Book Sprint Methodology

Toward a Book Sprint facilitation methodology

In case you have never heard of the term – an unconference is a type of dynamically facilitated conference. There is no schedule of speakers but participants (‘everyone is an expert’). There is no stage but a circle of chairs. There is no master of ceremonies but an unconference facilitator.

Book Sprints are close to unconferences with one critical difference – at the end you have produced a fantastic book.

The Aims

The aims of a Book Sprint can be broken down to the following categories:

Produce a Book
Traditional book production time lines are normally measured in months and years. Book Sprints produce comparable content in a much shorter amount of time. Using Book Sprints and print on demand technologies, the time scale from zero to published book is measured in days and weeks.  Additionally the idea of writing a book motivates participants helps justify the effort.
Knowledge Production
While it is very motivating to have a book at the end, it is not actually the sprints’ primary goal. The primary goal is to generate knowledge or cultural artifacts (like stories).
Strengthen Participant Relationships
Mobilizing a group to produce its own book strengthens participant relationships and better ensures the ongoing development and maintenance of the content. It is a great team building process.

The Process

After deciding a Book Sprint is needed a group of 5-10 participants is selected and invited to attend. The group meets in ‘real space’ (often a shared accommodation and sprint venue) for 5 full days of sprinting. The facilitator often takes care of the logistics and then starts early on the first day by introducing the concept and bringing the participants to build a Table of Contents in the first 2 hours.

After lunch on the first day sprinting begins with the facilitator assisting the group to decide who should start on which chapter. As the sprint continues the facilitator identifies periods to call the group together to review material. This process is completely collaborative and the facilitator adapts it inorder to meet the needs of the group. This continues for approximately 3 days and on the fourth day the group does a hard review and the book is restructured accordingly.

On the last day final proofing is completed and the content is transformed into a Book Formatted PDF (or other format) for delivery to services such as printers, publishers or online print on demand services.

History of Book Sprints

The term ‘Book Sprint’ was coined by Tomas Krag (see his story below). 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.

Adam Hyde 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’.

Improving the Methodology

The methodology needs to be documented, explored and improved. This is one of the aims of BookSprints.net. This is one of the reasons we want feedback from sprinters and why we ask facilitators to submit sprint reports and commit to reviewing reports from other facilitators.

A bit from Tomas

Some time in the summer of 2005 I had the most important epiphany of my professional career. The end result was this book: Wireless Networking in the Developing World. But more important to me than the actual book (which was pretty cool, and very important), was the model through which it was written. Based on the idea of a code sprint, and a result of constraints on my time, and the time of every smart person I knew, the model was called Book Sprint. The thinking went something like this:

I knew, after 5 years of teaching wireless in the developing world, and numerous attempts at producing training materials on the topic, that the topic needed a book, almost as much as I needed a book to replace the far-too-frequent workshops requiring me to travel halfway across the world. No more “reusable” powerpoint decks, train-the-trainer-training-materials or other such schemes. A good old-fashioned book, a coherent block of information aimed at getting people started with wireless networking, and targetted squarely at those places where such information was hardest to get, namely the developing world. Oh, and a chunk of text that would preferably (and unlike a wiki) remain stable enough over time that translating it into peoples native languages became feasible. And I shouldn’t forget that unlike almost everything that had already been published in the field, i knew in my heart that this had to be published under a free license, with no limitations on use, especially not on commercial use. Because i wanted people to be able to translate the book, sell the translated copies to reclaim their outlay and not be in violation of the license. Distribution was and is far more important than protecting my rights.

I also knew that there was no way i was going to be able to spend all my evenings for a year writing such a boo even if i wanted to. Which i didn’t. And i had a feeling that while i’d collected a network of incredibly smart people, with boundless experience in this field, everyone else felt mostly the same as me when it came to evenings and years. But I also knew that i could convince almost anyone of these incredibly smart people to give away a week of their time to such as good cause. So there were the constraints. Have: One week of time each from a bunch of smart people. Need: Finished book.

Solution: The Book Sprint

So I found enough funding to pay for a stack of plane tickets, and to pay some friends of friends to go on vacation so we could promptly squat in their flat. And in September 2005 I gathered some of these smart people for a week, during our annual wireless meeting (which happened to be named WSFII and be held at the Limehouse Town Hall in London that year), and we talked.

Honestly, at the time, i couldn’t even dream of being able to write a book in a week, so the original plan was to flesh out all the details, the outline, the scope and the content of each chapter, then hand out assignments go home. Then, hopefully, everyone would finish their assignments within a month or so, and we could assemble a book from it. We more or less did exactly that. Thanks to a monstrous effort from especially the books editor Rob Flickenger, we actually managed to get a first edition out the door within 3 months or so. Professionally edited, laid out and illustrated, and frankly it was and is an amazing resource.

Since that fateful week the book has been released in a 2nd and 3rd edition and translated into 6 languages. Oh, and it’s been downloaded more times than i care to understand why. At least half a million times across all languages. Amazing.

Well, I pretty much pulled out of this adventure after the 1st edition. Reality got the better of me, and I ended up with a series of different jobs that weren’t half as exciting as publishing books, but paid a hell of a lot more. But ever since that week, I’ve been watching WNDW be released in ever newer editions, come out in more and more languages, and beat every single wildly optimistic estimate for how many people would actually download such a book. And I’ve been thinking and thinking about sustainable models for using the Book Sprint model to produce more books. For more people.

And part way through that journey, last december (2007) I met Adam Hyde from FLOSS Manuals (http://flossmanuals.net/) at an event in Zagreb. He built and manages a pretty cool website, focused on producing documentation for Free and Open Source Software. It’s a platform for collaborative authoring and publishing. So I told Adam about the Book Sprint (well I told everyone at the event in zagreb, since that was why i’d been invited), and with his experience building tools and producing documentation, he immediately understood the idea. And improved it.

In the 10 months or so that have passed, Adam has used the Book Sprint model in a more radical form to produce excellent documentation for Inkscape, and for the Sugar User Interface of the One Laptop Per Child System.

So while Adam and I kept in touch about these things, he had his projects, and i had mine, and since my angle is Technology for the Developing World and his is Documentation fro Free Software, our main overlap was the Book Sprint model and what it meant to both of us.

Well, last week, I had the pleasure of collaborating with Adam on a Book that overlaps our areas of interest. Adam was running a project to write a book on Bypassing Internet Censorship, and between october 9th and october 15th I had the distinct pleasure of being one cog in the wheel of 8 people that produced this, and this.

Adam has managed to speed up the process and go from nothing to finished, published and printable book in 1 week. Extreme Book Sprinting. And it works.

This last weeks experience has reinforced in me how powerful the Book Sprint model is, and how badly i want to be involved in taking it further. Adam and I will keep talking about future collaboration, and I’m excited about that.

cheers

Tomas
Proud co-inventor of the Book Sprint