Federated Publishing

Federated publishing takes all of the concepts I have dealt with so far – ease of online book production, collaboration, reuse – and applies them to a new networked model of publishing.

In the social software circles, there is a movement that advocates a Federated Social Web. The main advocates are ostatus and the free software micro-blogging platform status.net. The Federated Social Web is a vision of inter-operable social network platforms enabling “people on different social networks connect with each other as friends and colleagues,” says Evan Prodromou.

Federation of this kind is not new to the web, and there are many online services which work like this. Email is a federated system – it doesn’t matter where you have your email account, you can still communicate with other people who have email accounts elsewhere. However, federation of this kind is not the architecture of choice for monopolistic social network enterprises like Facebook. Facebook will not enable you to install your own copy of Facebook for your business or school, nor does it enable communication between users on Facebook and users on other social networks.

What we need is a federated architecture for online book production and publishing. Anyone should be able to set up their own online book production/publishing service and share books with other book production/publishing networks, enabling anyone to reuse any book, anywhere.

Federated publishing supports traditional, established book production techniques while fueling radically different approaches. To achieve healthy federated publishing on the web, four key elements need to be built up:

  • Fee content
  • Federated book production platforms
  • People participating
  • Suitable economic models

There is currently no prolific exploration of this model. Federated publishing is currently only illustrated, I believe, by FLOSS Manuals. In FLOSS Manuals, anyone can clone or migrate a book to another platform, reuse and change the book without permission, and publish it wherever they like. That is federated publishing.

Federated publishing was anticipated by this astonishing passage from Marshall McLuhan in Predicting Communication via the Internet (1966), in an interview with Robert Fulford, 8 May 1966, on CBC’s This Hour Has Seven Days):

 “Instead of going out and buying a packaged book of which there have been five thousand copies printed, you will go to the telephone, describe your interests, your needs, your problems, and they at once xerox with the help of computers from libraries all over the world, all the latest material for you personally, not as something to be put out on a bookshelf. They send you the package as a direct personal service. This is where we’re heading under electronic conditions. Products increasingly are becoming services.”

This passage is usually quoted as a prophecy of the Internet to come. However it is not a vision of the Internet, rather a vision of the book-as-service through federated publishing – an open network of book production platforms connecting people and books.

In contrast, proprietary publishing dominates the search for new distribution formats and economic models, reward systems for authors and others, and fuels an unwillingness to make content interoperable on a technical, legal, or social cultural level. It was this context McLuhan imagined we were escaping.

Through collaborative publishing projects, we have found that not only is federated publishing highly productive, exciting, and fun but there are also economies evolving around it – organisations and ‘crowds’ pay to have books produced this way, and they pay you to help them to do it.

The Model, The Model

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

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

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

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

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

The Rural Design Collective raised $2130 US dollars for the project. Not a sum most publishers would be interested in but it does raise an interesting point – people are prepared to fund a book that they want. That’s quite a reversal – the consumer is actively switching sides to become ‘part’ of the production team by helping finance the product. The advantage of this process is that if you can raise the funds for the project like this then you don’t have to rely on sales to recover your costs or make a profit. That means there is a better chance for the product to be a ‘no strings attached’ free product. The content can actually be free because no one is anxious to recover their costs from sales. That also means that the post-production can focus on distributing the content as far and wide as possible because at that stage the return is recognition through distribution. This can, if done well, help with the next project that needs funding…the better you are known for producing good quality free products the easier it will be to convince people to help pay for their production.

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