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A webpage is a book


A webpage is a book

Everything about the book seems to have changed because of the web. The new book is the ebook, the new book shop is Amazon, the new form of the book is the iPad or the Kindle. These already appear to be big changes but there is much more to it than that.

Marshall McLuhan puts it like this "We're just trying to fit the old things into the new form instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before."1 

To understand the new world of the book we must challenge our assumptions about the book. We must understand that web changes not only the format of the media and the available distribution channels, but the cultural context, economic and social processes surrounding the book. Most importantly, the web changes the reasons why books exist and your relationship to the production of knowledge and culture.

These seismic changes are occurring because a webpage is a book or rather, a book is just a webpage.

  1. http://vimeo.com/26715900^

The Form@ of the Book 

The Internet Archive has a wonderful program scanning out-of-copyright books and making them available online. In their new offices in San Francisco is a room full of scanners and people scanning books all day. It is part of the Internet Archive's ambition to make available all of the worlds out-of-copyright books online for free in a variety of formats. Many of these formats can be downloaded and read on your computer or ebook reader. There are even formats supported by text to speech hardware used by the blind. 

One particularly lovely format the Internet Archive provide is the browser based BookReader1. A BookReader book looks like a paper book in your browser. There are left and right pages sitting next to each other, the design of the page suggests extra pages below the open page, and flicking through the book you see the page turn as if you were really turning a paper page. In many books the first pages even have the stamp of the library it came from. The BookReader is very nice and it goes to show that a book can be transformed to a webpage but still look like a paper book. 

When you see this for the first time it seems amazing - it is stunning precisely because the format feels so close to that of a paper book. The BookReader is several years old now but it reflects one idea of a digital idea. Its an idea not too far away from the look and feel of ebooks as they are presented in the iPad.

At its simplest level an ebook is just a digital file that can be read on an ereader like an iPad or Kindle. There are many file formats that claim to be ebooks and one of the most common is the EPUB. One of the reasons why the EPUB is popular is because no one owns it like, for example, Microsoft owns the .doc format. That means anyone can make EPUB books for free. Publishers can distribute any book they have as an EPUB without having to pay royalties. That makes it a popular format for publishers.  

The most interesting thing about an EPUB is that it is a very specific kind of file. In the words of the International Digital Publishing Forum2 (the group taking responsibility for managing the development of the format) an EPUB is:

"...a means of representing, packaging and encoding structured and semantically enhanced Web content — including XHTML, CSS, SVG, images, and other resources — for distribution in a single-file format."  

EPUBs are just webpages. 

This change in the substance of the book - from paper to webpage - is a change which will have a massive effect how society produces and consumes culture and knowledge. It is a change that also expresses a lot about how the internet has failed us in some important ways and why we still seem to need books.

Recently I was watching some video from the archives of the German annual social media event Re-publika3  and enjoying a lot of the speakers particularly Geert Lovink4 . Geert works at the Institute of Network Culture (he founded it) in Amsterdam. The Institute has been responsible for a lot of very interesting events  including The Unbound Book5 .

Geerts talk from 2010 at re-publika linked me to the 2008 essay “Is Google Making us Stupid”6  by Nicholas Carr7  which I downloaded to my Kindle and read over dinner. Its apparently a very well known essay but I had not picked up on it before now.

One of Geerts arguments, also reflected in Nicolas Carrs writing, is that the web is changing the way we actually use our brain. Essentially, as I understand them both, since we fly through information looking for bits and pieces and compiling them in our brain on the fly we can no longer read a text more than a few paragraphs long. Instead we are learning to dive into a endless torrent of short information snippets – jumping from one hot source to the next, swapping context and media in rapid fire until we are fatigued or sated.

As a result we can’t read long form texts because our brains become reprogrammed simply by habit of consuming information in a particular way. They simply work differently as a result of feasting on the net.

However it seems that people are buying long texts in amazing quantities. In 2011 Amazon announced that ebook sales had surpassed printed book sales. In some categories Amazon sold 105 times more ebooks than print books. What is difficult to discover is how many books that is exactly. It could be that consumption of books (print or digital) is plummeting so quickly that the total number read is still lower than the days before the net had its way with our brains.

What that indicates to me is that the problem is not that we can’t read long form text, but that we spend a lot of time online flying around looking for things that the web can’t deliver – or has not delivered. We jump around looking for facts and figures, changing contexts and sieving through information because there are no ‘contained spaces’ where we can find comprehensive information ‘in one place’. 

The net once promised this – at least to me. ‘Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible’ as Google would put it. But the Google does not organise all the worlds information, the web is a chaotic medley of data thrown about the globe and infected by enormous quantities of spurious junk. The web needs Google to make some kind of sense of it but that is far from ‘organising’ it unless I am missing some special meaning of the term.

Where is the place you go to find comprehensive information on a specific topic? It is not the web. You go there to assemble bit and pieces – be inspired by tangents, get some great quotes, and feed off the flotsam and jetsam of data flows.

If you want to find comprehensive information you go to a book. Its a self contained space.

What is really interesting is that the web has not delivered these spaces and yet books now are webpages. EPUBs are HTML pages (webpages) ordered in a particular way and stored in a ZIP file so that ebook readers can download a single file, unpack it and display the contents for you to read as a book.

Isn't that peculiar? Books are webpages. This suggests to me that the web has failed to deliver something we still want – comprehensive long form text in one place.

Understanding that we still need information 'in one place' and that this one place - the book - is now made of the same same stuff as the web puts us in a very interesting moment. We can take production tools that were previously built for making these scattered short form chunks and apply them to make a different form of knowledge and culture that we still need but do not get from the web. That puts enormous power into the hands of people all over the world. People that are used to working together online and freely distributing content online can come together and make the books they need. That changes not just the book but challenges the role of the publishing industry and our relationship to the creation of important forms of knowledge and culture.

  1. http://openlibrary.org/dev/docs/bookreader ^
  2. http://idpf.org/epub^
  3. http://archiv.re-publica.de/^
  4. http://archiv.re-publica.de/archive/politics-of-internet-culture-ideas-and-projects^
  5. http://e-boekenstad.nl/unbound/^
  6. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/^
  7. http://www.roughtype.com/^

The 3 game changers

Ease of Production

Around 1460 the entrepreneur Johann Fust (commonly confused with Johann Faust) took some of the Gutenberg bibles to Paris to sell. Paris did not know of the printing press and rumours started. How could someone produce so many books so cheap? How could they possible be made so quickly and with the exact same rendering of all characters on all pages? The apparent ease and speed by which these books were produced had the feeling of witchcraft.

Its a good story and a popular one although it might actually be a myth it seems that at the time the "increase in output did strike contemporary observers as sufficiently remarkable to suggest supernatural intervention"1. This story helps us imagine how Gutenbergs Press changed the world forever simply by making the production of books easier and faster. Before this books were created by scribes which took tremendous time, was prone to error, and was very expensive. The press meant books could be made quick and cheaply. As a result intellectuals and artists starting working closely with printers, print shops became places where these people would meet and where knowledge started to cross disciplines, publishers eventually evolved, economics surrounding knowledge changed, book production was made accessible to a vastly larger section of society, literacy increased, knowledge was transmitted across societies and boundaries in ways previously unimaginable. Making books easier and faster to produce changed everything.

Because books are webpages, book production again becomes easier. All the tools required to produced beautiful books can be accessed through a browser. 'Web based workflows' for book production begin with an empty book and take you through the entire book production process without needing to leave the browser. Easy to use tools that take you through this workflow change every part of book production. The book becomes something you can make, not something that publishers make for you.

This is assisted greatly by the development of online print on demand services and ebook distribution channels that integrate APIs. An API is an 'Application Programming Interface' - jargon for a technical process that enables websites and online services to integrate and work together. Using APIs you can utilise the services from another website in your own webpage. For example Lulu.com - one of the worlds largest online print on demand services allows you to upload books directly to their service from your own website. That makes web to print workflows a whole lot easier.  Ebook distribution services are also offering APIs so platforms can push ebooks directly into their channel.

Book production coming online means new book production models can evolve and new kinds of publishing can emerge. Book production can become faster, publishing becomes something anyone can do, people from all over the world can share distributed workflows and work on the same content simultaneously, we can open book production to more people, we can produce best sellers and niche texts, we can generate peer production markets of skills and knowledge that enable the production of the books we want - faster, cheaper, and better than the current state of publishing. 

Book production platforms to enable these advantages are just starting to appear. Wikis were, and still are for many, the default knowledge production platform and have been used many times to make books. But Wikis are not designed for making books. Not only do they do this badly but they do not foster a 'book writing' mind set. Wikis tend to be used for short form texts and often as a kind of textual mind map. Wikis do not deliver the ease of production we are looking for.

The same is true of blogging software. Blogs do seem to build a culture of slightly longer and more structured narrative forms which does help but a Blog is not intended for producing books either. It is intended for producing another kind of text. Its true that blogs like Wordpress can be bent into many shapes and Wordpress is often considered by many to be a Content Management Tool rather than a blog, but at the end of the day building a non-blog becomes more work using Wordpress than if you had chosen a tool built for that purpose.

Essentially Wikis, Blogs, and CMS all have very specific roles and bending them to fit book production may work for a while but they lack the possibility to richly explore online book production because they were not built to do this. They might be a useful shortcut for rapid prototyping but their inherent paradigm will soon get in the way. If you want to do something then its usually more effective to use a tool built for that purpose. Additonally its not just the tools purpose that counts, the culture surrounding how the tool is used is also important. 

Having used a wiki to build a publishing system I can say from experience that we soon ran up against core design principles of the tool that made it hard to make it do what we wanted. We could do all the basics but when we really started working in an immersive way with online book production we found that there were many issues that a wiki could not handle without significant re-development of its architecture.  

When building a software for book production there are some features and issues that need to be considered as part of the core paradigm. First - any platform operating in the world of open or federated publishing MUST be open source. Open content on a closed platform is a hypocritical position. You deserve to be skeptical of any platform like this and its relationship to you, your privacy, the ownership and control of content, the distribution paths open to you etc. Beyond the primary necessity that the platform must be open source there are 4 key features that should be easy to manage :

  1. its easy to create a new book
  2. its easy to add and edit content
  3. its easy to manage the table of contents
  4. its easy to export to a book format

These are the basic 4 necessary ingredients.

Beyond this there are some very important issues that need to be managed either in a second tier of interface or done 'automagically' using default settings or presets:

  1. copyright license management
  2. attribution
  3. well designed output

That gets you to a basic 'plain vanilla' online book production environment. Of course it looks easy but its not. Realizing this simple vision is pretty easy if you wish to produce EPUBs. However if you wish to support multiple output formats it gets trickier. Paper books are especially tricky because you have to deal with the page - a real paper page. Paper pages need left and right margin control, page numbering, accurate linking of the page numbers to the table of contents, and not to forget bi-directional text rendering and widow and orphans control. Not only are these not very simple issues to resolve technically they are also offer very many questions about usability. How many of these options/parameters do you manage 'by magic' and how many (and how) do you expose to the user to control? This is when the going gets tough. 

We are seeing a few online platforms evolve that are embracing some or all of these notions. The variety of feature sets and strategies is large but the following three online book production platforms are the ones I believe have the highest claim to having a stake in the game to date :

  1. PressBooks - a service started by Canadian Hugh McGuire who had previously experimented with a book platform called the Book Oven2  (which is now closed). PressBooks is based on Wordpress and has a good workflow if you are familiar with the popular blogging tool. Unfortunately the platform, while built on top of an open source software, is not open source software. It is a free (gratis) service but closed source. PressBooks does not currently hold high collaborative potential but it is very useful for writers that wish to work with an editor or editorial teams that which to compile anthologies. PressBooks is focused on extending the traditional publishing cycle online. The development team is spending a lot of time working on good formatting for book formatted PDF. PressBooks also targets the web as a book output.
  2. Inkling - a service which is free to use but all content must be sold through the Inkling sales channel. Inkling derives a royalty for each sale through this channel. It is closed source and targets the iPad and the web as output formats. Inkling is targeted at textbook publishers and sells content in the form of books and chapters. Inkling is not open source and is targeted at traditional (but distributed) online publishing workflows for traditional publishers. 
  3. Booktype- out of the 3 Booktype has been around the longest - formerly Booki and originally developed by FLOSS Manuals and has been around for almost 6 years in various functional prototypes. Booktype is now developed by Sourcefabric and is open source. Booktype has a very flexible workflow which is 'native to the web' and is designed for non-publishers and publishers alike. Booktype can be a highly collaborative environment and is the platform of choice for rapid development processes such as Book Sprints. Booktype outputs to web, iPad, Kindle, print on demand, text document formats, PDF and many other formats. (Disclaimer : I am the project lead for Booktype). 

These three are the 3 best platforms on the radar for easy online book production right now. The web being what is means there will be more to enter the market and this will probably happen quickly. The iPad iBook Author is not mentioned here because although easy to use it is not an online tool and I believe this is a critical missing feature for reasons that will become clearer later.

I believe these three outlined above change the game and interestingly have their own distinct primary use cases and strategies. There will be more to come. If you believe Gutenbergs efficiencies changed society forever then what effect will tools like these have? Its a giddy question and from working with book production like this for 5 years now I firmly believe making books in the browser is not just a matter of having an easy way of making books - it will have an enormous impact on society as a whole.

  1. The Printing Press as Agent of Change, Elizabeth .L Eisenstein, pg 50, Cambridge University Press 1979.^
  2. http://nextmontreal.com/book-oven-to-pressbooks/^


“Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act.”
—Tom Clancy 

One of the most obvious opportunities open to online book production is collaboration. Of course collaborative writing actually has a somewhat (unfairly) tainted name. During the first wave of wiki-mania Penguin books conducted an experiment called A Million Penguins1, a collaborative writing project using a wiki. By all accounts it was more successful as a social experiment than a literary experiment. I think most people think of this kind of thing when they think about collaborative writing. Its an interesting experiment, the thinking goes, but possibly it is not able to produce the same quality as a single authored work.

However lets not forget that ALL books are produced collaboratively. Books generally carry the name of a single author but this is because the publishing industry trades on this. Publishing is a star system and its bottom line relies on it. It is better for a publisher to build up one star than distribute the glory over the 2,5, or 10 who were actually involved in producing the book. As a general rule acknowledging collaborative production is not good for business.

Rather than deny collaboration occurs it is better to consider whether the character of the collaboration is weak or strong.  Borrowing from a list of continuum sets outlined for collaboration in the book Collaborative Futures2  we could characterise it something like this:

  1. Weak - A single writer completes a work and a secondary collaborators discuss or change elements with little or no interaction. For example a friend reads and discusses elements or a proof reader is commissioned to clean the work up. In the case of the proof reader example little or no interaction occurs between the original creator and the proof reader although they are both aware of the proof readers role and changes in the text. The text is monolithic and attribution is solely to 'the author'. An example would be any Tom Clancy work.
  2. Stronger - A single writer works with an editor, colleague, family member or friend to shape the text throughout the writing process. It is in part a form of mentor - writer relationship with the boundaries negotiated in a fluent and ongoing nature. The collaborator will make direct changes as challenges and suggestions. The text is monolithic but possibly with shared notes, and attribution is to 'the author' with thanks to those that helped in an additional credit note. This is a very typical methodology for publishers but also many works embrace this process informally. Mary Shelleys Frankenstein is an example where many have argued Mary Shelley formed a collaboration like this with her husband Percy Shelly.
  3. Strong - A multi-authored work where multiple collaborators share various levels of authority to act on the text in a highly modular and seemingly autonomous fashion. Although there is something of an over-reliance on the Wikipedia as an example, its unusually evolved structure makes it a salient case. Collaboration is remote but a coordinating and shared goal goal is clear: construction of an encyclopaedia capable of superseding one of the classical reference books of history. The highly modular format affords endless scope for self-selected involvement on subjects of a user’s choice. Ease of amendment combined with preservation of previous versions (the key qualities of wikis in general) enable both highly granular levels of participation and an effective self-defense mechanism against destructive users who defect from the goal. Attribution is shared.
  4. Intense - A multi-authored work where the collaborators decide on the scope and character of the book in close and intense discourse throughout the production process. It is generally a very egalitarian environment and permission is not sought or needed to change a colleagues work. FLOSS Manuals, originally established to produce documentation for free software projects, is a good example. Their method usually involves the assembly of a core group of collaborators who meet face to face for a number of days, and produce a book during their time together. Composition generally takes place on an online collective writing platform, integrating wiki like version history and a chat channel. In addition to those physically present, remote participation is solicited. It is necessary to come to an agreed basic understanding between collaborators through discussion of the scope and purpose of the book. Once underway both content and structure are continually edited, discussed and revised. The text is modular with granularity on the chapter level. Attribution is shared and often not as important as other forms of collaboration.

Producing books online obviously opens up some very interesting possibilities for collaboration across these possibilities. First, unlike a typical writers room the net is a public space. That multiplies the possibility of making connections and working with people you may not know. It also means that you could box yourself in and open the door just to those you want to let in. The point is you have the choice. 

In addition to this continuum there are open and closed collaborations. Open collaboration is an open door policy where any one can come in an participate. A closed collaboration is where the boundaries of participation are set by social or technical means. Open and closed is a continuum characterised by the strong or weak porous nature of the boundaries. Closed collaboration is the default for the production of almost all books at the moment but some of the most amazing results can come from open yourself up to open collaboration. My experiences working 5 years like this with a repository of 300 books and 4000 collaborators can recount many stories regarding this since the repository is completely open. Anyone can register and edit any book. As a result of these experiences I find the case for 'open collaboration' extremely compelling. Interestingly however, the more intensive the collaboration is the more difficult it is to sustain openness. New contributors may have missed formative discussions regarding the book and struggle to find a 'way in' to the content, additionally new contributors may find it hard to enter the close knit social fabric that is created as people work intensely together over time.

The following are two examples of collaborative workflows enabled by online book production. They investigate different points along the collaborative continuum. The first example is from James Simmons. James wrote several books online in a manner he calls a 'Book Slog' or 'collaborating without co-authors' - you might think of it as 'the normal way' to make books. The second example is of accelerated book production using a collaborative process known as a Book Sprint. 

The normal way...

From the words of James Simmons:

A “Book Slog” is pretty much the normal way of writing a book. It is what most publishers would nail (attribute) to a single author. The long road to producing a book.  For example:

The question is, does online production have anything to offer the Slogger? Based on my own experiences, I would have to say it does. I used Booki (now Booktype) for my books. The main reason to use Booki rather than a word processor to write a book is to effectively collaborate with other authors.  I have completed two books this way (and the Spanish translation of my first FLOSS Manual would definitely qualify as a third) so my opinions on this might be worth something.

Some might not think of these book as a collaborative effort, since I wrote every word, but in a very real sense they are collaborative works. I got lots of feedback from other developers, help in debugging my examples, help resolving problems with the test environments, and many useful suggestions. Writing the book on the web made that kind of collaboration much easier.

There were a couple of people who offered to write chapters, but this did not come to pass. In the end this didn't matter; the books ended up doing what they needed to do.

After the first book was published there was interest in creating a Spanish version. Some of the most successful OLPC projects have been in South America, so I definitely wanted there to be a Spanish version.  Unfortunately, I don't speak any Spanish, so I didn't feel qualified to do it. After the translation project got set up a couple of people got accounts and looked over the book, and one of them translated a few paragraphs. Several of the people who had offered to help were concerned that they did not have the technical knowledge to translate the book, and for several days it looked like nobody was going to work on it.

A friend suggested using Google translate to create a base translation that native speakers could correct. I ended up using Babel Fish instead because the HTML generated by Google Translate had a lot of extra stuff in it like JavaScript and the original English text being translated. After I started doing this a retired teacher who was fluent in Spanish started to correct the text, and I went through it and untranslated things that should not be translated, like code examples. It really needed native speakers to get it into shape.  The retired teacher sent out an email on some lists explaining that we had a translation going that needed to be corrected. After that several native speakers got accounts on the site and started to correct the text.

What I learnt from this is that starting a book from nothing is intimidating. However, once the book reaches a critical mass and there is no doubt that there will be a finished book you'll find that getting help and feedback is easier, almost inevitable.

The best motivation to collaborate on writing a book is a desire for the book to exist. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”

If you can sell people on the idea of the book you'll get collaborators. That's another reason you may have to write a substantial chunk of the book before collaborators show up. A partial book is easier to sell than an idea for a book.

With the book "E-book Enlightenment" I collaborated with some people from an organization in Oregon called the Rural Design Collective. This is a group that has done work for both the Internet Archive and the One Laptop Per Child project. They have a summer mentoring program where talented students get involved with an Internet project and learn skills that may lead to a future career.

When I announced that Make Your Own Sugar Activities! was finished I got an email from Rebecca Malamud of the RDC congratulating me. I told her about my plans for a new book and asked if she'd like to contribute.

At that point the RDC was contemplating what to do for their summer mentoring program and they decided that working on my book might be just what they were looking for. 

We all wanted the book to exist, but for different reasons. The RDC is focused on training young people to create websites, and so they chose to focus on the graphic design of the book more than the content. 

The RDC found a talented young artist who did some terrific cover and interior illustrations (the small ones at the top of each chapter). The cover illustration that everyone liked didn't really go with the title I had proposed, so I ended up changing the title.  (The same artist also did new cover art for the printed Make Your Own Sugar Activities!) Another of their mentees created style sheets which they used to create a really beautiful bound and printed edition of the book. 

In addition to the RDC's work I also got much help and encouragement from the forums of DIY Book Scanning and Distributed Proofreaders. Again, this is not collaboration in the way the word is normally used, but it was a vital contribution to the book. I would post a link to the book on the FLOSS Manuals website and ask for comments. The comments I got often contained valuable information and suggestions.

So in summary I'd say that online production is a good way to collaborate on writing a book!

Book Sprints 

A more radical action for online book production is the Book Sprint3.

A Book Sprint is a facilitated process that brings together a group of people to produce a book in 3-5 days (although it has been done in shorter time). While the group meet in person the books are produced collaboratively using networked (online) end-to-end book production tools. Often remote participants also join in. Usually there is no pre-production and the group is guided by a facilitator from zero to published book. The books produced are high quality content and are made available immediately at the end of the sprint in printed (using print-on-demand services) and e-book formats. Book Sprints produce great books and they are a great community and team building process.

The quality of these books is exceptional, for example Free Software Foundation Board Member Benjamin Mako Hill said of the 280 page Introduction to the Command Line manual produced in a two day Book Sprint:

“I have written basic introductions to the command line in three different technical books on GNU/Linux and read dozens of others. FLOSS Manual’s “Introduction to the Command Line” is at least as clear, complete, and accurate as any I’ve read or written. But while there are countless correct reference works on the subject, FLOSS’s book speaks to an audience of absolute beginners more effectively, and is ultimately more useful, than any other I have seen.”

Book Sprints offer an exciting and fun process to work with others to make that book you always felt the world needed. It is a fast process – zero to book in 5 days. Seem impossible? Its not, its very possible, fun, and extremely rewarding in terms of output (a book!) and the team building that occurs during the process.

There are three common reasons to do Book Sprints:

  1. Produce a book that will be ready at the end of the sprint drives the process and helps to justify the effort.
  2. Produce knowledge in a short period of time force the participants to master the issues related to their subject. They will intensely work on a content together, share and reshape their understanding of a collective question.
  3. Reinforce or create social links. Mobilize a community to produce a book or text forge and solidify a sense of belonging among participants.
As a result I have experimented a lot with this format. To understand the many facets of collaboration in this process lets look at the second case study - Collaborative Futures.

This book was first written over 5 days (Jan 18-22, 2010) during a Book Sprint in Berlin. 7 people (5 writers, 1 programmer and 1 facilitator) gathered to collaborate and produce a book in 5 days with no prior preparation and with the only guiding light being the title ‘Collaborative Futures’.

These collaborators were: Mushon Zer-Aviv, Michael Mandiberg, Mike Linksvayer, Marta Peirano, Alan Toner, Aleksandar Erkalovic (programmer) and Adam Hyde (facilitator).

The event was part of the 2010 transmediale festival <www.transmediale.de/en/collaborative-futures>. 200 copies were printed the same week through a local print on demand service and distributed at the festival in Berlin. 100 copies were printed in New York later that month.

Collaborative Futures - First Edition cover by Laleh Torabi

This book was revised, partially rewritten, and added to over three days in June 2010 during a second book sprint in New York, NY, at the Eyebeam Center for Art & Technology as part of the show Re:Group Beyond Models of Consensus and presented in conjunction with Not An Alternative and Upgrade NYC.

Collaborative Futures - Second Edition cover by Galia Offri

Day one of the first sprint consisted of presentations and discussions.

During this first day we relied heavily on traditional ‘unconference’ technologies—namely colored sticky notes. With reference to unconferences we always need to tip the hat to Allen Gunn and Aspiration for their inspirational execution of this format. We took many ideas from Aspiration’s Unconferences during the process of this sprint and we also brought much of what had been learned from previous Book Sprints to the table. 

First, before the introductions, we each wrote as many notes as we could about what we thought this book was going to be about. The list consists of the following:

  • When Collaboration Breaks.
  • Collaboration (super) Models.
  • Plausible near and long term development of collaboration tech, methods, etc. Social impact of the same. How social impact can be made positive. Dangers to look out for.
  • Licenses cannot go two ways.
  • Incriminating Collaborations.
  • In the future much of what is valuable will be made by communities. What type of thing will they be? What rules will they have for participation? What can the social political consequences be?
  • Sharing vs Collaboration.
  • How to reconstruct and reassemble publishing?
  • Collaboration and its relationship to FLOSS and GIT communities.
  • What is collaboration? How does it differ from cooperation?
  • What is the role of ego in collaboration?
  • Attribution can kill collaboration as attribution = ownership.
  • Sublimation of authorship and ego.
  • Models of collaboration. Historical framework of collaboration. Influence of technology enabling collaboration.
  • Successful free culture economic models.

Then each presented who they were and their ideas and projects as they are related to free culture, free software, and collaboration. The process was open to discussion and everyone was encouraged to write as many points, questions, statements, on sticky notes and put them on the wall. During this first day we wrote about 100 sticky notes with short statements like:

  • “Art vs Collaboration”
  • “Free Culture does not require maintenance”
  • “Transparent premises”
  • “Autonomy: better term than free/open?”
  • “Centralized silos vs community”
  • “Free Culture posturing”

…and other cryptic references to the thoughts of the day. We stuck these notes on a wall and after all of the presentations (and dinner) we grouped them under titles that seemed to act as appropriate meta tags. We then drew from these groups the 6 major themes. We finished at midnight.

Day two—10.00 kick off and we simply each chose a sticky note from one of the major themes and started writing. It was important for us to just ‘get in the flow’ and hence we wrote for the rest of the day until dinner. Then we went to the Turkish markets for burek, coffee and fresh Pomegranates.

The rest of the evening we re-aligned the index, smoothed it out, and identified a more linear structure. We finished up at about 23.00.

Day three—At 10.00 we started with a brief recap of the new index structure and then we also welcomed two new collaborators in the real-space: Mirko Lindner and Michelle Thorne. Later in the day, when Booki had been debugged a lot by Aco, we welcomed our first remote collaborator, Sophie Kampfrath. Then we wrote, and wrote a bit more. At the end of the day we restructured the first two sections, did a word count (17,000 words) and made sushi. 

After sushi we argued about attribution and almost finished the first two sections. Closing time around midnight.

Day four—A late start (11.00) and we are also joined by Ela Kagel, one of the curators from Transmediale. Ela presented about herself and Transmediale and then we discussed possible ways Ela could contribute and we also discussed the larger structure of the book. Later Sophie joined us in real space to help edit and also Jon Cohrs came at dinner time to see how he could contribute. Word count at sleep time (22.00): 27,000. 

Day five—The last day. We arrived at 10.00 and discussed the structure. Andrea Goetzke and Jon Cohrs joined us. We identified areas to be addressed, slightly altered the order of chapters, addressed the (now non-existent) processes section, and forged ahead. We finished 2200 on the button. Objavi, the publishing engine for Booktype, generated a book-formatted PDF in 2 minutes. Done. Word count ~33,000.

Some months later the book was 're-sprinted' in New York with another group of people. The following contains excerpts from the experiences and voices of those involved:

Over the course of the second book sprint we often paused to reflect on the fact that editing and altering an existing book (one originally written five months prior by a mostly different group of people) is a completely different challenge than the one tackled by the original sprinters. While the first author group began with nothing but two words -Collaborative Futures-, words that could not be changed but were chosen to inspire. This second time we started with 33,000 words that we needed to read, understand, interpret, position ourselves in relationship to, edit, transform, replace, expand upon, and refine.

Coming to a book that was already written, the second group's ability to intervene in the text was clearly constrained. The book had a logic of its own, one relatively foreign to the new authors. We grappled with it, argued with it, chipped at it, and then began to add bits of ourselves. On the first day the new authors spent hours conversing with some of the original team. This continued on the second day, with collaborators challenging the original text and arguing with the new contributions

If this book is a conversation, then reading it could be described as entering a particular state of this exchange of thoughts and ideas. Audience might be a word, a possibility and potential to describe this reader-ship; an audience as in a performance setting where the script is rather loose and does not aim for a clear and definite ending. (It is open-ended by nature); an audience that shares a certain moment in the process from a variable distance. The actual book certainly indicates a precise moment, thereby it IS also a document, manifesting some kind of history in/of open source and counter-movements, media environments, active sites, less active sites, interpassivity (Robert Pfaller <www.psychomedia.it/jep/number16/pfaller.htm>), residues of thought, semi-public space; history of knowledge assemblages (writers talked about an endless stitching over…) and formations of conversations.

The book as it is processed in a sprint, is a statement about and of time. The reader or audience will probably encounter the book not as a “speedy material”. Imaginary Readers, Imaginary Audience. We came to recognize, however, that the point was not to change the book so that it reflected our personal perspectives (whoever we are), but to collaborate with people who each have their own site of practice, ideology, speech, tools, agency. In service of a larger aim, none of us deleted the original text and replaced it to reflect our distinct point of view. Instead, we came to conceive of Collaborative Futures as a conversation. Since the text is designed to be malleable and modifiable, it aims to be an ongoing one. That said, at some point this iteration of the conversation has to stop if a book is to be generated and printed. A book can contain a documented conversation, but can it be a dynamic conversation? Or does the form we have chosen demand it become static and monolithic? 

In the end, despite our differences, we agreed to contribute to the common cause, to become part of the multi-headed author. Whether that is a challenge to the book or a surrendering to it, remains unclear.

  1. http://thepenguinblog.typepad.com/the_penguin_blog/2007/03/a_million_pengu.html^
  2. http://www.booki.cc/collaborativefutures/continuum/^
  3. http://www.booksprints.net^


“Xerography—every man’s brainpicker—heralds the times of instant publishing. Anybody can now become both author and publisher. Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one—instant steal!"

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the MESSAGE

This vision from McLuhan is of an analog future. A future of analog media and analog networks. It would take digital media to realize his vision. Webpages being the networked document of our time, enable the kind of instant steal that McLuhan foresaw. With free content licenses and simple tools for importing content from other books or other libraries we can borrow enormous amounts of rich information to help us build the books we want.

In a recent Book Sprint on Basic Internet Security 9 chapters from 3 existing manuals were reused. 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 in the time we had.

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 waiting 3 years I took a great deal of pleasure in seeing it happen for the first time.

However reuse is not just a time saver, there are many other exciting possibilities enabled by reuse. Reuse is also about translation and recontextualisation. Reuse is about updating books and improving them. Reuse is about taking content and making it work in your language. Reuse is about enabling anyone to get your content to their audience and in the form they need it. Reuse is also about allowing you to reuse your own work since often publishers hold the copyright and do not permit authors to update, reuse, or improve their own work.

Reuse helps you make the books you want to make faster and get it to the people you want to have it in a form that suits them best.

Reuse, despite its attractive opportunities is an issue that existing publishing models are going to find very hard to work with. This is because full engagement with reuse leads to the federation of content and the inevitable possibility that anyone can publish any book you have made. Taking a book, not changing a word, marketing it and selling it is reuse (as you can with this book - see About this Book). It is going to be difficult for publishers to agree to this consequence while tapping into the many opportunities for new business models around this idea. But that is not our problem. We want books to be freely reused and we should find the most open channels to do that.

The core of reuse is primarily about extending the usefulness and life of a book.

One of the differences between a book and a newspaper is that we expect longevity from a book1 . We expect a book to have value beyond the date printed at the top of the page.

The web offers enormous opportunity for the life of a book to be increased further than it is now. The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is alive to this idea. They imagine you could take a mathematics text book and update it for the following years curriculum. Or combine it with another book to better suit your students needs. Or correct it if you found a mistake, or translate it. Major advantages in all sectors, not just education, can be attained by keeping books alive.

Books currently have too long a life as a static object. They have become too static as a result of Gutenberg's invention. 'Static-ness’ is now a part of a book's genetics. 'Readers' find it even hard to pick up a pen and write notes in the margin of books. Margin notes are frowned upon by libraries. We have forgotten that notes like this (‘marginalia’) were once very common. When paper was hard to come by the margin notes were often where books were written. 

So books did not always have a static genetic code. They were once places for lively discourse and for book production itself.

Interestingly there is a kind of slow historical regression taking place because of digitally networked media. There are a few projects (notably commentpress2 and the yet to be released Social Book by Bob Stein, and some ebook readers) that enable types of margin notes in digital books. In the case of Commentpress these notes are the point of the book – a place to start discourse (almost literally) around the book.

However we still cannot seem to embrace changing the book itself.  It is one thing to allow ourselves to leave margin notes in this new era of digital documents since we know the source will not be effected. We can easily spray comments around the book since the book itself stays intact. Can't we allow ourselves to change the book too?

Books have always been changed over time. Ben Fry did a very nice visualisation3  of the changes Darwin made to the Origin of Species over 6 editions. It is a nice work showing substantial changes including the addition of an entire new section in the last edition. The Origin of Species was an evolving thesis and the book was kept alive over the period of Darwins life. The book's ’life’ ended with Darwin's.

But why must a book die with the author? Why can’t anyone contribute to a book to keep it alive, even during the life of its author? We feel somehow that this is breaking some kind of moral law (as well as copyright law). Forgetting copyright for now - why not improve the original? Why can’t we take a book, any book, and improve it, perhaps even while the author is still alive? Why is that idea so difficult for us to engage with?

Leaving copyright licensing aside for the moment  - one part of the puzzle involves the overly rarefied respect for the authoritative version. The version born from the author. We (you or I) are not that author and so we cannot know the authors intent with all its nuances. We should not meddle with a work because we would be breaking our unspoken contract to preserve the author's intent. It would not be 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.

Sound like I am overstating the cultural value of the author? 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 since they are concave and concave lenses disperse light4 . You cannot start a fire with concave lenses. Would we allow anyone to alter the book to correct this 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.

I think that is a very deeply ingrained principle.  

For this reason many recoil in horror with the prospect of changing great works of art. We are in some tampering with the mind of the creator - a kind of god. However we must remember that if we change a book we change nothing in the original. Books, unlike paintings, are not one-of-a-kind pieces. That is precisely why the age of Gutenberg has such an impact - books could be duplicated. So when we change a book (I’m not talking about historical paper artifacts, just the abstracted contents) we don’t destroy anything, this is particularly true in the digital age. Infact the digital age gives us more tools to take care of the provenance of a work. Hence we can easily have Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austin and Sethe Grahame-Smith5 .

How to we develop a culture where it is OK to change a book? Free Licenses are meant to change that but in my experience it is still difficult to get people to take hold of explicit free license clauses than enable derivative works and improve a work. They feel they lack the mandate to change. Many people still ask if they can improve a free/open book work even though the mandate to change a work is loudly passed on and articulated by ‘the creators’ to anyone.

Infact it is difficult to pass on the mandate to change. It doesn't help that large projects like wikipedia are working against this mandate. Wikis and Wikipedia have managed to introduce ideas of participative knowledge creation but as Lawerence Liang6  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. However we live with the notion of the authority of the creator. The only thing that can change that is to take the rights afforded to us by free licenses and experience and value the possibilities open to us if we act differently.

We need living books and under copyright we have to fight very hard to keep them alive. The first step it to take someone elses book and improve it.

  1. Daniel James^
  2. http://www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress/ ^
  3. http://benfry.com/traces/^
  4. http://homepage.mac.com/cbakken/obookshelf/vision.html^
  5. http://www.quirkbooks.com/book/pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies^
  6. http://vimeo.com/10750350^


Free the Book

Free Content

To get the rewards of collaboration and reuse content must be easily shared and that means content must be free. What is 'free content'?

There has been a movement in the last years called Creative Commons which is the latest in a long line of projects to produce copyright licenses that allow the copyright holder more nuanced control over the rights reserved and conferred. The 'standard' and default copyright license is 'all rights reserved'. That means no one can do anything with your content without your permission. That license, for example, makes criminals out of students that photocopy chapters for their personal use. It is actually more complicated than that since each country has its own specific laws governing copyright but they all have the same general intention - to stop anyone other than the copyright holder from reusing the work without permission.

Creative Commons gives more control over the rights the copyright holder transfers. For example the Creative Commons Non-Derivative licenses allow others to copy the work legally but not change it. The Creative Commons license Share-Alike license allows anyone to reuse and change the content as long as they transfer the same right to others who utilise the derivative work

Free content is a condition of reuse and collaboration. It is extremely hard to work collaboratively within a constrained copyright environment and almost impossible to reuse content. So is making content free simply a matter of choosing a Creative Commons license? No it is not. To understand why we can start by looking at the requirements of software freedom as outlined by the Free Software Foundation: 

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
You can find the original text at https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

The sub-sector which labels itself 'Open Publishing' while advocating Free Culture as the way forward for publishing largely doesn't seem to abide by these kinds of freedoms. Especially with regard to making the source available for change which is stated as a precondition for two of the above ie. "Access to the source code is a precondition....".

Open mostly means free to distribute in the open publishing world. It does not mean or imply the right to have access to the editable sources, nor does it mean the right to fork. The reluctance to embrace these freedoms is closely related to the fear of losing control of a book and the fear of 'poor quality' creeping in. Hence open production seems pretty untenable for the majority of the Open Publishing world.

'Open Publishing' if it is going to differentiate itself from merely 'open distribution' must address these issues. It might be good to develop a similar 'Four Freedoms' manifesto for free books. Its important to do this because so far we have got it wrong - Creative Commons licenses, for example, do not require the source to be available. However freedom is not just about licenses and we shouldn't rely on them to define Free Culture for us - we must generate a culture where we acknowledge and uphold the values and consequences of free content. If we don't we will not be able to take advantage of the immense value Free Culture really offers.

Books should be free, they should always be available to be used, transformed into other formats (an especially necessary freedom in the day of multiple ebook readers), re-used, translated, remixed – wherever you want. Books should not die on the shelves, as a PDF only release, or in an archive.

In the discourse of free culture however, the discussion of what constitutes a free book pretty much starts and ends at the license. Is this a free book? Is it Creative Commons (or similar?)? Yes? Then it is a free book. Solved. 

We need a culture that embraces the values and consequences of free content not a culture that worships licenses.

A free license does not mean that a book is free. The following are common strategies for copyright protection that are exercised by producers of 'freely licensed content':

Not-free free license

A not-free book in this context uses a license that appears free but isn't really. Licenses like the Free Documentation License and those Creative Commons licenses that have Non-Commerical (NC) or No-Derivative (ND) conditions are not free. I don’t want to get into this here as it is a lengthy and (in my opinion) boring conversation but the bottom line for me is – can you use this book in any way you want? If the answer is no, its a not-free book.

Ambiguously not-free

Many publishers use two licenses for their content. Strange but true. They use a standard copyright all rights reserved license and something like a Creative Commons license, or sometimes there is just confusing and conflicting information.  If you want an example take a look at page vi of the following:


It states :

“This book is published under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 license”

Sounds good but it is soon followed by a lengthy ‘go away’ clause that reads :

“This publication is protected by copyright, and permission must be obtained from the publisher prior to any prohibited reproduction, storage in a retrieval system, or transmission in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical photocopying, recording or likewise unless permitted under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license”.

That is, in my opinion, confusing to most readers. CC BY SA is one of the most free licenses but the clause reads like a standard ‘all rights reserved’ (proprietary) license and would send off the same signals to the average reader ie. go away and dont even bother to try and do something with this book (other than read it). This is not-free.

Practically not-free

This is the worst type of not-freedom as it is essentially a trick to appear free while actually employing a mechanical form of copyright protection. Many books might use very good free licenses and use very bold, unambiguous and clear license statements. So, does this make it free? Well, no. The reason is that in order for something to be re-used it needs to first be in a state that enables its re-use. For example PDF is not a good re-usable format. Printed books are also not a good re-usable format. Both of these formats allow content to be copied but this is not the same as re-used. This kind of trick is often used by publishers wanting to gain currency and favor in the Free Culture or Open Educational Resources sectors. To them we can only say : WE NEED THE SOURCE.

Many otherwise very good free content fails to even offer the content in formats that can be easily transformed. Offering the source would allow readers to create other formats. One very good example is the Theory On Demand1  series which only offers PDF and online FLASH player versions of the books - you cannot get the sources so you cannot create EPUBs for your iPad or Mobi for your kindle. 

However if ‘free’ means that only copying is allowed then it is a poor freedom to have. We want to be able to change books, convert them to other formats, translate them, improve them – as free licenses suggest we can. What if I want to change the contents of a book how do I do it? If I have to first reproduce the book by manually typing out 40,000 words then the book is practically not-free. It is for this reason that free culture licenses should mandate that books (it is not a clause applicable to all media) must provide the source somewhere (online is suffice) in plain text or other standardised popular format. Currently most free licenses do not require this so many books can avoid this issue while still calling themselves free. 

A good analogy exists here with free software. For example, a PDF is essentially a binary and distributing a PDF and calling it ‘free’ is like distributing a software binary and calling it free. Free software is aware of this catch and hence for a software to be free you must be able to access the source code. You have not only the right to change free software but the means to change it.  The same understanding should exist for books. Can you get access to the content so you can change it easily? If the answer is no then it is not a free/open book.

Further to this I would argue that all books must make it known through the appendices, colophon, or in the body of the text itself where the original raw sources can be found. 

On this topic Creative Commons licenses are actually ill equipped to tackle this issue. The source of books should be available for anyone to access so they can easily work with the book and if we must (yawn) live in a world of copyright then the license should at least require that the book source be available. Currently Creative Commons licenses do not require this whereas the General Public License (and others) does. 

Access to the editable source of a book is a pre-condition for a free book.

Not-free mandate

Lastly lets re-examine the culture of proprietorship. In the world of software there are two main types of software - free/open and proprietary. The former is licensed with open licenses enabling reuse and alteration etc and the later licensed under closed all-rights-reserved copyright licenses and complicated end user agreements. Suffice to say that the effect of proprietary software is that you can’t mess with it. 

However free software can also suffer from cultural proprietorship regardless of the license used. Essentially if you do not feel that you have the mandate to change something then you are not empowered to change it. This can often be the consequence of the culture of a free software project - many of which are not open cultures by any means. Mostly they are male dominated meritocracies which intimidate many would be contributors.

The same scenario can exist for book production regardless of the license being used. In fact books have a heavy cultural legacy of proprietorship that we must work hard to overcome. Books are made by "authors" and it is difficult to challenge the domain of the author even if the author is obviously not a single person. Evidence of collaboration in the production of a work is not the same as enabling an open mandate to change or fork (copy and change) a work. We must overcome this by celebrating the possibilities of forking and altering other peoples works. We do this by doing it. Without doing this - without actively participating and taking advantage of the riches that free culture production offers we are maintaining the processes and values of proprietary (closed) culture.  

  1. http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/theoryondemand/titles/^


Make Money then Books

The vast majority of authors under the current dominant model of publishing don't make any money. Authors do it for the chance to make money, and they do it for the advancement of their careers and their profile. There is no monster financial industry that is pouring money into culture and knowledge workers, they are pouring money into book production and distribution.

I mention this because one argument against free content is that people won't get paid. Well people don't get paid for writing books now so I think if it were the case then nothing has changed. However, there are many profitable businesses that have for a very long time made a lot of money from the resale of free (in this case out-of-copyright) material. Penguin books for example. They cant stop competition of their out-of-copyright classics but seem to be doing alright. You can get many of the same out-of-copyright books at project Gutenberg for free but that doesn't stop Penguin books and many other publishers selling the same material in both paper and digital form and making a good profit. In addition to this argument I believe free books have revenue models more open to content producers than the existing publishing models.

There are some major changes in the industry that point to this. First, it is reported that ebook sales are going through the roof. Amazon has reported that ebooks are the most popular book format1 . Ebooks have lower costs for production, infact you can more or less say that producing an EPUB (a very popular and open 'almost standard' for ebooks) costs nothing. Find the right software and its done in minutes. This puts very profitable publishing in the path of Federated Publishing. 

Second, business models are changing. The biggest shift I see is to put the money at the front of the production cycle instead of at the end. There are platforms like Unbound (http://www.unbound.co.uk/) that are giving this a go, and many successful examples in Kickstarter such as Robin Writes a Book2  - a book project that raised $14,000 (USD) from Crowd Funding. Robin Writes a Book by Robin Sloan is a fictional work funded before it was produced. In a blog post3  on Creative Commons the author states:

"I think the most important thing about a book is not actually the book. Instead, it’s the people who have assembled around it. It’s everyone who’s ever read it, and everyone who’s ever re- or misappropriated it. It’s everyone who’s ever pressed it into someone else’s hands [...] it’s that group of people that makes a book viable, both commercially and culturally. And without them — all alone, with only its author behind it — a book is D.O.A."

Thats a pretty good argument from the inside of fringe cultural production that it doesn't need the current publishing industry to thrive. It also illustrates that social context is important for generating revenue. He also goes on to explain secondary economies he is trying to generate from the book.

There are many more examples very well funded books (85,000 USD being the top earner4 for a book project in Kickstarter) that demonstrate a model we can all participate in as cultural and knowledge producers.

Kickstarter approaches have their issues, but they raise an interesting point - people are prepared to fund a book that they want before it is produced. 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. So getting the money before making the book is not only good sense but it is consistent with free culture values.

It is possible to consider at least two other 'crowd funding' business opportunities for books - running a crowd funding service as some kind of 'Kickstarter for books', and getting funding from crowds for your books. Clever publishing entrepreneurs might do both. 

Kickstarter.com has taken up this concept of crowdfunding with what seems to be significant initial success. The premise is simple: an individual defines a project that needs funding, defines rewards for different levels of contribution, and sets a funding goal. If that pledges meet the funding goal, the money is collected from pledgers, distributed to the project creator, who uses the funding to make the project. If the project does not reach the funding goal by the deadline, no money is transferred. Most projects aim for between $2,000 and $10,000.   

Kickstarter pledges are not donations, as most of the contributions are associated with tangible rewards, nor are they a form of micro-venture capital, as funders retain no equity in the funded project. While crowdfunding need not be limited in topic, Kickstarter is focused almost exclusively on funding creative and community focused projects. Part of their goal is to create a lively community of makers who support each other. At the end of their first year, they gave out a number of awards including the project with the most contributors, the project that raised the most money, and the project that reached their goal the fastest, but the award that might be most telling is for the “Most Prolific Backer”:

“Jonas Landin, Kickstarter’s Most Prolific Backer, has pledged to an amazing 56 projects. What motivates him? “It feels really nice to be able to partially fund some one who has an idea they want to realize.”


This model is catching on and we can expect more nuanced and sector driven approaches to financing book production this way. One such possibility is finding organisations to sponsor book production and making the argument in business terms.

A while ago I worked with a Dutch organisation by the name of Greenhost.nl. They are a small hosting provider based in Amsterdam with a staff list of about 8. The boss wanted to bring the Greenhost crew to Berlin to make a book on Basic Internet Security and he wanted me to facilitate the Book Sprint. So we organised a Book Sprint, invited some locals to come and help and sprinted the book over four days. In total about 6 people were in attendance (including myself as facilitator) so we started one Thursday and finished the following Sunday. Actually one day earlier than expected. The book is a great guide to the topic and quite comprehensive - 45,000 words or so in 4 days and lots of nice illustrations.

The following morning the book went to the printers and then was presented the next day in print form 2 days later at the International Press Freedom Day in Amsterdam.

The presentation at International Press Freedom Day was complimented by a PR campaign driven by Greenhost. The attention worked very well as the online version of the book received thousands of visits on the manual within a few hours (slowing our server down considerably at one point) and there was also a lot of very nice international and national (Dutch) press attention. This worked very well for Greenhost as this is the kind of promotional coverage that is otherwise very hard to generate. That makes sponsoring of Book Sprints a very good marketing opportunity for organisations.

There are some organisations that have taken this principle into their business. The President5 is a South African (Capetown) based organisation that has won a lot of awards for their designs. They place great emphasis onbook/content design as a more engaging & potent form of marketing for their clients.  

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 making marketing brochures not books and they stand to look very bad. Let the book do what it has to do and get the kudos by saying you made it happen. 

This kind of press is not only good for the organizations involved and good for the reader but it is good for the book itself because it raises the profile of the book putting it infront of people that need it and can help improve it. This can, for example, raise the probability that a book will be voluntarily translated. A high profile book can make it an attractive prospect to voluntary translators. Not many people want to spend the hours translating a book that won’t be read but if its a book with an established high profile then its a better proposition. To demonstrate this by example Basic Internet Censorship (the book made by Greenhost) immediately had two groups start the German and Farsi translations voluntarily.

In addition to this we also had unforeseen re-distribution channels open up for the book. In the case of this book someone had gone to the trouble of creating a torrent (a peer to peer sharing method) and listed it on Pirate Bay - we didn’t create this torrent – someone noticed the book, downloaded it, and made the torrent themselves. It's legal sharing and it works in favour of the book and the books producers. 

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? Are you a law firm? Want to make a book about basic rights in your country? Then design a PR strategy around the book that will justify the expense of its production. 

Of course this approach does not come without its issues. If people pay money to have something produced then they generally do not like it if the thing produced disagrees or takes issue with them. Worse is the mindset that this can produce in the producers. Anticipating and avoiding disagreement is in effect a kind of self policing that can stifle creativity especially when you are working collaboratively. Get a good facilitator!

  1. http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1565581&highlight^
  2. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/robinsloan/robin-writes-a-book-and-you-get-a-copy^
  3. http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/23876 ^
  4. http://www.kickstarter.com/discover/categories/publishing/most-funded?ref=more ^
  5. http://www.thepresident.co.za/^

Content Markets

A very speculative model which we have yet so see emerge is the development of book production 'content production markets'. Code development has had this for a long time with sites like freelancer.com where project managers can find free lance programmers. Project managers post specific jobs to freelancer.com and programmers make bids for the work. The Project Manager then evaluates the bidders experience and client feedback against the amount the bidder posted.

It is very easy to imagine that this kind of business could evolve for book production. There are many people in the world with skills relative to book production that can be executed online - editing, writing, illustration, research, fact checking - you name it. Development of a formalised and informal trading of these skills could create significant revenues for participants and could really explode the current book production model and the revenues available for producers.

The long tale

Lastly, The Long Tale. The long tail was popularised in the age of the net by Chris Anderson. It's the familiar strategy of selling a large number of books to small niche markets. The idea being that a lot of sales of niche items adds up to a good profit or as he put it in the title Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.

However there is another possible 'long tale' market here - instead of seeing a total inventory as having a 'long tail' each book in itself can be customised for resale over a number of smaller markets. One book distributed over several markets each with its very own version of the book. We have experimented with this a little in FLOSS Manuals - customising the same book for specific markets. Remixing books can be considered to be exactly this strategy but on a very small scale. Many workshop leaders use the remix feature of FLOSS Manuals to generate workbooks with content taken from several existing books. We have also encouraged consultants to take books from FLOSS Manuals, clone them, and customise the book to speak directly to their potential and existing customers. It is a powerful pre and post sales device. The long tale here has a market of 1 - the client. This is the very end of the long tale but the return can be lucrative for the consultant that secures a sale or return sale because of their valued added services powered by customised documentation.

I believe there is a business here - either customising content as a service or providing the tools for people to customise heir own content. It is also very possible that one book could in itself provide a lucrative 'long tale' business if the tale was long enough.   

Chapter Sales

Some are putting their money on the sale of book components - selling parts of a book, typically in chapter form. This necessitates closed copyright as a rule. OReilly have been experimenting with this for about 5 years and it seems to be their darling. The newest iteration being the Inkling project which is strongly backed by OReilly. Inkling markets educational material in chapter form.

I think this is a very interesting strategy but I don't like it because the sale of content like this always works against reuse and collaboration. If the bottom line is still in resale of the artefact this will always work against free culture and movements like the Open Education Resources movement. From this perspective this process is flowing against new forms of education processes. I can't help but be cynical to think Inkling will make more money from a single book through chapter sales than they would ever make from selling the book as a whole. If you look at some of Inklings titles and total up the price per chapter against the total number of chapters then it is apparent the cost to the buyer exceeds the cover price' of the entire book. Its a cynical move. Real innovation in this field would construct markets for chapter production with the contents being free to distribute and reuse as mentioned above. Unfortunately chapter resale in the form that OReilly and Inkling pursue is going to have a successful market but its working against more enlightened approaches to education and the future of the book in the long term.


CSS is the new typography

The new layout language for the book is HTML. It has never been easier to make web content using HTML hence it has never been easier to make a book.  

Generally speaking HTML is frowned upon as a source file format for books because it is seen as worst practice. Best practices require complicated file formats like "docbook" or, worse, Latex. These file formats have been designed to contain and describe content so that beautiful books can be made. Unfortunately, the process of creating docbook and latex is extremely complicated. Getting a new user to work with either of these formats is quite a process. On the other hand, WYSWYG editors which produce HTML work very much like simple text editors. It is trivial to create HTML with a WYSIWYG editor or similar tool and it can be done online.

HTML is a very established, very well used, and very well distributed format. There is already an enormous number of people using HTML, there is an enormous amount of content already stored in HTML, that content and those people are networked, and HTML has a rich legacy of tools that enable transformations into other formats. HTML is the new source format for books.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is the syntax that controls the look and feel of HTML. E-readers and web-browsers can read this syntax and present the content accordingly. Book production platforms such as Booktype enable the customisation of CSS for ebook output but more interestingly Booktype also enables CSS to control the look and feel of paper books. Designing in this way takes some thought since it is usually disorientating for book designers to 'design in code' and it is equally disorientating for web designers to use code to design material products.

The W3C CSS Working Group1 (responsible for overseeing the standard) anticipated the intersection of the book and the web some time ago. In the latest drafts of the CSS standard new additions are almost entirely focused on typography2 . As a consequence of this emphasis this area is starting to blossom. There has also recently been a sharp rise in the websites offering tips on CSS typography3 and an explosion of web fonts (if you are interested in a very good insight about how fonts get to the web please watch the Unbound Book video presentation of Otmar Hoefer the Director of Font Marketing at Linotype Library4 ).

There are also some very interesting Javascript libraries available that are trying to make up for what is lacking in CSS typographical controls. Most are based on the well used and prolifically distributed JQuery Javascript libraries.

Of particular interest is the Kerningjs library which combines the previously available letteringjs library. What these libraries do is to make each glyph (letter/number) into its own element each of which can then be transformed by CSS like rules. In plain speak, these code libraries allow you to change each letter individually in a paragraph or heading etc.

There are some nice demonstrations online about why this is interesting, the most interesting demo can be found at kernjs. Try visiting that page, double click the big blue circle then click on and drag the letters individually.

If you then click ‘Finish Editing’ you will get the CSS controls necessary to implement this effect (if you had kerning.js linked from your page).

There is also another interesting typographical library called colorfont which enables dual toned glyphs.

It is a pretty good trick they used to achieve this. Essentially they created two fonts from the same master font each displaying just partial glyphs. When overlayed they display the full glyph. Hence each ‘layer’ can be targeted with a different color.

With libraries like this it is apparent that Javascript has a future with web typography but maybe it doesn’t stop at that. These kind of tricks can also be implemented with ebooks and with more and more book designers entering the world of ebook design I am sure we will see a growing need for more of these libraries. 

Good nuanced control over font rendering is good enough at the moment and getting better quickly. However many e-readers and all web-browsers do not support all of the CSS controls and most ebook readers do not currently support Javascript. This will change in time especially since ebooks are becoming a revenue stream for Apple, and Apple (together with Google) is behind the development of webkit - the rendering engine behind iBooks, Safari and Chrome. Good support of CSS typographical controls is on its way and we can expect more web designers to start designing books, and more book designers learning code.

What is dismaying however is the current trend of vendors like Apple to use non-standard CSS controls to layout the books. Baldur Bjarnasons has written some very good blog posts about this. The strategy by Apple is to make any book authored by the iBook Author software only work (or work well) when viewed with the iPad. I do not really understand this strategy - yes it is the typical platform / sales channel lock in that Apple is known to perpetuate. However it means that content creators content has limited distribution because of this. Apple might wave this away by saying that it is 'innovating' but innovation like this cannot be seen without a degree of skepticism over the intended goals. 

Never-the- less it is possible to say with some confidence that CSS and Javascript will come to be seen as an important development in the history of typography. Just as Gutenberg "was concerned only to imitate the book of his day - which was handwritten"5 but unintentionally gave birth to new aesthetics, we can imagine the new CSS typography to have similar consequences.    

  1. http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/members.en.php3^
  2. http://dev.w3.org/csswg/css3-text/^
  3. http://www.1stwebdesigner.com/css/advanced-css-text-effects-web-typography-tips/^
  4. http://vimeo.com/24415178^
  5. Jan Tschichold, The New Typography, University of California Press, 2006, pg 15^

Formless Content

There is a lot of interesting stuff happening to the page right now. The page is changing in so many ways – time based media is making its way into book pages, reactive content, scrollable space, and a multitude of differing display devices make designing pages pretty hard work these days. How to design for so many possibilities? How to understand so many possibilities?

Craig Mod of flipboard makes a very compelling argument for two forms of page : formless and definite content in an article he wrote for Book: A Futurists Manifesto - the first book to be produced by PressBooks. Craigs argument in a nutshell and in his own words is:

the key difference between Formless and Definite Content is the interaction between the content and the page. Formless Content doesn’t see the page or its boundaries; Definite Content is not only aware of the page, but embraces it. It edits, shifts, and resizes itself to fit the page [...] Put very simply, Formless Content is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas.

Craig argues that most book content we know is formless – the text can reflow into other containers without effecting the meaning.  Its a really well argued position and one that is in tension to the current design methodologies of book designers today. Book designers are taught to design contained space – books are a very definite context in which they work. Desktop Publishing Applications are built to meet this methodology. Pixel perfect manipulation within a strictly contained space. If the designed digital article does not exactly match the printed artefact then something went wrong. A lot of energy has gone into this process.

Formless design principles are uneasy to consider for traditional book designers – how can you design for a page that does not yet know its container? It is literally like asking a book designer to design a book without telling them the page dimensions.

As it happens web designers have been thinking about page design too. For a long time now web designers have made pages that embrace differing containers – they have been working, at least in part, with formless content.

What is missing however are good tools for taking the web designers aptitude for working with formless content to enable them to produce books. A good tool set for designing formless books should not work with a constrained page dimensions. It is tempting, for example, to think of working with a design environment with constrained page-like artefacts - think of Google Docs as an example. Could something like Google Docs with its digital, scrollable, yet fixed page size be a good starting point for some kind of design tool? Place layout and typographical controls on top of Google Docs and do we have the next book design environment?

I don’t think so because it is exactly the kind of idea that is blinded by the media of the past and cannot accept that things have changed. We must design tools that enable book design for formless content. What those tools look like is a very interesting question and one which Aleksandar Erkalovic (Booktype lead dev) and I have been working on with students (Hannes Bernard and Aiwen Yin) from the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam.

Our argument is that the design of formless content is really a partially constrained environment since elements within the page have some kind of relationship to each other. This is an argument web designers are familiar with when using design tools like position:relative – a rule which sets a relative position relationships between objects. Relationships can be constrained or shaped by rules which will be at least partially preserved when displayed in different contexts. The meaning is preserved by the relationship between the elements more than by their relationship to the constraints of a page.

This is the reasoning behind Cascading Style Sheets – the design language of the web. It is rule based design and even partly conditional. It is possible to express conditions in CSS even though it is not done that often. A CSS rule such as :

h2+p {page-break-inside:avoid;}

is a conditional CSS rule which will apply the style only when a paragraph follows heading 2 (h2) element.

Web designers know this kind of thinking but book designers are going to have to let go of pixel perfect design and enjoy thinking and designing this way. It seems like a simple idea but it takes a lot to overcome legacy. The legacy is so strong that designers are pretending the issue does not exist. There are tools now appearing and sold as design environments for iPad books. They give near 1:1 page relationship between design environment and the final result. However we all know what happens to digital hardware – it changes. What is true now will not be true 5 years from now so the idea that an ebook is a contained space is very appealing to traditional book designers but it will be a short lived myth. iPads might keep the same form for 5 years, they might not but they certainly will not keep it over the next 5-10 years. Better to learn how to design in the new way than be fooled into thinking you can bring all the old methods to a new medium and get away with it for long.

What we are working on now is a way to meet the designers half way – a visual design environment which is used for rule and condition based design. Can book designers accept a tool like like this? Will web designers just step in and take the role of book designers? Its an interesting question and one we hope to have some more experience with soon. 

Collaborative Book Production

How to get more books into the world


Getting started

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 thats 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, its not always this way, but its 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 founders 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 no body sees it as exciting as you do. 

Other factors that effect 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 that may or may not do much work but will certainly attract others to the job. 

Also of course the actual offering itself effects the uptake. Send out a egocentric request to help *you* finish the book *you* always wanted to write and you probably get no takers. Send out a request for involvement that is friendly and open and 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 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.  

The book as motivator

As part of the initial request for involvement its import to keep in mind that 'the book' is a critical attraction. It is amazing what a great motivator it is to say to anyone ‘you will 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 webpage’. Although…thats actually what we are doing it is not nearly as magical. We are making a PDF that we send to a printer. Or we are making a EPUB (ebook) or templated HTML…etc…but this contains no magic. 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 to us enough 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."1 

"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." 2 

" 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." 3 

But don’t get me wrong, its 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 feel 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 thats 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 is 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.

  1. http://linuxgrandma.blogspot.com/2011/10/new-kde-book-beginning-kde-development.html^
  2. http://blog.nerdchic.net/archives/688/^
  3. http://www.maploser.com/tag/floss-manuals/^

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 Bacon1 is one such person - he is the community manager for Ubuntu and wrote the excellent Art of Community Book2 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. 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 network, 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. Its ok to blow your top occasionally - its actually good to be seen fallible -  however you should appologise 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 - it might seem an intangible 'fun factor' but its more likely that its 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 it 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 but don't be disappointed when they leave. Communities have natural cycles and additionally 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 quiet 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 but ensure than 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 however that people involved in this kind of project generally like being productive. If they are talking its usually a sign they are working.


  1. http://www.jonobacon.org/^
  2. http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/^

The art of losing control

Collaborative book production can take many forms. It can be a managed closed group - similar to traditional publishing - or it can be a more open flow of contributors - similar to wiki production models. 

Both have their merits but by far the most popular is the managed closed process. The managed process can be extremely tedious and slow. For a good account of how tedious you may wish to read more about the OReilly process as it is outlined online1. The Oreilly process is lightweight in comparison to some (notably academic) book production processes but it's bad enough. It is because of the tedium and slowness of these processes that I have avoided them and instead I have been unpeeling those managed layers and peering into the supposed abyss of open collaborative book production for the past 5 years. The model is simple - anyone can jump in and change any book at anytime. 

This approach is not common however. There seems often to be an unspoken assumption that control is necessary and books 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 5 years running an entirely open system (FLOSS Manuals) is that there is little to fear and much to gain by losing control. In five 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. 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. If you open yourself up to collaboration it is very interesting what can happen. On one early open book I worked on a retired copy editor who I had never met (at the time) went from top to bottom of the 45,000 word text in his free afternoons and made an incredible improvement to the text. I would like to have thanked him at the time but I didn't know who it was until later.

The trick is not to protect the text but to manage the social processes surrounding it. It is actually hard to get people to collaborate - most people do not want to disappear into the authorial reputation of someone else - which one reason why equal credit for any contribution is important. You need to work on coaxing people to get involved and some are harder to convince than others. The best strategy to get people involved however is to make it as easy as possible. Do what you can to welcome people in and make the process easy (both technically and socially) - it will be harder than you think to get uptake but the results are rewarding. The process is very much like open source software production. In early waves of open source mania many projects were started with the belief that the coders would 'just show up'. But communities (most anyway) do not develop like that. They need someone dedicated community leader / manager / guru to put the time in and make people feel part of the process. A book is a community and it needs this kind of leadership - a community of book producers with multiple books needs this even more.

Unlike open source software development however open book development benefits from relinquishing as much control as possible. The best philosophy is to make contributions easy to make and then manage the result. Open Source usually works the other way round - vet contributions closely and avoid calamity. But in my experience this does not work in the book world and it doesn't need to. Books can be vetted after the contributions - nothing gets broken if there is a mistake (unlike code) and so put in place technical and social processes to watch the content and manage the result.

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 – one to one face to face conversations work best, personal emails work well, 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 collaboration in any realm – its 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. If things get out of control clone (copy) the 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 which means that the contributors must also have a say on what the book should be. The process needs to be a moderation of both top down and ground up processes.  

So ‘how to control’ a book is a question with some merit but can only be answered from the perspective of managing social processes not managing content. 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 its all about the art of losing control… 

  1. http://oreilly.com/oreilly/author/ch01.html#overview^

Other Peoples Voices

With collaborative book production contributors often worry about the ‘voice’ of the book. How do collaborators produce one unified harmonious voice? There are sometimes heated discussion about the usage of “I” versus “we” especially when relating personal anecdotes in a text.

But this is a legacy issue and an assumption we can lose. What does it really matter? Isn’t it more interesting to have strong identifiable distinct or even divergent voices in a book?

In Collaborative Futures there is this anecdote:

“I remember one night in 1994 when I was a young soldier serving in an Israeli army base near the Palestinian city of Hebron, around 3:30am a car pulled off just outside the gates of our base. The door opened and a dead body was dropped from the back seat on the road. The car then turned around and rushed back towards the city. The soldiers that examined the body found it belonged to a Palestinian man. Attached to his back was a sign with the word “Collaborator”.”


Also this:

“I always had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t quite as much myself as I thought I was. It was breastfeeding my son that convinced me of this as a real, material fact. It is very liberating to realize that I am really, wholly not me, that I do not have to figure out “who I am” nor “express myself”. My experience of pregnancy and breastfeeding was myself as more than me; not doubled, not serving as a “carrier” for another individual human self. Rather as a joined creature, a multiplication of my creatureliness. ”


These are direct personal experiences from two of the contributors to the book – each related through the first person singular and yet they are not the same person and this change was not identified in the narrative. Great. How fantastic to have such a richness of experience in the text and relayed so intimately. Why do we need to have just one voice, or disguise multiple voices so they appear as one, or announce a change in voice? One of the most fantastic aspects of collaborative book production is that you can bring all those voices of the contributors into the text. It makes the book rich with diversity and life and it denies the imagining of one harmonised ‘all knowing voice’.

The voices can be so diverse at times that the book appears to be ‘disagreeing with itself’.

In one version of Collaborative Futures the book began by celebrating the group Anonymous. The first chapter ended with :

“Anonymous has operated under rules that are directly opposed to the rules that have governed most successful large-scale collaborations. How then do goals as broadly defined as “the lulz” become defined and articulated into a goal like the intent to “systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology”? How can an organization with no leaders articulate and execute such an ambitious and “long, long campaign”? How can the enforced absence of any structure as a governing principle result in such effective and coordinated action?

Is this a possible collaborative future?”


The point was a kind of celebration of the collaborative power of Anonymous. However the next ‘published’ version which emerged after a re-sprint of the book in New York read:

“…Is this a possible collaborative future? If so, it is a terrifying one in which anonymity and structurelessness permits total absolution of social responsibility, terrorizing of innocent outsiders, and harassment of those who provide public feedback, criticism and indeed even speak of the group (“You do not talk about anonymous”). It is a P2P, collaborative, digitized “Lord of the Flies” wherein boys’ games devolve into violence for fun. In the perpetual techno-utopian dialectic, this is the feared dystopian future we hope will be avoided, as we aim for the utopia that we can never actually arrive at.”

Pretty much a total reversal. Isn’t that fantastic? We need more books with diverse and divergent voices offering disagreement and vibrant discourse and challenging you to reject the authorative voice of the text and think while reading.

Books as Learning Environments

Books are of course learning environments. However this is usually understood from the perspective of the reader. What is often forgotten is that book production itself is a tremendous learning process. As people work together to write/illustrate/create a book together they are learning a tremendous amount about the subject.

Kieran Nolan, a teacher at DkIT1 in Ireland, asked students to create a book together using Booktype. The project was for a module called “User Theories” for fourth-year students in the BA (Honors) program in Communications and Creative Multimedia. The course looks at different interactive media types, different user groups and the creative ways in which people repurpose and reuse all the digital creation and distribution. In Kieran’s words:

"The topic we had last week in class was ‘Emotive Design’ and trying to reduce user frustration with interactive media. In other words, looking at ideas of giving interactive products personality (for instance, avatars) so that users feel some sort of connection and less alienated to the product. So the students are being asked to reflect on the readings and come up with their own idea for an ‘emotive interface.’ "

Rather than create the content individually, Kieran’s students are to create a book collaboratively. Kieran liked producing a book collaboratively online because the class could share their ideas, learn from each other, and learn about collaborative production by doing it. The fact that students can produce a book from the result adds another dimension for Kieran: “It bridges the gap between digital and print media and produces a tangible product”.

Kieran utilized the history feature of the production software to track a student’s contribution to the project. The work counted for 15% of the final mark.

Over the space of two weeks the class collaborated online both in the lab and individually at home to create a compendium book of 21 original design concepts.

"The students I teach are well accustomed to using the online space as a learning environment. While a lot of material can be covered in the space of a single lecture, extra time is often needed to help students absorb and reach a deeper understanding of their source material. Online discussion of in class topics helps facilitate this. So too experiential learning is essential for reaching deep understanding of a subject."

We can of course imagine a perfect perpetual production book machine - students write textbooks together and learn the subject and get evaluated on their contributions- the next years students improve the textbooks and hand onto the next years students and get evaluated on their contributions etc. Students producing their own textbooks for their school and for to fulfil their own learning needs.

There are some experiments going on in this area but not nearly enough. There is the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement but they are largely stuck in traditional publishing work processes. With time hopefully the value of learning within the book production processes will be understood and utilised to produce more open textbooks which students need.

  1. http://www.dkit.ie/creativemedia^

Book Sprints

There is a lot to be written about Book Sprints. Perhaps a book on just this topic would almost be enough. However any book on collaborative book production would not be complete with out at least some attempt in explaining the process. So here is a very abridged version of what a Book Sprint is and a quick look inside the dynamic.

A Book Sprint is a facilitated process that brings together a group of people to produce a book in 3-5 days (although it has been done in shorter time). Usually there is no pre-production and the group is guided by a facilitator from zero to published book. The books produced are high quality content and are made available immediately at the end of the sprint in printed (using print-on-demand services) and e-book formats. Books sprints produce great books and they are a great community and team building process.

Book Sprints offer an exciting and fun process to work with others to make that book you always felt the world needed. It is a fast process – zero to book in 5 days. Seem impossible? Its not, its very possible, fun, and extremely rewarding in terms of output (a book!) and the team building that occurs during the process.

There are three common reasons to do Book Sprints:

  1. Produce a book that will be ready at the end of sprint drives the process and helps to justify the effort.
  2. Produce knowledge in a short period of time force the participants to master the issues related to their subject. They will intensely work on a content together, share and reshape their understanding of a collective question.
  3. Reinforce or create social links. Mobilize a community to produce a book or text forge and solidify a sense of belonging among participants.
Book Sprint

Collaborative Futures Book Sprint, January 2010

The only Book Sprint (1) I know of before we did them (2) used word processing documents – passing these around via email between collaborators – and a wiki for collecting the articles. Part way through the process they gathered in person to develop the outline in a one week intensive ‘Outline Sprint’ and then proceeded to collaborate via email and a wiki over a period of 4-6 months. After the material was complete the group passed the documents through several editing stages. The process cut the standard industry timeline down by about 30-50%. Zero to book in 4-6 months is still pretty good in the publishing industry. However this is really an enhanced book slog - short collaborative bursts of activity to aid a more traditional book production strategy - which is becoming more popular as a strategy to accelerate the production of books.

For FLOSS Manuals 4-6 months was too long. We wanted to do it in 5 days and so we needed a quicker methodology and a better tool set. Wikis might come to your mind immediately as it did to us. However we had already realised that wikis were not built with the right paradigm. Books are very structured and wikis are not. That is the essence of it – I don’t want to get into ‘future of the book’ discussions. Books can be many things, so I am talking here of what ‘most’ people mean by a book. A one piece cover, several hundred pages, table of contents, structured readable and comprehensive content, self contained with very few references to other parts of the document and careful use of outside references instead of a welter of back-and-forth hyperlinks. We built a system that could produce this kind of book – paper books – in a Book Sprint environment. Zero to book in 5 days – that leaves about 3 minutes at the end to produce book formatted PDF ready to upload to a PoD service or send to the local printer. That is what we needed and wikis don’t enable you to do that. So we hand rolled our own. The first generation was built on T-Wiki and we pushed it to its outer limits with extensions built by Aleksandar Erkalovic and a PDF renderer built by Luka Frelih. Now we are onto the third generation – Booktype. It does more or less the same job as the first tool set, but does it better – its easier to use, more flexible, and it supports a greater number of possible output formats and types.

While Booktype does a lot and its hard to imagine a Book Sprint without it, there are limits to working digitally in a Book Sprint. Certainly we also experience the highs of surprising networked collaboration. One sprint (‘Introduction to the Command Line’) was written almost entirely remotely and written in 2 days (Mako Hill, FSF Board member and renown hacker said it was the best book on its topic). However there are also limits to digital media and digital networks. I believe that there is less knowledge passed through digital media communication channels when collaborating. I firmly believe this – otherwise we would have all of our Book Sprints remote – it would cut down on logistics and costs. However text based chat does not convey enough information, VOIP is terrible for more than 2 people at a time and even then I wonder at its real usefulness in intensive collaboration, and email is just too slow and the ‘unthreaded’ nature of email will soon drive you crazy in this kind of environment. Microblogging is as good as IRC in this instance – ie. barely useful. Sneaker networks are not only faster but more fluid and they enable better shared understandings, quicker.

In addition I find it is often good to push people out of the screen and into the book. Since we work fast in sprints we sometimes realise we need to clean up structural issues. This often occurs when 2 or more people are working on content that needs to fit together – and it doesn’t. Often we print out the necessary chapters, sit on the floor, and (gasp) cut-and-paste the chapters into each other until they work. Same process as a digital text editor, just with a physical tool set – the result is that it gets better results quicker.

The end result of a Book Sprint is a book. Thats a great thing to have. However there is also a mandate to take care of, and content to take care of. How do you enable this content to live? Books do not live by licenses alone – they need help. They need the original collaborators to find the avenues to keep the content alive. One strategy is to maintain this content themselves although, despite good will, this seldom continues beyond some initial edits immediately after the sprint ends. The original collaborators need to pass on the mandate to others, this is critical for the life of the book. As such I discourage the use of terms like ‘authors’ as this denotes legacies of ownership and does not encourage new contributors to take the mandate to improve the book. Instead the strategies revolve around keeping the participation threshold low (minimising social filters, using open language, making Booki simpler and simpler to use) and welcoming in new contributions. We also welcome forking books. Take a book – make it your own whichever way you feel is best.

However occasionally sprinters, caught up in the fervor of intensive production, often get worried about misappropriation or unethical use and erect barriers that do nothing to help and a lot to hurt. They ask themselves questions like ‘What if someone takes the content and makes money? What if contributors spam the book? What if someone changes the tone of the book? Could contributions ruin it?’ This is the ethical quandry put at the foot of freedom largely by the fears and protective necessities of the proprietary publishing industry, We all carry this a little bit and my response is always ‘let it go’. Let the content be free and you will be happily surprised by the results. The irony is that once sprinters are convinced of this idea they are left ‘fighting’ the default – standard attitudes towards publishing and authorship means its hard work to get people to uptake the freedoms of free content. Book Sprint collaborators (and free content developers in general) often need to put a lot of energy into reaching out to others to get them to take ownership of the material and make changes, but it can be done with the right approach. I am hoping soon we see will the integration of Book Sprints into Curriculum to create and improve textbooks as another way to explicitly pass on the mandate to change and I’m very much looking forward to seeing this strategy develop…

Reusable content is a huge asset to a Book Sprint. In a recent Book Sprint on Basic Internet Security and we were able to import about 9 chapters from 3 other manuals totaling 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.

The term ‘Book Sprint’ was coined by Tomas Krag . In the first sprints held under this term Tomas and the Wireless Networking for the Developing World crew came together for a week to plan the outline for a book and then later work remotely on developing and editing the contents. The books took 6-9 months to produce but the one week meeting period was innovative and critical.

I met Tomas at an event organised by Aspiration and was inspired to try it with FLOSS Manuals. Adam experimented with the format with the aim not just to outline a book in one week but to outline, write, illustrate, proof and illustrate the entire book and publish it in 5 days. Zero to book in 5 days. This rapid development of a book in 5 days is now what most people have come to think of as a Book Sprint.

Since this time (2008) FLOSS Manuals has produced over 40 books though Book Sprints about Free Software. Some have been produced with sprinters working almost entirely remotely. Others have been produced in just 2 short days. There have been sprints to translate books and sprints to translate books into other contexts. There has also been Book Sprints to rewrite the books created in previous sprints.

Recently there have been experiments to push the Book Sprint into areas other than its very technical origin. There have been a number of these Book Sprints including a book about co-working spaces, books about translation, and books about abstract ideas like ‘collaboration’ and ‘the open web’.


Things to think about

Why domain based repositories are important

The idea we are trying to engender is that when you create a book in Booktype is that you are also contributing to a body of re-usable material that can help others make books. Building re-usable repositories like this is a pretty well known idea and its 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 real effect and I recently saw the first substantial use of ‘booki’ materials like this just last week. It occurred  with the FLOSS Manuals implementation of Booki (http://www.flossmanuals.net) which is a repository for materials about how to use free softwares. 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.

Managing these large repositories and the community around it can be a huge amount of fun and incredibly productive. The rules for this kind of community management are more or less the same for managing a single community focused on the production and maintenance of one book. There are some additional things to think about however. With an established large community it is necessary to start identifying leaders for each book or group of books. This is not always possible but it is good when it happens as you can offload some of the community management tasks for those books to them. It also gives you a peer to discuss community management issues with which can be both a stress relief and a learning experience. 

Additionally it can often be much easier to get a new book project started if you have a ready made community to work with. You can try and activate community members to take the project on and get them excited to get them involved. Its a lot less work than starting from zero.

On the other hand there is also just a lot more work to be done! However it is amazing just how much work can be done, and how many books can be produced from 100% voluntary effort if the community management is good. Its well worth considering taking the skills you learn managing a single book project and building on them to include larger numbers of books and people. Its a very worthwhile process and if you start now you will have the extra satisfaction of being a pioneer.

Remix vs shuffle

One of the key memes in free culture has been the remix. Freely licensed content combined to make something new. Remixing of books is of obvious interest and there have been many explorations of this in various forms including the Rice University project Connexions1. FLOSS Manuals has had the ability to take existing manuals about free software and remix it since 2008. Its easy to use this mechanism to add a chapter or chapters of a manual with other chapters from other manuals. The output is templated HTML or customised PDF. Although the remix feature (its very easy to use with a nice drag and drop process) always gets very positive responses when demonstrated it does not get used very much.

After some years thinking about this I have come to the understanding the ‘remix’ as such has only a limited use case when it comes to constructing books from multiple sources. A remix of a book in this fashion is not a good remix as we might understand it. DJs make good mixes out of several tracks but they have various tempo, tone, and volume controls to integrate the sources. A book remixed by the (out moded) remixing tool we built is not like a music remix but more like playing back selected tracks using shuffle. The chapters are not integrated to flow well into each other, they are instead compiled into some kind of anthology. 

The difference is not subtle and it's easy to understand the problem when you look at the obvious popular example of remixes in DJ culture. A DJ takes multiple sources – some complete – some snippets – and works them into a continuous whole. It is part curatorial process and part production. The curatorial process is the choosing of the works and considering where and when the selected pieces will fit into the whole. The production process is changing the tone, speed, and color of the sound and making it all work together. Without the production component its not a remix at all – its just a shuffle of sound snippets.

Text requires the same kind of shaping. If you take a chapter from one book and then put it next to another chapter from another book you do not have a book – you have two adjacent chapters. You need to work to make them fit together. Working material like this is not just a matter of ‘cross fading’ from one to the other by smoothing out the requisite intros and outros (although this makes a big difference in itself) but there are other aspects to consider – tonal, tempo, texture, language used, point of view, voice etc as well as some more mundane mechanical issues. What, for example, do you do with a chapter that makes reference to other chapters in the book it originated from? You need to change these references and other mechanics as well as take care of the more tonal components of the text.

This is why remixing in itself is not that interesting and also another argument why some free licenses should be banned for free book production. An ND license (non-derivative) renders a ’free’ work useless for combining with other works. You can separate it from its original corpus but you cannot make it fit easily within a new one. You have no licensed right even to change the mechanical components. You cannot create chapters that will smoothly exit one book and enter another. You actually have to produce the mixed material to make it all work together – there is not really much point to trying to avoid this issue.

As a consequence of these experiences we designed Bookspark to enable importing of chapters from one book to the editable environment of another book and we ditched the old remix approach. This means you can import chapters from other books and then edit the chapters to make them fit the context. That is the only sensible way we can work with this kind of re-use/remix.

  1. http://cnx.org/^

Why Attribution is not sustainable

Its easy to understand the problems with attribution. In the 1 book 1 author days it was easy - put the authors name on the cover. 50 years later, same book same solution. 

However this does not work for collaboratively produced works and it is one of the most difficult issues for free culture going forward. Already in FLOSS Manuals we have books that have 8 pages of credits - each chapter individually referenced with the copyright and attribution data. Some chapters have 20 collaborators, all of which need to be listed. We solved the problem of generating these lists - we know who made what edits if they are done in Booki so we just automatically generate this list. However this is just the beginning and we are already asking ourselves - is 8 pages of credits really necessary?

The answer is that no it is not necessary. Attribution is not as important with collaboratively produced works as one might have suspected. Those involved in the process are not too worried about it - there is some kind of excitement generated by pushing your name forward as a protagonist at some key moment in the life of a book but this can happen in the text, as part of the books story, or in press releases, blog posts etc. We don't actually need attribution - the prominent foregrounding of all the names of the individuals involved in production. What we need is backgrounding of this information and the ability to know the history and lineage of a book.

We need standards to maintain history records for a books development and we also need this to be stored in publicly accessible repositories so we can check this information for interests sake or more meaningful use such as historical record, or research.

These records of book history could be also very necessary for verification of content. If for example we use open licenses or (one day) no copyright then how do we verify quotes (for example). How do I know that this book which purports to be the thoughts of the author actually are the thoughts of the author and not some malicious edit mascaraing as such?

Currently in free software circles there are at least three major strategies for dealing with this kind of issue.

  1. use a publicly trusted source for the distribution of content so people know that if the book comes from a trusted source it is what it says it is. 
  2. use a 'check sum' - a method for verifying of any errors have been introduced in the text during the transmission (delivery) of the content.
  3. digitally sign content so that it can be verified as coming from the purported source.

Libraries or public archives could play a very strong role here. Records of history would become very important in a federated or prolific free content environment not just for research but for providing public mechanisms and standards for the ongoing verification of sources. 

Attribution is the star system of the single author single book publishing system. With the breakdown of the author attribution will out of necessity become a more transient commodity. Collating version and contribution history however might become a business model in itself.

Please kill NC free culture

The death of copyright is not as radical as it appears. It is not necessary to have copyright to have effective business models. The publishing industry already makes a lot of money this way - Penguin Books for example does quite a lot of business from classics by very famous authors like Jane Austin, Chaucer, and William Shakespeare - all authors whose work is out of copyright.

Unfortunately for now, we are stuck with copyright and the temporary remedy is to use a 'Free License' such as those coming out of Creative Commons. However Free licenses are not a cure, they merely diminish the symptoms and should be considered a temporary hack, and hacks sometimes diminish our need to address the real problem.

Copyright is the problem, free license are the hack. The free culture movement actually avoids identifying and addressing the real problem because they are focused on advocating a temporary solution.

Additionally some free licenses are extremely bad hacks. To cure us of copyright new economies must evolve from open content to displace closed-copyright models and then copyright itself might be seen as hampering business. Then copyright might go away. However many free licenses have a specific "non commercial" clause which means that free culture works cannot participate in emerging free culture economies. Free culture is in a way working against its own aims by implementing ’free’ licenses with Non-Commerical clauses. 

Someone please kill NC - then copyright itself.

ISBN as obituary

ISBN stands for “International Standard Book Number”. It is a 13 digit number that identifies your book. No two ISBN numbers are the same ad they usually appear on your book in numeric form and as a bar code. Generally you buy ISBN numbers and each country manages this slightly differently. Some countries require you to be a publisher before you can order an ISBN. In the USA I believe you buy them in blocks of 10 whereas in new Zealand I believe they give them away.

If you wish to distribute a book through established book channels then you mostly need an ISBN. Book shops such as Barnes & Noble or your local book shop require ISBN so they can track, sell and order stock (books). Most online retailers of any size also require this – Amazon for example, require ISBN if you wish to sell through their channels. However some online channels do not require ISBN – lulu.com for example.

The big problem with ISBN is that you need a new ISBN for every new edition. So if you release a book and then edit it and re-release it you need 2 ISBN numbers. This can take a long time to order and process and it can be expensive (depending on how you get your ISBN).

However this is not the real issue. Admin takes a long time, we are all used to it. However sometimes an administrative system gets built to work for a certain model and when that model changes then things stop making sense.

ISBN works well in a publishing world where books take years to produce and the products are identifiable distinct bodies of work. However, in the world of webpages as books this is not the typical process. For example, when working with a Book Sprint team we typically write and release a book in 5 days. You can register the ISBN before the event, no problem. However quite often after the event we may ‘release’ a new version of the book 5,10, 15 times in one day. Some of these releases may be substantial revisions. This quite clearly does not sit neatly with the slow ISBN process. Even with a more conservative development cycle for a ‘Booktype book’ the implication is clear – ISBN expects content to be static, it does not expect books to ‘live’. An ISBN is more like an obituary - it is a statement that this work is now dead.

Its a real problem for free content and content that exists in an environment where ongoing contributions to the source are encouraged. If you manage a book like this in Bookspark and you wish to distribute the book through traditional distribution channels then there is a point where you must ‘freeze’ the content and release the ‘snapshot’. This is not altogether satisfying since then you must either still the book – make it ‘die’ for a time so the printed work and the source remain equal, or you must acknowledge that the paper version is a quick to be outdated archive.

Letting content die or temporarily freezing contributions can kill a book, which is not a very desirable result considering it often takes a lot of work soliciting ongoing contributions in the first place. The alternative, accepting that the printed book is an archive is probably not going to make many distributors very happy since you are asking them to sell an out of date product (although this is conjecture since I have never tried this).

My answer to this dilemma is to actually walk away from traditional distribution channels. Free content should travel freely across media and infront of the eyes (and ears in the case of audio books) of whoever wants it and in whatever form they want it. Let the content go, don’t constrain it to these traditional channels.

Typically these channels are pursued however for ‘legacy’ reasons. Some you can’t escape – if you are an academic you live off ISBN and the education system will be slow to change that. However, if its a business model you are after then don’t make the mistake to think that selling books is the only way to go…new models are emerging – get people to pay you to write the content, for example. But more on this later.

So there are alternatives. ISBN is blocking the way, but its probably about time to start believing there are better ways….

Book Analytics

The software we use for producing books - Bookspark - provides an RSS feed for every book. This means you can follow a book and see the edits made etc. Each RSS feed is linked from the info page. For example the book about OpenMRS has an info page here http://www.booki.cc/openmrs/_info/ and the RSS is linked from the bottom as so : http://www.booki.cc/feeds/rss/book/openmrs

A few weeks ago we asked for some help creating a visualisation using this source. Pierre Commenge responded and started developing a Processing visualisation of the RSS feed. Processing is a free software used a lot for creating visualisations1.

Pierre has a prototype available that runs in a java applet2 below is a screen shot of the visualisation of the CiviCRM book produced in a FLOSS Manuals Book Sprint.

Visualisation of a book being made

So this look pretty cool. The live version enables you to play a timeline and see the development of the book over the period of 1 day.

This not only looks cool but it enables you to see how a book is being made. This is extremely interesting – imagine if we had all the data about how every book has been made up until now…it would tell us a lot of things about book production process and the differences between different models etc

Imagine what we could learn from this about the process of producing books. If we already had all this info for all the books in the world we would know a lot more about books and the processes behind their production than we do today - it would also help resolve important historical debates. We would not need to invest in the dark art of Textual Criticism or "cultural recuperation"3  to discover our literary past. If all books were made in repositories that record histories of the books development it would be very exciting to compare the processes of one author against another.

  1. http://fr.flossmanuals.net/Processing/Introduction^
  2. http://emoc.org/fmviz/0.5/^
  3. Ralph Hanna Jr, Producing Manuscripts and Edition. 1992^

Federated Publishing

Federated publishing takes all of the concepts we 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 the Federated Social Web. The main advocates are ostatus1 and the free software microblogging platform status.net2. The Federated Social Web is a vision of interoperable social network platforms enabling "people on different social networks connect with each other as friends and colleagues"3.

Federation of this kind is not new to the web, 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 Facebook for your business or school, nor does it enable communication between users on Facebook and users on other social networks.

We want 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 4 key elements need to be built up: 

  1. Free content 
  2. Federated book production platforms
  3. People particpating
  4. Economic models 

There is currently not a 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. This is Federated Publishing.

Federated Publishing was anticipated by this astonishing passage from Marshall McLuhan ("Predicting Communication via the Internet (1966)", interview with Robert Fulford, May 8, 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 prophesy of the Internet to come. However it is not a vision of the Internet, but a vision of the book and 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.

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. 

  1. http://ostatus.org/^
  2. http://status.net/features^
  3. , http://status.net/2010/07/13/what-is-the-federated-social-web^

Sell this book

This book is not unfinished, it is alive. You can contribute to it and improve it by creating an account at http://booki.flossmanuals.net and then visiting this URL: http://booki.flossmanuals.net/a-webpage-is-a-book/_edit/

Then edit away :)

how to sell this book

You are welcome to sell this book and make as much money as you want from it. No strings. To do this you need an account on Lulu.com - an online print on demand service. When you are on the edit page for the book (http://booki.flossmanuals.net/a-webpage-is-a-book/_edit/)  visit the export tab, enter your username and password for Lulu.com and the book will be uploaded to your lulu.com account (it takes a few minutes). If you make a million from it please consider making a donation to FLOSS Manuals!

how to clone this book

If you wish to make your very own version of this book and improve it then log into http://booki.flossmanuals.net and click on the 'my manuals' link on the left. Choose 'Import Booki' from the import options, enter this url - http://booki.flossmanuals.net/a-webpage-is-a-book/  and click import. You can also follow the same process from another installation of Booki and it will clone the book to that installation.


put your name here if you contributed and add something to the section about the process if making this book:

adam hyde
james simmons
daniel james


What has not been included

The following issues have not been included but should be! These are just short notes. Please add any other ideas here or add to the current ones:

Noisy Books

Federated Publishing


Facilitators not editors, collaborators not writers

Book as container

Building Corpora