May 26, 2009

FLOSS Manuals: Changing the Publishing World One Book at a Time.

Update: Checkout the SUMO blog for more information on the upcoming Firefox Book Sprint on Thursday.

Millions of people have ideas for book they would like to write. Many of those people hold out the hope that some day they will get the time, write this book, become famous, and become rich.

It's too bad that all of these things need to come together to make interesting books happen more often. Anyone that ever been involved in the publishing of a book will also tell you that fame and fortune from books are pipe dreams, especially with any book related to software. Software is just two much of a moving target to keep in sync between the software and the book. Even fast track books take 6-9 months to make it though a publishing cycle, and in 9 months any piece of good software has evolved way beyond the book.

The FLOSS Manuals Project wants to change all by bringing open source concepts to publishing. They are engaged in building a platform and community designed to get interesting books published and do it on faster cycles. I recently had a chance to participate in a FLOSS Manual Book Sprint as they worked on a Firefox Manual

The basic process used on the FLOSS Manual project are to:

* Host a number of "Book Sprint" Events to create content and books that can be shared, re-mixed and used by users of open source software.

* Prior to the Book Sprint pull together an outline of what the book will be about and who the target audience will be.

* Create an environment of open participation and bring a set of passionate people together to create the book within a sprint event. Participants include subject matter experts, professional writers, editors, graphics and information designers, and anyone that also just wants to dig in and help out.

* Give the participants some good web-based editing tools to create and organize structured content. The system has a wiki like interface and CMS, and some tools for outlining, organizing, and remixing chapters.

* Get people to 'sign up' to work on a chapter. Throw a few ideas into the chapter, brainstorm a bit more with the live sprint participants and kick ideas around with remote participants over irc. Then start grinding away at writing and refining and improving the ideas and content of each chapter.

* Get a lot of people working in parallel and contributing where they can best apply their skills and knowledge.

* When the content has been created, and the authors think "its good enough" someone pushes a button and the book is published and released.

* The FLOSS Manuals system uses a modified twiki installation and adds a publishing backend that produces publishing quality PDFs that can be downloaded and printed free, or purchased off

The turn around time for this kind of publishing is minutes instead of months and years. The benefits from all this are clear. Updating becomes a lot easier and faster. The content is licensed to be open and be reusable and remixible both within the FLOSS Manuals project and elsewhere.

The community FLOSS Manuals is organizing and systems they are building allows a lot of great participation and fast interaction.

I got a chance to participate in one of the FLOSS Manuals "Booksprints" a few months ago and it was an amazing experience. Here we are getting our feet wet and cranking away on the first day, with twenty more people pitching in remotely.

The pace of the content development and improvement sometimes gets whipped into a frenzy and at the end of the two days I think most of us were "spent" ;-) At the end of the second day we finally to a break toasted to all the participants and their contributions.

In the end, an entirely new set of participants to the Mozilla project produced a 110 page Firefox Manual reworking and refining information from SUMO into book format, and creating entirely new content in just two days. There are some great chapters on how to use Firefox that came out of this. shows the amazing number of participates that contributed and are still working on the book.

*What's Ahead for the Firefox Book?*

David Tenser is making a pass though the book to remove redundancy between chapters improve the continuity. This is the one part of the floss manual process that still needs a bit of work. It's hard to do with so much work going on in parallel with so many participants. A short baking period is needed at the end of a software development process, and the new floss manual development process would benefit from including this baking period where everyone steps back, checks what has been produced, and then publishing or the "release" happens. Its hard to do that in a two day sprint, but 3-5 day sprints could include this.

On Thursday this week David is also organizing a mini-sprint to get more people involved in this clean up work. Check out David's blog for more details on this event.

Beyond that it would be great for more Mozilla contributors to get involved with this book and refine it further. All it takes is a visit to the FLOSS Manual site, registration to become a participant, then hit the [write] button and start pitching in by editing the content or adding ideas to the 'talk' page.

Its likely that we will try and schedule another organized sprint to update the book for Firefox 3.5 when that release gets closer. The FLOSS Manuals system also allows for translation of text into a variety of supported languages. It would be great for localization teams could start to look at the system to figure out how useful it might be to get the Firefox Manual produced in more languages. has information on the localization system used by FLOSS Manuals.

There are amazing stories that we need to tell about the mozilla technology, its people and communities, and the way we are organized. Books and the FLOSS Manual book sprint process could be a great way to pull those stories together with open participation and collaboration. If you have an idea for a great book talk to David and I and lets explore how we might be able to work with the FLOSS Manuals community to make that happen.

Posted by chofmann at May 26, 2009 8:06 PM