Visualising Book Production

Data visualisation is one of the hot topics of the last year or two. So what does this offer publishing and book production?

Open data activists, in particular, have been lobbying governments for access to databases which they use to create infographics and visualisations for campaigns. It’s not a new science, of course, it was here long before the internet (for some background on contemporary practice see the wonderful books by Edward Tufte), but the net is made of data and is a good mechanism for transporting it. The internet is a good medium for scraping and re-presenting data in more palatable forms.
Prior to the net, visualising book production was tricky since the information either wasn’t recorded or was embedded in ungainly ‘record changes’ data in word processing files. So the few examples were preceded with some forensic historical research. One wonderful pre-Word example is The Preservation of Favoured Traces by processing inventor Ben Fry. He visualises the production of The Origin of Species over time to illustrate Darwin’s evolving thesis. Rather appropriately, his is a nice visualisation of the evolution of a book.

This is where the web steps in and changes the game. Online book production platforms enable you to store and retrieve historical data and use it as you like. You can record and access information quite easily. Information such as who is actively working on a book and when, how much they changed, what they changed, who else was online, word counts over time, is all available. If we could access and process this information in chunks, it could perhaps help us to make books better.

Just to show you where this might go, the following are simple prototypes Juan Barquero and I put together using real data from the online book production platform Booktype. The nice thing about Booktype is that it already has all this data recorded in the history for each book, so we could write a visualisation application and then look back over the history of many books. So we made a simple API (Application Programming Interface) and Juan put together a few demos using the JavaScript visualisation library D3JS. The following are some images taken from these trials:

channel1 Contributions to chapters (x) over time (y)

circles5Proportional contributions per contributor

These are just a few simple and raw examples that are of course very far away from being production-ready. However, they serve as interesting prototypes for thinking about how this might look and what we might learn from such techniques in a production environment.

Originally published on O’Reilly, 4 Feb 2013