[-empyre-] and a comment on collaboration

adam adam at flossmanuals.net
Thu Jan 19 23:07:58 EST 2012

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

One of the most obvious opportunities open to the online production of 
books is collaboration. Of course collaborative writing actually has a 
somewhat (unfairly) tainted name. At the onset of wikimania Penguin 
books conducted an experiment called A Million Penguins (1)  which was a 
collaborative writing project using a wiki. By all accounts 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 an author but this is 
because the publishing industry trades on and builds a star system. It 
is better marketing to build and push one star than distribute the glory 
over the 2,5, or 10 who were actually involved in producing the book.

We must discard this artificial conceit of 'the author' which prevents 
us from fully exploring the richness of collaborative production.

Producing books online obviously opens up some very interesting 
possibilities for collaboration. First, unlike a typical writers room 
the net is a public space. That makes the possibility of making 
connections 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 of a variety of collaborative workflows.

Some of the most amazing results can come from open yourself up to 
unanticipated collaboration. My experiences with FLOSS Manuals can 
recount many stories regarding this since our 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.

The following are two examples of collaborative workflows enabled by 
online book production. They investigate different ends of the 
collaborative process. 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'. 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 book will, of necessity, take more than a week to write.  More than 
likely it will take months, and will involve much research.  The main 
author will end up knowing much more after finishing the book than he 
did when he began it.
The book will have one main author, who will do most of the actual writing.
The book may or may not have other contributors.
The contributions of others may be informal.
Other contributors will not be as highly motivated as the main author, 
or may have their own motivations that are not the same as the main author.
The contributors will likely never meet face to face.
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 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 the are collaborative works. 
I got lots of feedback from other developers, help 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 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 learn 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.

This was not the end of the problems getting the book translated. While 
we had several people willing to polish up the Spanish in the earlier 
chapters, none of them were confident in their ability to update the 
more technical chapters later on. We were fortunate enough to have 
someone come along who did have a technical background, but she wanted 
to start the whole translation over again, using no automated 
translation at all.

She felt very strongly that while a machine translated book might be 
tolerable for adults, for students still mastering their native language 
it needed to be much better. The Spanish teacher in her school often 
pointed out the relationship between mastering your first native 
language and mastering of formal languages, including mathematics. 
Adults can deal with a poorly translated book but children should not 
have to.

The work her team did was absolutely terrific, but I still believe that 
if we didn't start with the awful machine translated version we would 
never have gotten the good one.

This second translation involved a twelve native speakers with technical 
skills. The leader of the project, Ana Cichero, recruited the volunteers 
and made them responsible for individual chapters. Instead of publishing 
the book several times as it was being worked on Ana wanted to publish 
it only once when it was completely finished. (She tells me that in 
retrospect publishing several times might have been better). She reached 
a point where the translation was ready to go but it turned out that 
there were still problems with the book (formatting) that needed 
cleaning up.

There was a lot of unexpected work at the end, but I can't argue with 
the results. The translation team did an outstanding job!

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 got collaborators in the 
conventional sense of the word. Before I had worked on Make Your Own 
Sugar Activities! I had written the Get Internet Archive Books Activity 
(program). In the process of doing that I met 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. They 
did provide some content: the chapter on publishing e-books with gCI is 
mostly theirs (the RDC created that software).

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 Booki is a good way to collaborate on writing 
a book!

Book Sprints

A more radical action for online book production is the Book Sprint2.
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. Books 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:
Produce a book that will be ready at the end of sprint drives the 
process and helps to justify the effort.
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.
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 we 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 

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.

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 

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): 

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 Booki, generated a 
book-formatted PDF in 2 minutes. Done. Word count ~33,000.

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.


2. http://www.booksprints.net^

Adam Hyde
Founder, FLOSS Manuals
Project Manager, Booki
Book Sprint Facilitator
mobile :+ 49 177 4935122
identi.ca : @eset
booki.flossmanuals.net : @adam


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