Be Social, Be Fun

Once you are up and running, energy needs to be put into the ongoing growth of the contributor base (assuming you haven’t hit capacity), and energy needs to put into keeping the current contributors active and involved. Again drawing a parallel between book development and code development, many open source projects have fulltime community managers. Jono Bacon is one such person – he is the community manager for Ubuntu and wrote the excellent Art of Community Book which is well worth reading, but please keep in mind that book community management doesn’t map directly onto free software community management.

Keeping the contributors involved can be a great job but it also has some gnarly issues. The vast majority of the work is social and some logistics – making sure that the technology for contributing is working and is not a burden, for example. You might not have to do any tech work yourself in these cases, but you will need to find the person that will do so. One thing that has almost universal value in this role is the ability to keep a one-to-one interaction feeling with active members of your community. You are a central pin in the entire mechanism and people like to be close to the action. Keep communicating with people, keep them talking, put them in contact with others working on similar issues, expand their networks, in other words – keep it social.

In addition to this, another secret ingredient is fun. Don’t make the mistake of taking things too seriously, and if you do, make sure that others don’t see it. It’s ok to blow your top occasionally – its actually good to be seen to be fallible –  however, you should apologise as soon as possible and get the good feeling back in the air. For the most part, however, it is very important that the community enjoys the ambiance – this might seem an intangible ‘fun factor’ but it’s more likely that it’s carefully engineered by you than it ‘just happens’.

Another very important issue, is learning when and when not to channel attention and requests to members of the community. Those that are active will become natural pivots on the center of your community, and that redirection to them can turn into a burden for those core individuals if not managed with care. Make sure you are keeping an eye on their frustration levels – if you see they’re getting too much of a load put on them by normal community processes, then you may need to step in and redirect or take on some of that traffic.

These core members are very important to the health of the project, so don’t be disappointed when they leave. Communities have natural cycles and, in addition, community members have other lives. When they inevitably move on, make sure you acknowledge them in front of the community – this is not only a good thing to do, it will relieve any disappointment you may feel and it will signal to the community that everyone is respected and valued as individuals – not just as production engines.

Also keep in mind that, although natural hierarchies will evolve, it is quite important to keep the community in an egalitarian mindset. All contributions should be valued, and all contributors should be valued. That also means that you must keep the balance of power even. Core contributors will naturally get more say in how things go, so ensure that channels are open for all voices in the community to have their say. It is also for this reason that it is not a good idea to bring any publishing world hierarchical structures to community management. Don’t think of editors and writers, think of collaborators and facilitators.

If people are enjoying themselves and enjoying the social environment, they are of course not necessarily being productive. My experience is that people involved in this kind of project generally like being productive. If they are talking, it’s usually a sign they are working.

Facilitators not Editors, Collaborators not Writers

First step towards managing the social fabric around a book, is to see the book as a community. It is a living body of text and people, and your job as a community manager is to keep it alive and help it flourish.

The vast majority of this role is managing the social processes surrounding the book. This means putting energy into people so they will put energy into the book. At the beginning, it is necessarily a 90% lossy conversion of energy! 90% of the energy you put in will see very little or no return. But that 10% that makes something happen is a foothold and that’s enough to help you build up a successful community around the book. These small successes build up and it is possible, in time, to walk away from the book and it will continue to grow by itself.

It might sound hard, and it’s not always this way, but it is mostly this way. The same is true for the development of open source code communities – simply putting the code in a source management repository does not mean an instant community will turn up and write the software for you. Source code repositories like Sourceforge and Github can be seen, to some large degree, as graveyards for thousands of projects that started and died quickly through the founder’s lack of a real understanding of how to build communities.

There are some ways, of course, that you can improve the odds. The first is by starting a book project that you just know there is a huge need for, or something people are just going to get excited about – then announce it through the available channels. If people are out there just waiting to contribute to that x factor project that gets them excited, then you can have success overnight. Of course the thing is – if you are starting a book project, you probably already believe that it has that x factor – but it might not! There is always the chance nobody sees it as being as exciting as you do.

Other factors that affect the initial uptake and contribution rate include your own profile within the sector you are addressing. Brad Pitt could probably start 1001 really boring books and get good starting contributions across a good percentage of them. That really helps a lot. You can act strategically on these issues of course – if you are not well known within the domain of the intended book, approach someone that is, and see if they will come on board early. Through strategic invitations you might end up with a good alliance of profiled contributors who may or may not do much work, but who will certainly attract others to the job.

Also of course, the actual offering itself affects the uptake. Send out an egocentric request to help *you* finish the book *you* always wanted to write, and you will probably get no takers. Send out a request for involvement that is friendly and open and which provides a good argument why the project would be a good project to get involved in – targeting your contributors own egocentrism (!) – is probably going to have a better effect.

That message should also go through the right channels too, of course. Think of the channels you need to get that message to, its tone and content – even design issues if necessary – and think about who that message should come from. In some cases, for example, its better to have someone with a reputation in the target contributor group to communicate the call to action.

This is your first step in community management – making your community an attractive prospect.