How Book Sprints work for sponsors

Manual examples

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

Illustrations in Basic Internet Security

You can see the book here (all generated with the Booki installation at

And improve it here:

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

Reading the bound book at International Press Freedom Day

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

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

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

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

Improving Dostoyevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is this :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why repositories are important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Here-and-now’ Production

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

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


The Art of Losing Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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