Arie Altena

Book Sprinting with Adam Hyde

Arie Altena


This text was published in 2012 on the website of V2_: on occasion of a 'book sprint' at V2_.


Adam Hyde is the man behind the Floss manuals, Booktype and the so-called book sprints. This week he is at V2_, facilitating the book sprint which is producing the book Fiddling While Rome Burns. We grabbed him for a quarter of an hour after lunch to ask him a few questions.

What is a book sprint?

A book sprint is a very intensive collaborative process of creating a book in two to five days. Generally it happens in real space, bringing five tot ten people around the table. Together they work out the scope of the book within a few hours, and then produce that book, writing it, illustrating it, designing, and outputting it at the end of the process to POD-services online, for epub, or MOBI or whatever you want. There are two ‘secret’ sources to this process. One is that you have to have very strong facilitation, you need somebody who can manage the social processes, and who can also handle the production processes. Because the book sprint is about having fun – that is the only way you can do these things – but it is also about producing. You have a finite, very short amount of time to do something, so you need somebody who can really push the team along that path. The other ‘secret’ is to have a software that can facilitate this kind of collaboration. There are not so many softwares out there that can do this. In fact there is only one and it is called "Booktype". It wasn’t designed for book sprints, but it was designed alongside book sprints, so it naturally facilitates the process. The book sprint process is tremendous fun and also incredible productive.

What is exactly your role as a facilitator?

It is very much about social facilitation. A lot of the strategies are taken from traditional social facilitation processes. Many were evolved from unconferences, specifically from watching Allan Gunn, from Aspiration Technologies, who is a very good unconference facilitator. I have been to many of his unconferences, and it was after meeting a friend of his that I realized there was an opportunity to apply these strategies to rapid book production. I derived a lot of the ideas and social methodologies for book sprints from unconferences. Things like being able to moderate conflict, make everyone feel at ease, being able to make everyone feel that this job is not impossible, and at the same time keeping them nervous enough that they are really going to work. Also giving them the mandate so that they feel that this is their book, that they can claim emotional ownership of it, and that even if they are not 100% sure they can do it, they are assured by the confidence that I have that it can be done. Even if sometimes I am also unsure. So part of the facilitation is conflict management, part is interpersonal, but there is also the part where I have to be the whip driver, where I have to say: “look, I am really sorry, you have to stop talking now, and finish this in half an hour.” You just have to say what is necessary, and be straightforward about it, to anybody. You have to say this to people who have a tremendous amount of power within their peer group. But  it’s not going to work, unless you do that.

Do you keep out of the discussion about content?

I try to. There are times when you have to inject yourself in a content discussion, but you have to be very careful. There are times when you see the group is getting lost and the energy is dissipating. As a facilitator you know the moments where the energy was high, and you might not understand the context or the scope of the subject they are working on, you can identify that that was a moment that was resonating with everybody. So you have to cling onto that possibly superficial understanding of such a moment and reintroduce that to the group. “Earlier you were talking about these aspects, and those consequences, this is something that everyone seemed to respond to, what do you think about that?” Doing so seems pretty daunting, but you just have to stay with it. I think that at the end of the day you have to take all of the lofty talk and nail it to the table.

This book sprint is about the New Aesthetics, is that something that interests you?

I find it interesting, but I did not know about it beforehand, apart from that Michelle Kasprzak had said something about it. As a facilitator you cannot be an expert on all topics – actually that turns out to be a strength. Where you inject your own opinions you run the risk of undermining other peoples confidence. As a facilitator you are driving the process not the content.

How does a book sprint compare to the traditional more linear bookproduction? How for instance do you deal with final editing?

A book sprint is not a linear process, it is a very concurrent process. Traditional bookproduction had a linear workflow: concept, writing, proofing, editing. What tends to happen when you are working with several people under intense time constraints, is that you become more granular on the content. Content will go through that lineage from concept to proofing, but at one paragraph at a time, or half a chapter at a time, and it will go through it several times. In a book sprint there is never permission needed to change anything.  There is fluid collaboration, but people do open up to the conversation in this way. The facilitator encourages the collaborators to discuss what they have written. The content evolves like that, but so is the editing and the proofing. It is all part of an organic flow. Generally the last 10% or 20%  of the book sprint is reserved for cleaning up the text. For instance in a five day book sprint on a wednesday no new chapters are added, on a thursday no new content is added, and friday is then for the clean-up.

Are there historical precedent to this type of bookproduction that inform the booksprint?

The book sprint is not without context, but it evolved more or less unconscious of a context. If I had come from a linear job newspaper job, I would probably have drawn some stuff out of there. If I had come from a an academic background I would have probably drawn on their methodologies. The book sprint definitely has historical precedents, even in publishing you have development editing. But they were born out of a naivety, because when they started it was more a question of what do we need than of where do we come from. It is the same for open source code development. A lot of people have made comparisons with agile development (a method in software development), and also with code sprints. I have been for a long time involved with that sector, but I never organized nor facilitated code sprints, I knew them as an idea. I was also quite naive to those processes. It was only once the idea of a book sprint came up and was iterated once or twice, that i realized there were other contexts.  But I find  those previous strategies very fascinating and now I can take from it and build on it.

What is the exact goal for this book sprint?

I think the idea is to go for an epub. Booktype can generate an epub or MOBI in a matter of minutes, the same for book-formatted PDF. For a POD-book you’d also need a cover. So I think that part will come after thursday.

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Arie Altena