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A Book Sprint as a concurrent editorial process

Producing books collaboratively and rapidly by concurrent writing, editing, and producing processes.

Published onNov 15, 2022
A Book Sprint as a concurrent editorial process
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The Book Sprints method facilitates collaborative content production. A group of experts is guided by a facilitator to write, edit, and produce a book in five days. The strength of the method is the focus on collaboration. It allows the contributors to combine their different research approaches and experiences into a cohesive work. The outcome is not a collection of articles, but a co-authored book with a streamlined reader journey.

Most books and articles are produced collaboratively. The relatively recent concept of the author as a unitary figure has been called into question by researchers such as literature and law studies professor Martha Woodmansee (1997). Woodmansee describes how the practices of writing have historically been collaborative and not isolated. In contemporary writing practices, writers, colleagues, editors, peer reviewers, and publishers are usually involved in different stages. These stages form a sequential order of tasks: from writing, to reviewing and editing, to designing, and publishing. In practice, the process is often less sequential, with the publication being handed back and forth repeatedly. The Book Sprints method rethinks these tasks as a concurrent workflow. Workflow concurrency is the ability to perform multiple tasks by different people upon the work at the same time. During a Book Sprint the stages of conceptualizing, structuring, drafting, and editing content are iterative and overlapping.

Adam Hyde designed the Book Sprints method for a focused five-day process, building on a project idea initiated by Tomas Krag (Hyde 2010, Keane 2012, Zennaro et al. 2007). Hyde then built an organization of facilitators, copy-editors, illustrators, and book designers which refined the method in several hundred Book Sprints in different sectors: Open source and commercial software manuals (Hyde 2010, Keane 2012), Open Educational Resources and textbooks (Barker et al. 2013, Green 2016), research papers (European Commission 2014), policy papers, and academic monographs.

To enable the concurrent rapid book production process, the central conditions are:

  • A group of contributors sharing their expertise to co-create knowledge;

  • A facilitation method to coordinate their collaboration;

  • Technology that enables different people to do multiple tasks on a single source at the same time.

A group of contributors to co-create knowledge

Typically, the organizer of a Book Sprint invites a group of experts to participate based on their knowledge and experience, to cover the broadness and depth of perspectives that the book topic requires. During a Book Sprint there is little time for research or literature review, therefore the group’s shared knowledge is the basis for the book’s content. To achieve the desired outcome in a short time, each contributor is encouraged to bring a high level of commitment, focus, and productivity. At the beginning of the process, the group defines a common goal, creates a shared mental model, and builds trust in each other to openly share their knowledge and become co-authors of one shared narrative. This also requires navigating questions of power dynamics, inequalities, and exclusion. While power dynamics cannot be offset, they can be mediated by the facilitator introducing principles of shared decision-making, and including multiple voices in one narrative. Once the contributors trust that they work towards a shared goal, and that their individual contributions are valued, they can adopt a workflow of rapid and iterative drafting and reviewing.

A facilitator to manage the collaboration

A facilitator takes the central place within the group of writers, editors, designers, and publishers. “The facilitator is a member of the group but does not take part in actual writing dynamics, therefore he or she does not contribute to the content of the book. He or she creates an enabling environment in which the group can collaborate creatively and purposefully” (Baker et al. p 10) The facilitator guides the writers from the first concept to a clear objective, a book structure, first drafts, iterative revisions, and a final text. Once the writers agree on the overall goal, they start drafting different sections of the book simultaneously, while checking in with each other about the direction each section is taking. The facilitator encourages the writers to pass their first drafts on to others to edit and elaborate. The facilitator guides discussions on questions and disagreements that come up during the drafting, and decisions are made within the group. When conversations lose momentum, when participants circle back on decisions already taken, the facilitator moves the group towards the next step. The facilitator also leverages the writers’ different skills, accommodates different personalities and work styles, and ensures that the contributions are constructive and the group remains productive. Sometimes this means carefully mediating potential and real conflict. By the end, each section has been drafted, reviewed, and edited by most if not all of the experts in the group.

Within the timeframe of five days, time and task management are central. Time boxing, in other words, allocating a fixed time period to a set of tasks, is a tool to heighten focus and productivity that has been tested and used in software development (e.g. Scrum). The facilitator delegates tasks and keeps track of time, so that the writers are able to focus on the text in front of them. The facilitator coordinates the workflow between the writers and a remote Book Sprint production team that proofreads, illustrates and designs the book. The writers continuously give feedback on the updates by the proofreaders, illustrators, and book designers. The remote production team works around the clock on the publication to make it ready for dissemination immediately after the sprint.

Technology to enable concurrency

The work environment supports concurrent collaboration through the tools used for writing, editing, design, and production. Tools like Mural or Miro allow a group to visualize their brainstorming and decision-making. Designers and writers can collaborate in real-time in online graphic design tools like Figma. All contributors work together on one current version of the text using online platforms such as Etherpads, Google Docs, or Ketida. The latest online publishing platforms support collaborative writing, editing, and book production and create instantaneously layouted and designed print files and ebooks (Dean 2018). Ketida stands out because it was co-created by the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation, their community members, and academic publishers to support concurrency and to meet the needs of the community. Working online in a single platform overcomes the traditional processes where writers, editors, designers, and publishers send documents back and forth, often having to convert them into different file formats like MS Word and InDesign. Hyde (2021) describes that to enable concurrency, all contributors need access to a single source. In a single source, writers can draft and edit different sections or chapters, while proofreaders clean up other sections, illustrators add images, and book designers work on the layout, all simultaneously. The technology enables concurrency, but it needs good facilitation to support these complex concurrent workflows and collaboration.

Book Sprints across different contexts

The Book Sprints method has been applied to different contexts and genres of nonfiction writing, such as academic monographs, textbooks, and industry handbooks. It is an opportunity for interdisciplinary groups to treat a topic from different perspectives, and to collaborate across hierarchical positions. The process has been helpful to define a direction at the onset of a new project phase, and to write up the results at the end of a collaborative research project. The method is possibly less suitable for building a singular argument which may require a long period of research and introspection. It does work well for another specific genre, textbooks. These are often bound to a curriculum and need to cover a broad field, which requires a big group of experts who can draw on pre-existing OER materials to cover all subfields. Lastly, non-academic groups, for example in international organizations, use the Book Sprints method to write handbooks, workshop materials, and policy papers. The four examples below show some specificities of each Book Sprint:

Open Knowledge Institutions: Reinventing Universities

The book ‘Open Knowledge Institutions: Reinventing Universities’ was written by a dozen writers, including research professors, open knowledge advocates, science communicators, publishers, university administrators, and librarians. It was made available to a wider community for review and editing on PubPub, and then published by MIT Press. The process delivered more than they initially expected, say Cameron Neylon and Lucy Montgomery, who organized the Book Sprint at Curtin University.1 When they planned the Book Sprint in a project proposal, they saw it as a kick-off meeting for a new project, to engage a new group of people. The experience of building an argument for this issue together coalesced the group. “It is a very good way to get to some kind of consensus point very quickly,” said Lucy Montgomery. “The fact that everyone has to agree to put their name on the book is powerful and so is the fact that they have to agree to commit to work on this topic for a week. With this Sprint we were able to create a community and buy-in around the topic very quickly.” In the end, the book served as a manifesto and the process created a group that continues working and advocating together many years later.

Technoprecarious

The book “Technoprecarious” was written by the interdisciplinary research group “Precarity Lab” at MIT. The book was published with Penguin/Random house. Ten writers from a range of academic disciplines – from anthropology to performance studies – came together to write about the human price of digital capitalism in today’s world. They compiled their research on a world where the promise of technology to empower, connect and liberate has failed for many. Faith Bosworth, who facilitated the Book Sprint, remembers the group’s unique collaboration: “Both senior and junior researchers worked together on this book, and their hierarchy could have been inhibiting collaboration. However, in this case it was really empowering for the more junior researchers, they got a lot of opportunities after the book, after publishing alongside big names. It’s a great example of how established people help the younger ones through collaboration.” Organizer and author, Lisa Nakamura, Professor and Director of Digital Studies at the University of Michigan, said: “One thing I really appreciated from the process is that everybody had an equal voice. One participant mentioned he couldn’t tell which ones were his ideas or someone else’s, which is great because then you can really say they are all co-authors.”2

Anatomy and Physiology I & II - OER Textbooks

Ten faculty members from across the Hawaiian islands came together to exchange how they teach anatomy and physiology, and what specific needs their students have. The need was to have accessible learning materials that take down the complexity of very technical knowledge, but also weave it into the local Hawaiian context, to make it more meaningful for the students. The faculty members exchanged the learning resources they had compiled over the years, and aligned the different curricula and learning objectives from their different institutions and courses. There was a lot of content to cover, and the pressure on the authors was high.To meet the goal, the writers remixed and updated some existing materials and wrote plenty of new content. The textbook was published in Pressbooks.

Hindawi Journal Development Handbook

Fifteen colleagues from the Hindawi Journal development team came together for five days to write a handbook for new colleagues, and for colleagues from different departments who are curious about what the other departments do, and for their partners in the publishing world. The handbook describes their internal workflows, their tasks and roles, what each team does, the technology they developed, and their specific approach to Open Access publishing. While most of them came together in the London office, some of them joined remotely in a hybrid group process. Working in small groups across their usual teams, they learned from each other, edited each other, and broke down jargon. The Book Sprints remote team made the illustrations and produced a web PDF, print PDF, and a book website during the same five days, ready to be presented at a team meeting in the week after.

In conclusion

The rapid content production of Book Sprints is useful to publishing timely topics in a short amount of time. The real strength of the method, however, is in the collaboration. The 5-day process does not replace the years of research and introspection that a writer may go through for a PhD thesis, for example. Instead, the writers build on their previous research and experience to construct a work that goes beyond the individual contributions. Through the iterative writing and editing process, arguments emerge and take shape. Working concurrently, the group of experts exchanges their knowledge, generates new hypotheses, finds ways of presenting these to a readership, and sees the resulting publication design immediately.

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