Booksprints: Notes from #dev8ed session on authoring books in a short time

For a while at JISC CETIS we’ve been keeping an eye on an open source platform called Booktype designed to help in the creation of books from print and electronic distribution in a range of formats.
As part of this weeks Dev8Ed Adam Hyde, who is the project lead on Booktype, gave an overview of the project highlighting some of the technical wizardry. Kirsty Pitkin has posted an overview on the session here. Because Dev8Ed was an ‘unconference event’ there was an opportunity for Adam to put one of his other hats on and talk about Booksprints.

A Book Sprint brings together a group to produce a book in 3-5 days. 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 via print-on-demand services and e-book formats. –

You can read more about book sprints from the official site, but I thought it was worth sharing some of my notes and reflections on Adam’s session.

Who is already book sprinting?

Book sprints are already widely used by FLOSS Manuals, a community project to produce manuals for free and open source software.

Creating the right environment

Adam stressed that people should meet in a ‘real space’ for the duration of the sprint which is usually 3-5 days. The space is usually a shared house where people can work, sleep, prepare food and eat. As well as the physical space, mental preparation is designed to be light. Avoiding traditional publications models as a mindset appears to be key, also Adam mentioned that pre-preparing a structure can make the processes harder as more time is spent explaining this to team members than just collaboratively working on it in the first day. Something Adam also mentioned was that for each day you should start work at 9, finish at 5.


Table of contents (sometimes takes longer)Start with review, show text, discussInteractive process discuss, write move own. Switching roles (proof, tidy)Interactive process discuss, write move own. Switching roles (proof, tidy)Finish up layout
+critical point – getting people into the creative flow (finding chapter author key – looking what people are interested in)Interactive process discuss, write move own. Switching roles (proof, tidy)Finish writing new chaptersNo new contentFinish up layout


Picture copyright
Picture copyright Adam Hyde
[License: GNU GPL2]

Above is a rough timetable for a sprint. To elaborate slightly, first morningis spend all working together on a table of contents. Use post-it notes to write areas to cover, grouping, conflicting terms, what’s missing, etc. Get people writing things as quickly as possible. Once this has been drafted the facilitator has a key responsibility in assigning the chapters to the the right people, using cues from the TOC session like people with particular knowledge dealing with a specific chapter. The facilitator has to have a strong hand – doesn’t have to be topic specialist. They need to drive forward production. Chapters don’t have to be done in chronological order, the main thing to to get things rolling. The facilitator should encourage discussion, if someone is struggling with something move them on, but don’t pass partial chapters to other people as it slow things down.  At 5 all stop and relax.
Tuesday starts with a review. Text is shared and discussed. This iterative processes, which includes breaking tasks with switched roles, continues to the Wednesday. On Thursday no new chapters are written and existing work is tidied up. On Friday the focus is finishing and layout.
Adam mentioned one technique for removing structural roadblocks was printing chapters then laying them on the floor, giving people scissors and markers to let them do a manual cut’n’paste job.  In writing this post I found other tips, case studies and material here.
So book sprints look like a great way to get content out. At JISC CETIS we are in the early stages of planning our own book sprint, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to share my personal experiences of some rapid content development. One thing I’m interested to find out is if the technique suits particular disciplines. Do you think a small group of academics could publish a textbook on something like ‘introduction to microbiology’ in 5 days? Is this a way JISC should fund some content?
[Update: Some comment on this on Google+]


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comment 3 comments
  • Sheila MacNeill (@sheilmcn)

    Hi Martin
    Thanks for the summary. It sounds a lot like a number of creative/academic writing “events” for want of a better word. I know a number of colleagues who run/attend writing retreats, which have a similar timetable to what you’ve outlined. The key is to get people together and concentrate on writing and not anything else:-)

    • Martin Hawksey

      Hi Sheila – I agree there’s a lot of overlap with other types of events. Given this particular technique comes from the world of open source software I imagine in this particular example ‘code sprints’ were a source of influence. It’s probably worth remembering that regardless of what you call it, it’s going to take a lot of effort to do.

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