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…

Notes:

(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("http://collaborative-futures.org/material/styles.css");
/* Uncomment based on the book size you export: */
/* A5 */
/* @import url("http://collaborative-futures.org/material/size/a5-hacks.css"); */
/* 5.5"x8.5" */
/* @import url("http://collaborative-futures.org/material/size/5.5x8.5-hacks.css");*/

This is CSS syntax that imports the ‘real’ CSS used which can be found here: http://collaborative-futures.org/material/styles.css

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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Edl_HvcEjs

[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 🙂

 

Booki, OLPC and OER

You may be familiar with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. It’s pretty well known and aims to provide free laptops to children all over the world who otherwise could not afford them.

The OLPC is also a pretty good ebook reader, as demonstrated here:

eBook on the OLPC

The above image is taken from Reading and Sugar – an excellent manual by James Simmons about working with ebooks on the OLPC. The image shows a book taken from Archive.org and imported into Booki – Booki then exported this to an ePub and this was opened on the OLPC as shown.

In the same manual, James talks about using Booki on the OLPC to author ebooks. To quote James:

“Booki is one of the best tools available for Sugar users to create e-books.  It can be used on the XO or from Sugar on a Stick.  It supports many authors collaborating on a single book.  It supports translating books into many languages.  It can create PDFs and EPUBs.  It can create books formatted for print-on-demand services.  It can create documents in Open Office ODT format (which Open Office can convert to MS Word format).  It can even be used to download, proofread, and correct EPUBs created by the Internet Archive.

Booki is an excellent option for teachers preparing textbooks, but it can be used by students for their own projects too.”

Below is an image from the same manual showing Booki being used in the Browse activity (the OLPC browser).

Booki on the OLPC

We are hoping the good work James has been doing will help raise the awareness of Booki as a platform for book authoring on the OLPC which would open up the world of publishing considerably and (we hope) open up exciting possibilities for OER (Open Educational Resources)…

 

Collaborative workflows in online book production – some case studies

“Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act.” 
—Tom Clancy
One of the most obvious opportunities open to online  book production is collaboration. Of course, collaborative writing actually has a somewhat (unfairly) tainted name. During the first wave of wiki-mania, Penguin books conducted an experiment called A Million Penguins1, a collaborative writing project using a wiki. By all accounts, it was more successful as a social experiment than a literary experiment. I think most people think of this kind of thing when they think about collaborative writing. It's an interesting experiment, the thinking goes, but possibly it is not able to produce the same quality as a single-authored work.

However, let’s not forget that ALL books are produced collaboratively. Books generally carry the name of a single author but this is because the publishing industry trades on this. Publishing is a star system and its bottom line relies on it. It is better for a publisher to build up one star than distribute the glory over the 2,5, or 10 who were actually involved in producing the book. As a general rule acknowledging collaborative production is not good for business.

Rather than deny collaboration occurs, it is better to consider whether the character of the collaboration is weak or strong.  Borrowing from a list of continuum sets outlined for collaboration in the book Collaborative Futures2  we could characterise it something like this:

  1. Weak – A single writer completes a work and secondary collaborators discuss or change elements with little or no interaction. For example, a friend reads and discusses elements or a proofreader is commissioned to clean the work up. In the case of the proofreader, little or no interaction occurs between the original creator and the proofreader although they are both aware of the proof reader’s role and changes in the text. The text is monolithic and attribution is solely to ‘the author’. An example would be any Tom Clancy work.
  2. Stronger – A single writer works with an editor, colleague, family member or friend to shape the text throughout the writing process. It is in part a form of mentor – writer relationship with the boundaries negotiated in a fluent and ongoing nature. The collaborator will make direct changes as challenges and suggestions. The text is monolithic but possibly with shared notes, and attribution is to ‘the author’ with thanks  in an additional credit note to those that helped. This is a very typical methodology for publishers but also many works embrace this process informally. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an example where many have argued that Mary Shelley formed a collaboration like this with her husband Percy Shelly.
  3. Strong – A multi-authored work where multiple collaborators share various levels of authority to act on the text in a highly modular and seemingly autonomous fashion. Although there is something of an over-reliance on the Wikipedia as an example, its unusually evolved structure makes it a salient case. Collaboration is remote but a coordinating and shared goal is clear: construction of an encyclopedia capable of superseding one of the classical reference books of history. The highly modular format affords endless scope for self-selected involvement on subjects of a user’s choice. Ease of amendment combined with preservation of previous versions (the key qualities of wikis in general) enable both highly granular levels of participation and an effective self-defense mechanism against destructive users who defect from the goal. Attribution is shared.
  4. Intense – A multi-authored work where the collaborators decide on the scope and character of the book in close and intense discourse throughout the production process. It is generally a very egalitarian environment and permission is not sought or needed to change a colleague’s work. FLOSS Manuals, originally established to produce documentation for free software projects, is a good example. Their method usually involves the assembly of a core group of collaborators who meet face- to-face for a number of days and produce a book during their time together. Composition generally takes place on an online collective writing platform, integrating wiki-like version history and a chat channel. In addition to those physically present, remote participation is solicited. It is necessary to come to an agreed basic understanding between collaborators through discussion of the scope and purpose of the book. Once underway both content and structure are continually edited, discussed and revised. The text is modular with granularity on the chapter level. Attribution is shared and often not as important as other forms of collaboration.

Producing books online obviously opens up some very interesting possibilities for collaboration. First, unlike a typical writer’s room, the net is a public space. That multiplies the possibility of making connections and working with people you may not know. It also means that you could box yourself in and open the door just to those you want to let in. The point is that you have the choice.

In addition to this continuum, there are open and closed collaborations. Open collaboration is an open door policy where anyone can come in and participate. A closed collaboration is where the boundaries of participation are set by social or technical means. Open and closed is a continuum characterised by the strong or weak porous nature of the boundaries. Closed collaboration is the default for the production of almost all books at the moment but some of the most amazing results can come from opening yourself up to open collaboration. My experiences working 5 years like this with a repository of 300 books and 4000 collaborators can recount many stories regarding this as the repository is completely open. Anyone can register and edit any book. As a result of these experiences, I find the case for ‘open collaboration’ extremely compelling. Interestingly, however, the more intensive the collaboration is the more difficult it is to sustain openness. New contributors may have missed formative discussions regarding the book and struggle to find a ‘way in’ to the content, additionally, new contributors may find it hard to enter the close-knit social fabric that is created as people work intensely together over time.

The following are two examples of collaborative workflows enabled by online book production. They investigate different points along the collaborative continuum. The first example is from James Simmons. James wrote several books online in a manner he calls a ‘Book Slog’ or ‘collaborating without co-authors’ – you might think of it as ‘the normal way’ to make books. The second example is of accelerated book production using a collaborative process known as a Book Sprint.

The normal way…

From the words of James Simmons:

A “Book Slog” is pretty much the normal way of writing a book. It is what most publishers would nail (attribute) to a single author. The long road to producing a book.  For example: The book will, of necessity, take more than a week to write.  More than likely it will take months, and will involve much research.  The main author will end up knowing much more after finishing the book than he did when he began it. The book will have one main author, who will do most of the actual writing. The book may or may not have other contributors.The contributions of others may be informal. Other contributors will not be as highly motivated as the main author, or may have their own motivations that are not the same as the main author.The contributors will likely never meet face to face.

The question is, does online production have anything to offer the Slogger? Based on my own experiences, I would have to say it does. I used Booki (now Booktype) for my books. The main reason to use Booki rather than a word processor to write a book is to effectively collaborate with other authors.  I have completed two books this way (and the Spanish translation of my first FLOSS Manual would definitely qualify as a third), so my opinions on this might be worth something.

Some might not think of these books as a collaborative effort, since I wrote every word, but in a very real sense they are collaborative works. I got lots of feedback from other developers, help in debugging my examples, help resolving problems with the test environments, and many useful suggestions. Writing the book on the web made that kind of collaboration much easier.

There were a couple of people who offered to write chapters, but this did not come to pass. In the end, this didn’t matter; the books ended up doing what they needed to do.

After the first book was published, there was interest in creating a Spanish version. Some of the most successful OLPC projects have been in South America, so I definitely wanted there to be a Spanish version.  Unfortunately, I don’t speak any Spanish, so I didn’t feel qualified to do it. After the translation project got set up, a couple of people got accounts and looked over the book, and one of them translated a few paragraphs. Several of the people who had offered to help were concerned that they did not have the technical knowledge to translate the book, and for several days it looked like nobody was going to work on it.

A friend suggested using Google translate to create a base translation that native speakers could correct. I ended up using Babel Fish instead because the HTML generated by Google Translate had a lot of extra stuff in it like JavaScript and the original English text being translated. After I started doing this, a retired teacher who was fluent in Spanish started to correct the text, and I went through it and untranslated things that should not be translated, like code examples. It really needed native speakers to get it into shape.  The retired teacher sent out an email on some lists explaining that we had a translation going that needed to be corrected. After that, several native speakers got accounts on the site and started to correct the text.

What I learned from this, is that starting a book from nothing is intimidating. However, once the book reaches a critical mass and there is no doubt that there will be a finished book, you’ll find that getting help and feedback is easier, almost inevitable.

The best motivation to collaborate on writing a book is a desire for the book to exist. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”

If you can sell people on the idea of the book, you’ll get collaborators. That’s another reason you may have to write a substantial chunk of the book before collaborators show up. A partial book is easier to sell than an idea for a book.

With the book “E-book Enlightenment,” I collaborated with some people from an organization in Oregon called the Rural Design Collective. This is a group that has done work for both the Internet Archive and the One Laptop Per Child project. They have a summer mentoring program where talented students get involved with an Internet project and learn skills that may lead to a future career.

When I announced that Make Your Own Sugar Activities! was finished, I got an email from Rebecca Malamud of the RDC congratulating me. I told her about my plans for a new book and asked if she’d like to contribute.

At that point, the RDC was contemplating what to do for their summer mentoring program and they decided that working on my book might be just what they were looking for.

We all wanted the book to exist, but for different reasons. The RDC is focused on training young people to create websites, and so they chose to focus on the graphic design of the book more than the content.

The RDC found a talented young artist who did some terrific cover and interior illustrations (the small ones at the top of each chapter). The cover illustration that everyone liked didn’t really go with the title I had proposed, so I ended up changing the title.  (The same artist also did new cover art for the printed Make Your Own Sugar Activities!) Another of their mentees created stylesheets which they used to create a really beautiful bound and printed edition of the book.

In addition to the RDC’s work, I also got much help and encouragement from the forums of DIY Book Scanning and Distributed Proofreaders. Again, this is not collaboration in the way the word is normally used, but it was a vital contribution to the book. I would post a link to the book on the FLOSS Manuals website and ask for comments. The comments I got often contained valuable information and suggestions.

So, in summary, I’d say that online production is a good way to collaborate on writing a book!

Book Sprints

A more radical action for online book production is the Book Sprint3.

A Book Sprint is a facilitated process that brings together a group of people to produce a book in 3-5 days (although it has been done in shorter time). While the group meet in person, the books are produced collaboratively using networked (online) end-to-end book production tools. Often remote participants also join in. Usually, there is no pre-production and the group is guided by a facilitator from zero to published book. The books produced are high-quality content and are made available immediately at the end of the sprint in printed (using print-on-demand services) and e-book formats. Book Sprints produce great books and they are a great community and team building process.

The quality of these books is exceptional, for example, Free Software Foundation Board Member Benjamin Mako Hill said of the 280 page Introduction to the Command Line manual produced in a two-day Book Sprint:

“I have written basic introductions to the command line in three different technical books on GNU/Linux and read dozens of others. FLOSS Manual’s Introduction to the Command Line is at least as clear, complete, and accurate as any I’ve read or written. But while there are countless correct reference works on the subject, FLOSS’s book speaks to an audience of absolute beginners more effectively, and is ultimately more useful, than any other I have seen.”

Book Sprints offer an exciting and fun process to work with others to make that book you always felt the world needed. It is a fast process – zero to book in 5 days. Seem impossible? It’s not, its very possible, fun, and extremely rewarding in terms of output (a book!) and the team building that occurs during the process.

There are three common reasons to do Book Sprints:

  1. Producing a book that will be ready at the end of the Sprint drives the process and helps to justify the effort.
  2. Producing knowledge in a short period of time forces the participants to master the issues related to their subject. They will work intensely on content together, share and reshape their understanding of a collective question.
  3. Reinforcing or creating social links. Mobilizing a community to produce a book or text forges and solidifies a sense of belonging among participants.

As a result, I have experimented a lot with this format. To understand the many facets of collaboration in this process let’s look at the second case study – Collaborative Futures.

This book was first written over 5 days (Jan 18-22, 2010) during a Book Sprint in Berlin. 7 people (5 writers, 1 programmer and 1 facilitator) gathered to collaborate and produce a book in 5 days with no prior preparation and with the only guiding light being the title ‘Collaborative Futures’. These collaborators were: Mushon Zer-Aviv, Michael Mandiberg, Mike Linksvayer, Marta Peirano, Alan Toner, Aleksandar Erkalovic (programmer) and Adam Hyde (facilitator).

The event was part of the 2010 Transmediale Festival . 200 copies were printed the same week through a local print on demand service and distributed at the festival in Berlin. 100 copies were printed in New York later that month.

The book was revised, partially rewritten, and added to over three days in June 2010 during a second book sprint in New York, NY, at the Eyebeam Center for Art & Technology as part of the show Re:Group Beyond Models of Consensus and presented in conjunction with Not An Alternative and Upgrade NYC.

developed_collabfutures

Collaborative Futures – Second Edition cover by Galia Offri

Day one of the first sprint consisted of presentations and discussions.

During this first day we relied heavily on traditional ‘unconference’ technologies—namely colored sticky notes. With reference to unconferences we always need to tip the hat to Allen Gunn and Aspiration for their inspirational execution of this format. We took many ideas from Aspiration’s Unconferences during the process of this sprint and we also brought much of what had been learned from previous Book Sprints to the table.

First, before the introductions, we each wrote as many notes as we could about what we thought this book was going to be about. The list consists of the following:

  • When Collaboration Breaks.
  • Collaboration (super) Models.
  • Plausible near- and long-term development of collaboration tech, methods, etc. Social impact of the same. How social impact can be made positive. Dangers to look out for.
  • Licenses cannot go two ways.
  • Incriminating Collaborations.
  • In the future, much of what is valuable will be made by communities. What type of thing will they be? What rules will they have for participation? What can the social political consequences be?
  • Sharing vs Collaboration.
  • How to reconstruct and reassemble publishing?
  • Collaboration and its relationship to FLOSS and GIT communities.
  • What is collaboration? How does it differ from cooperation?
  • What is the role of ego in collaboration?
  • Attribution can kill collaboration as attribution = ownership.
  • Sublimation of authorship and ego.
  • Models of collaboration. Historical framework of collaboration. Influence of technology enabling collaboration.
  • Successful free culture economic models.

Then each participant presented who they were and their ideas and projects as they are related to free culture, free software, and collaboration. The process was open to discussion and everyone was encouraged to write as many points, questions, statements, on sticky notes and put them on the wall. During this first day we wrote about 100 sticky notes with short statements like:

  • “Art vs Collaboration”
  • “Free Culture does not require maintenance”
  • “Transparent premises”
  • “Autonomy: better term than free/open?”
  • “Centralized silos vs community”
  • “Free Culture posturing”

…and other cryptic references to the thoughts of the day. We stuck these notes on a wall and after all of the presentations (and dinner) we grouped them under titles that seemed to act as appropriate meta tags. We then drew from these groups the 6 major themes. We finished at midnight.

Day two—10.00 kick off and we simply each chose a sticky note from one of the major themes and started writing. It was important for us to just ‘get in the flow’ and hence we wrote for the rest of the day until dinner. Then we went to the Turkish markets for burek, coffee and fresh pomegranates.

The rest of the evening we re-aligned the index, smoothed it out, and identified a more linear structure. We finished up at about 23.00.

Day three—At 10.00 we started with a brief recap of the new index structure and then we also welcomed two new collaborators in the real-space: Mirko Lindner and Michelle Thorne. Later in the day, when Booki had been debugged a lot by Aco, we welcomed our first remote collaborator, Sophie Kampfrath. Then we wrote, and wrote a bit more. At the end of the day we restructured the first two sections, did a word count (17,000 words) and made sushi.

After sushi, we argued about attribution and almost finished the first two sections. Closing time around midnight.

Day four—A late start (11.00) and we are also joined by Ela Kagel, one of the curators from Transmediale. Ela presented about herself and Transmediale and then we discussed possible ways Ela could contribute and we also discussed the larger structure of the book. Later Sophie joined us in real space to help edit and also Jon Cohrs came at dinner time to see how he could contribute. Word count at sleep time (22.00): 27,000.

Day five—The last day. We arrived at 10.00 and discussed the structure. Andrea Goetzke and Jon Cohrs joined us. We identified areas to be addressed, slightly altered the order of chapters, addressed the (now non-existent) processes section, and forged ahead. We finished at 2200 on the button. Objavi, the publishing engine for Booktype, generated a book-formatted PDF in 2 minutes. Done. Word count ~33,000.

Some months later the book was ‘re-sprinted’ in New York with another group of people. The following contains excerpts from the experiences and voices of those involved:

Over the course of the second Book Sprint, we often paused to reflect on the fact that editing and altering an existing book (one originally written five months prior by a mostly different group of people) is a completely different challenge than the one tackled by the original sprinters. While the first author group began with nothing but two words -Collaborative Futures- words that could not be changed but were chosen to inspire. This second time we started with 33,000 words that we needed to read, understand, interpret, position ourselves in relationship to, edit, transform, replace, expand upon, and refine.

Coming to a book that was already written, the second group’s ability to intervene in the text was clearly constrained. The book had a logic of its own, one relatively foreign to the new authors. We grappled with it, argued with it, chipped at it, and then began to add bits of ourselves. On the first day, the new authors spent hours conversing with some of the original team. This continued on the second day, with collaborators challenging the original text and arguing with the new contributions

If this book is a conversation, then reading it could be described as entering a particular state of this exchange of thoughts and ideas. Audience might be a word, a possibility and potential to describe this readership; an audience as in a performance setting where the script is rather loose and does not aim for a clear and definite ending. (It is open-ended by nature); an audience that shares a certain moment in the process from a variable distance. The actual book certainly indicates a precise moment, thereby it IS also a document, manifesting some kind of history in/of open source and counter-movements, media environments, active sites, less active sites, interpassivity (Robert Pfaller), residues of thought, semi-public space; history of knowledge assemblages (writers talked about an endless stitching over…) and formations of conversations.

The book as it is processed in a Sprint, is a statement about and of time. The reader or audience will probably encounter the book not as a “speedy material”. Imaginary Readers, Imaginary Audience. We came to recognize, however, that the point was not to change the book so that it reflected our personal perspectives (whoever we are), but to collaborate with people who each have their own site of practice, ideology, speech, tools, agency. In service of a larger aim, none of us deleted the original text and replaced it to reflect our distinct point of view. Instead, we came to conceive of Collaborative Futures as a conversation. Since the text is designed to be malleable and modifiable, it aims to be an ongoing one. That said, at some point this iteration of the conversation has to stop if a book is to be generated and printed. A book can contain a documented conversation, but can it be a dynamic conversation? Or does the form we have chosen demand it become static and monolithic?

In the end, despite our differences, we agreed to contribute to the common cause, to become part of the multi-headed author. Whether that is a challenge to the book or a surrendering to it, remains unclear.

  1. http://thepenguinblog.typepad.com/the_penguin_blog/2007/03/a_million_pengu.html^
  2. http://www.booki.cc/collaborativefutures/continuum/^
  3. http://www.booksprints.net^