making books. In 2013, many years into the digital media and digital network world, there is little change. We are still producing books as we did back in the days of handwritten manuscripts, except these days we can email the file to someone to check. It is as if the digital network is just a faster postal service.

There are some notable exceptions. For example, OReilly is experimenting with some networked and ‘agile’ (fast-moving and iterative) production processes, but overall, the innovation and change happening now within the publishing industry is constrained to everything that happens after the text is produced and before the book is archived by the reader.

As it happens, this is about as far as the publishing industry can innovate. They are too heavily invested in production workflows, tools and methodologies to change the production process. In addition, it is too difficult for publishers to consider changing as there is the fear such disruption could break things on a much deeper level. Single author works, for example, are an important part of reputation-based sales and you can’t change one without the other.

In many ways, it is simply bad business and logistically too hard for publishers to innovate around production as it cannibalises their existing models. At the other end of the cycle, publishers do not seem to be interested in the life of the book beyond purchase, except where they retard life expectancy with DRM, delete the book file or link from your device, or surveil your reading habits in order to offer the next book for your consumption. After reading the book on your reader, it sits there as it would on a bookshelf.

Ironically for the publishing industry, the biggest opportunities are in the areas they are not addressing. The new publishing world, which might be populated largely by those individuals, collectives, ‘groupings’ and organisations that are currently not publishers, looks like this:

  • Text Production – collaboration and social production
  • Object Production – paper and electronic books
  • Market – distribution to retail, sales, online sales, devices
  • Life – living and growing books

The beginning of this cycle and the end are intimately linked. The conditions for collaboration have a lot in common with the conditions for extending the life of books.

The life cycle of a book is changing because books are web pages and production is coming online. Collaborative production is one very rich opportunity and it looks very unlike linear production models. In intensive collaborative or open collaborative environments, roles are concurrent and fluid. It is possible for one person to write original material, borrow material, improve another’s material, then proofread others’ work, edit and comment on design. This is all possible because the production environment is the browser. At its most intense, collaborative browser-based production becomes transparent. Anyone can look at the evolution of the book and witness the changes as they occur. In this kind of process, discourse becomes necessary and collaborators open up rich and valuable discussions which become part of the book. The book becomes a product of collective discourse and the discourse is often as rewarding as the book that comes from the process.

These conditions often lead to the book having an extended life as communities of collaborators form around the book and carry the book forward, amending and improving the work. The life of the work is then connected to the health of the connected networked community.

As the new production and carrier medium for books, HTML transforms everything. It leads naturally to collaborative production and the extended life of content. However, most of these transformations are occurring outside the existing publishing industry, leaving the future of publishing in your hands.

See also

[Produced sometime in 2011]

Print on Demand vs Demanding Printers

I have been experiencing quite a strange phenomenon recently. On several occasions, I have found myself looking for printers that can print perfect bound books quickly. A ‘perfect bound’ book is a book that is normally called a ‘paperback’  – black and white interior colour cover, and a nice thick one piece cover that tightly hugs the outside of the book and is creased and folded along the spine.

print_on_demand_booksPerfect Bound books printed in less than 20 hours

I have needed these services after a Book Sprint – typically I have spent 5 days in a room with half a dozen others and we have written a book of 300 pages or so. We output the content to book-formatted PDF with Objavi, and next, to make it a real party, we want to see the book the same day we finished it, or the next morning. It is entirely possible to do this, and I have done it many times. However, the one thing that might catch you out is actually finding the right type of printer that can make perfect bound books fast. This is not easy, and sometimes is made harder if you are in a non-English speaking country as the English term ‘perfect bound’ does not easily translate.

What I have found, is that most large cities have these services. In Berlin, for example, there is a service about 5 blocks away from my house. In Paris, you need to travel out to the suburbs to find a service but there is one. In Palo Alto, Kinkos does it (but doesn’t do it well)…etc….

While these services are relatively common, what I have found, time and time again, is that these services are very hard to find. The first issue is that they have no standard way of marketing their services. It is sometimes advertised as ‘print on demand’, sometimes ‘books on demand’ and sometimes they just don’t let people know they have these services until you ask. Hence trying to find a business that does this via a search engine, a phone book, or asking a local, just gets you nowhere. You have to call every printer one by one, carefully explaining exactly what you want. Sometimes this is also difficult since the operators might not be printers and so they don’t actually know the terminology, and I have found myself trying to explain what ‘perfect binding’ is to a ‘printer’.

The other issue, and this is the one that I find strange and has tripped me up so many times, is that often the locals – printers and non-printers alike – do not think this kind of service exists at all. That is, they think its impossible. This frustrates me the most.

Essentially there are two typical responses from printers that do not provide this kind of service. The first is from your typical ‘copy shop’ – they will tell you they provide these services and then, when you turn up to look at the samples, you find they are talking about spiral or tape binding. Ugh. After explaining this is not ‘perfect binding’ the normal response is a blank stare and a comment that ‘it is not possible’ and furthermore, if they acknowledge that maybe it is possible, the copy shop assistants, not usually knowing the printing industry very well, will have no idea who might be able to do this.

The next kind of response comes from your traditional offset printer. They will tell you they can make a book but you have to get 200 done, it will take a week, and it will cost you a lot per book and expensive set-up costs. When explained that this is not what you want, they will understand what perfect binding is, and they do know the local print industry, but they will not think doing this is possible or have any idea who might be able to give more information about where to find such a service.

I have been through this process many times. My advice is – it can be done. You can find, in most large cities, printers that will print a book in hours and print it cheaply. Recently in Paris, we had 50 books (300 pages) printed for 6 Euros each, no setup costs, and delivered in less than 20 hours. It could have been faster if we had less printed. Often 1 book can be done ‘on the spot’. So don’t give up. It’s perfectly possible to get the job done: the hardest part is finding the people who can do it…


What is Booki… no, really?

At some point, we have to lay down the vision for Booki. Now might be as good a time as any… Booki is a new approach to publishing. It is in simple terms, a kind of social network for publishing. Actually, I find the analogy of the social network fits quite well when trying to communicate what Booki does. Take a well known social networking site… take your pick… you probably use one or more. In these environments, people gather and share information about themselves. They chat with each other, keep each other ‘posted’ on what they are up to, share opinions and communicate what they are interested in etc.

All in all it’s great fun. Social networks are after all very social – however, mostly that’s all they are. Isn’t that a little sad? Wouldn’t it be nice if all that energy was put towards something useful…something that might change the world?

Imagine taking all that energy in a social network, putting it into an environment that is just as much fun, just as social, but directing the energy towards something productive. Imagine an environment where you chatted with others, met new people, kept them up to date with what you are up to, discussed opinions, had fun… except all this activity was focused on and around making and publishing books. Real books, ones that you could show your friends and tell them you helped create. Imagine spending all that time you currently spend on a social network, except that you find yourself helping someone write a free text book for kids who can’t afford books, or working to improve someone’s novel, or helping write a cook book on Mexican cooking, or a book on fixing Schwalbes.

That is exciting, that is the new world of publishing, that is what a social network can do, but none did… until Booki…

This is the environment we  are building. We have come a long way towards our goal – Booki is functional and pretty stable – but we still have a long way to go. The Booki development team is making fantastic progress and the good news is – it’s free software and that means you can help us get there faster. If you would like to help us revolutionise the world by bringing social networking to publishing… then welcome aboard 🙂