Books are Evil, Really Evil pt1

Right now books are something of an ironic artefact for me. I am involved in the rapid production of books through a process known as a Book Sprint. We create books. We throw a bunch of people in a room for a week, and carefully facilitate them through a process, progressing them step by step, from zero to finished book, in 5 days or less.Write a book in a week?! An astonishing proposal. Most people who attend a Book Sprint for the first time think it is impossible. Create a book in a week?! Most think that maybe they can get the table of contents done in that time. Maybe even some structure. But a book? 5 days later they have a finished book and they are amazed.

There are many essential ingredients to a Book Sprint. An experienced Book Sprint facilitator is a must. A venue set up just so… Lightweight and easy-to-use book production software. A toolchain that supports rapid rendering of PDF and EPUB from HTML. Good food… A writing team… and a lot more.

One of the contributing factors to success is the terror caused by the seemingly impossible idea that the group will create a book. It is a huge motivator. Such is the enormity of the task in the participants’ minds that they follow the facilitator and dedicate themselves to extremely long hours, working on minute details even when exhausted. There is a lot of chemistry in there. Camaraderie and peer pressure are pushed to maximum effect as a motivational factor, as is fear of failure, especially fear of failure before your peers, both inside and outside the Sprint room. The pleasure of helping your peers is a strong motivator, as is the idea that together we will do this! But the number one motivator is the idea that we are going to produce a book.

We all know that books these days, paper books, are published from a PDF. You send a PDF to the printer, and the final output is a perfect bound book. This happens for most Book Sprints – we send the final PDF to a printer for them to produce the printed book. So what we are creating is actually a PDF (along with an EPUB) …but imagine if we were to call the event “PDF Sprint”. At the beginning of the PDF Sprint we could announce that we have gathered everyone together…so that…at the end of the week…they will have….(gasp!)…a PDF!

Nope. Doesn’t work. Doesn’t even nearly work. A book is the seemingly impossible outcome that Book Sprint participants have come to conquer. Even though the definition of ‘what a book is’ is completely up for grabs, it is abook they are determined to produce. A book is the pinacle of knowledge products, and writing a book is about equal in cerebal achievements to climbing Everest. A PDF is merely getting to base camp, or perhaps the equivalent to planning the trip from your armchair.

So, what’s the problem? Books are good then! A great motivator for Book Sprints. Where exactly is the irony? How can I complain?

Book Sprints are extraordinary events. The people are not just put into a room and left to write. They are led through a process where notions of single authorship and ownership of content just no longer make sense. Such ideas are unsustainable and nonsensical in this environment, and participants slowly deconstruct ideas of authorship over the 5 days.

The participants actively collaborate during the event. Really collaborate. Book Sprints are a kind of collaborative therapy. Each participant learns to let go of their own voice so they can contribute to constructing a new shared voice with the rest of the team. They learn new ways to contribute to group processes, to communicate, to improve each other’s contributions, to synthesize, to empower and encourage others to improve the work without having to ask permission.

The resulting book has no perceivable author. It has been delivered by what is now a community. And as a result, most of the books, about 99% I would say, end up being freely licensed. A book born by sharing is more easily shared. More easily shared than a book created with the notions of author-ownership. The idea of sharing is embedded in the DNA of the Book Sprint, part of the genesis of the product, and sharing more often than not becomes part of the life of the book after the Book Sprint is completed.

But books are evil

So, how is it possible I can take the position that books are evil? Where exactly is the irony? It is a lovely story I just painted. Lots of flowers and warm fuzzy feelings. Wow. Sharing, sharing, sharing… it’s a book love-in!

Well… with some regret, I have to admit that most books do not come into the world this way. They are produced and delivered through legacy processes. Cultural norms shape the production and reception of books, and the ideas contained within them are not born into freedom. These books are, normatively, created by ‘single author geniuses’, born into All Rights Reserved knowledge incarceration, and you cannot recycle them.

Try as we may, we are a little group of people. A small band of Book Sprinters, and it is unlikely that we can sway the mainstream to our way of doing things. We have many victories – Cisco released one of its Book-Sprinted books freely online! Whoot! That’s massive! But… as big as Cisco is, one Cisco book in the sea of publishing is merely a grain of salt in the Pacific. By adding our special grain of salt to this ocean we are by no means making our point more salient.

Books are doomed to be the gatekeepers of knowledge. If you make a book, you are, more than likely, sentencing the words in it to life + 50 years (depending on where you live).

Books are in fact the very artefacts that maintain proprietary knowledge culture.

It comes down to these three issues for me:
1. books gave birth to copyright
2. books gave birth to industrialised knowledge production
3. books gave birth to the notion of the author genius

These three things together are the mainstays of proprietary knowledge culture, and proprietary knowledge culture has been firmly encased and sealed, with loving kisses, between the covers of the book. Ironically these three things, through the process of the Book Sprint, are what we are trying to deconstruct.

many thanks to Raewyn Whyte for improving this post

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.

The Book as Motivator

It is amazing what a great motivator it is to say to anyone, “you will be part of making a book.”

It sounds exciting. It is! It has more power than saying, “you will be part of making a PDF or web page.” Although… that’s actually what we are doing, creating it via a website interface, it is not nearly as magical. We are making a PDF that we send to a printer. Or we are making an EPUB/ebook or series of templated-HTML pages… etc… but that reality contains no magic. As Arthur C Clarke once said:  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Enabling people to produce that magic themselves is very powerful. We have come to think of the book production process as something only publishers can do. However, we now have that magic in our own hands, enabled by a wonderful array of technologies such as digital file formats, digital networks, the web, standards, protocols, rapid binding technologies, cheap and fast printing, and online book production platforms. Each part of this technology chain might be familiar enough to us that we don’t think of them as magical but we put them together and something magic happens.

The invitation to make a book is a very important motivator – but don’t take my word for it, here are some nice quotes from some participants of collaborative book projects I have been involved in:

"This week has been amazing! ... I know I did NOT expect to have a book in print within the week!... Four books in one week, from 29 people. I still can't believe it."
"Last week I wrote a book! Three of them, actually :) ... it was a (very!) collaborative effort. I’m exhausted, as I said, but also inspired...and I’m incredibly proud of what we produced. It would be a respectable outcome from several weeks of work, and we managed it in barely three days."
"I had no idea when the week started that we were going to write a book in a week, nor that it was possible to do that."

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the speed of making a book that generates this feeling of magic. The rise in popularity of print-on-demand illustrates that people love to make books even if it costs them more for a book ẃhich is sometimes of a lower print quality than mass-produced books. But that’s not the point either. The point is that it is their book, one they participated in producing. That is the magic and the motivation and the faster the book is produced the stronger that motivation.

Of course, what people are actually doing is not ‘producing books.’ They are collaborating in a very special way to produce knowledge and culture, a way that is almost egoless, amazingly energising, and can only occur because of free culture. That is what is really magical and the idea of producing a book is a great motivator to getting us there.

[Produced somewhere around 2010/2011]

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]