Wrap-up from FLOSS Manuals book sprint at Google

At several points during this week’s documentation sprint at Google, I talked with the founder of FLOSS Manuals, Adam Hyde, who developed the doc sprint as it is practiced today. Our conversation often returned to the differences between the group writing experience we had this week and traditional publishing. The willingness of my boss at O’Reilly Media to send me to this conference shows how interested the company is learning what we might be able to take from sprints.

Some of the differences between sprints and traditional publishing are quite subtle. The collaborative process is obviously different, but many people outside publishing might not realize just how deeply the egoless collaboration of sprints flies in the face of the traditional publishing model. The reason is that publishing has long depended on the star author. In whatever way a person becomes this kind a star, whether by working his way up the journalism hierarchy like Thomas Friedman or bursting on the scene with a dazzling person story like Greg Mortenson (author of Three Cups of Tea), stardom is almost the only way to sell books in profitable numbers. Authors who use the books themselves to build stardom still need to keep themselves in the public limelight somehow. Without colorful personalities, the publishing industry needs a new way to make money (along with Hollywood, television, and pop music).

But that’s not the end of differences. Publishers also need to promise a certain amount of content, whereas sprinters and other free documentation projects can just put out what they feel like writing and say, “If you want more, add it.” Traditional publishing will alienate readers if books come out with certain topics missing. Furthermore, if a book lacks a popular topic that a competitor has, the competitor will trounce the less well-endowed book in the market. So publishers are not simply inventing needs to maintain control over the development effort. They’re not exerting control just to tamp down on unauthorized distribution or something like that. When they sell content, users have expectations that publishers strive to meet, so they need strong control over the content and the schedule for each book.

But O’Reilly, along with other publishers across the industry, is trying to change expectations. The goal of comprehensiveness conflicts with another goal, timeliness, that is becoming more and more important. We’re responding in three ways that both bring us closer to what FLOSS Manuals is doing: we put out “early releases” containing parts of books that are underway, we sign contracts for projects on limited topics that are very short by design, and we’re experimenting with systems that are even closer to the FLOSS Manuals system, allowing authors to change a book at whim and publish a new version immediately.

Although FLOSS Manuals produces free books and gets almost none of its funding from sales (the funding comes from grants and from the sponsors of sprints), the idea of sprinting is still compatible with traditional publishing, in which sales are the whole point. Traditional publishers tend to give several thousand dollars to authors in the form of advances, and if the author takes several months to produce a book, we don’t see the royalties that pay us back for that investment for a long time. Why not spend a few thousand dollars to bring a team of authors to a pleasant but distraction-free location (I have to admit that Google headquarters is not at all distraction-free) and pay for a week of intense writing?

Authors would probably find it much more appealing to take a one-week vacation and say good-bye to their families for this time than to spend months stealing time on evenings and weekends and apologizing for not being fully present.

The problem, as I explained in my first posting this week, is that you never quite know what you’re going to get from a sprint. In addition, the material is still rough at the end of a week and has to absorb a lot of work to rise to the standards of professional publishing. Still, many technical publishers would be happy to get over a hundred pages of relevant material in a single week.

Publishers who fail to make documents free and open might be more disadvantaged when seeking remote contributions. Sprints don’t get many contributions from people outside the room where it is conducted, but sometimes advice and support weigh in on some critical, highly technical point. The sprints I have participated in (sometimes remotely) benefited from answers that came out of the cloud to resolve difficult questions. For instance, one commenter on this week’s KDE conference warned us we were using product names all wrong and had us go back through the book to make sure our branding was correct.

Will people offer their time to help authors and publishers develop closed books? O’Reilly has put books online during development, and random visitors do offer fixes and comments. There is some good will toward anyone who wants to offer guidance that a community considers important. But free, open documents are likely to draw even more help from crowdsourcing.

At the summit today, with the books all wrapped up and published, we held a feedback session. The organizers asked us our opinions on the sprint process, the writing tools, and how to make the sprint more effective. Our facilitator raised three issues that, once again, reminded me of the requirements of traditional publishing:

  • Taking long-term responsibility for a document. How does one motivate people to contribute to it? In the case of free software communities, they need to make updates a communal responsibility and integrate the document into their project life cycle just like the software.

  • Promoting the document. Without lots of hype, people will not notice the existence of the book and pick it up. Promotion is pretty much the same no matter how content is produced (social networking, blogging, and video play big roles nowadays), but free books are distinguished by the goal of sharing widely without concern for authorial control or payment. Furthermore, while FLOSS Manuals is conscious of branding, it does not use copyright or trademarks to restrict use of graphics or other trade dress.

  • Integrating a document into a community. This is related to both maintenance and promotion. But every great book has a community around it, and there are lots of ways people can use them in training and other member-building activities. Forums and feedback pages are also important.

Over the past decade, a system of information generation has grown up in parallel with the traditional expert-driven system. In the old system everyone defers to an expert, while in the new system the public combines its resources. In the old system, documents are fixed after publication, whereas in the new system they are fluid. The old system was driven by the author’s ego and increasingly by the demand for generating money, whereas the new system has revenue possibilities but has a strong sense of responsibility for the welfare of communities.

Mixtures of grassroots content generation and unique expertise have existed (Homer, for instance) and more models will be found. Understanding the points of commonality between the systems will help us develop such models.

(All my postings from this sprint are listed in a bit.ly bundle.)

tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,