“Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act.”
Collaboration is part of book production and because the browser is a rich place for that we currently have even greater opportunities than ever before. While the browser opens up these possibilities, you are not forced to collaborate. You can use the same online tools to work by yourself. The point is you have the choice. There are a variety of working models to choose from that facilitate different types of collaborative book production. Let's look at a few examples starting near the 'weaker' end of collaboration and work towards the 'stronger' side of the scale.
James Simmons has produced many books in the browser. He does most of the work himself and characterises the process as 'collaborating without co-authors'. By this he means
The first advantage James found was getting feedback became a whole lot easier. He could simply ask people to look at the work in progress online.
"You don't need to have a finished book to do it, either, just enough chapters to convince people that there will be a finished book at some point. [...] you'll be surprised at how helpful people can be."
As James progressed he learned more about the art of collaboration and how to entice people to get involved. Although he wrote most of the book, James found that he needed to inspire people to get more input: "You can try to drum up people and talk about what tasks need to be done, but in the end the best thing you can do is to try and make them want the book to exist as much as you do. If you can do that collaboration may follow."
As James became more proficient and confident he was able to create stronger collaborations. For his second book he got a lot of help with research on various topics, and amazingly his third book was translated into Spanish by a team of voluntary translators.
A friend from work suggested using Google Translate to create a first version of the book which native speakers could correct. I decided that this wasn't such a bad idea [...] This actually helped. It is probably less scary to correct a bad translation than to be responsible for making a good one. A retired teacher who is fluent in Spanish started making corrections and she contacted native speakers that she knew and sent emails to mailing lists and others started doing work on it too. Every few days I get an email telling me that someone has made more corrections and what chapter has been corrected. It is surprising just how many people have been willing to get an account and post corrections. The retired teacher seems to be doing most of the work, and I suggested that she add her bio to the "About The Authors" chapter.
As James progressed towards richer and more rewarding collaboration, questions of credit immediately came into view. Credit starts to act not as a function of marketing but as a mechanism for documenting contributions. Participating in collaboration starts to break down the myth of the single author.
Another model for online book production could be termed "Iterative Book Production". This is an idea taken almost directly from the software development process known as Agile. Agile is an iterative and intensely collaborative methodology that breaks off small pieces of a larger project. This allows the work to be done quickly with a number of programmers. This process occurs almost naturally in situations where books need to be maintained, extended, or updated quickly. However there has also been experiments with this kind of process for the development of original content. Agile is often aimed at producing a "minimal viable product". O'Reilly have applied this to book production selling one chapter (the minimum viable product) at a time and producing each in rapid succession using the Agile method. FLOSS Manuals have also experimented with this kind of approach although not with reference to Agile.
However, Book Sprints are the most intense collaborative book production process that I know of and they offer a good insight into a strong collaboration method. A Book Sprint brings together a group of 5-12 people to produce a book in 3-5 days. There is no pre-production involved and the group is guided by a facilitator through to the finished book.
Usually this occurs in real space but using online book production tools. Real space is necessary to fuel the intense discussions necessary to produce a book in such a short time. However, the production itself happens in the online shared space of the browser.
While James' experiences highlight an asynchronous collaborative process, the Book Sprint requires a more synchronous process. As deadlines get compacted work needs to occur simultaneously. This tends to collapse single author methods even further - collaboration needs to occur quicker. The production becomes more granular. The domain of each contributor shifts to a smaller scale. Multiple voices emerge out of the text as roles change fluidly. A vast breadth of experience informs the work and ownership of content is replaced by the excitement and pride of a collaborative production. Credit takes on a more meaningful role - as a function of recognition and often presented as a story in itself highlighting the roles of each person involved in detail.
Book Sprint participants almost always begin skeptically and finish with a new found belief in intense collaborative production. It is a phenomenon that must be experienced to be understood. As the participant is increasingly absorbed with the need to produce content and keep pace with their peers authorial issues fall away almost naturally. In my experience, for example, many participants feel the burden of ownership falling away. They do not have to be protective and proprietal of their ideas. In fact it is almost impossible to try, and these individuals are often liberated by a sense of sharing and openness - allowing their ideas to be part of a larger collective objective can help relieve the stress caused by holding on to them.
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