Thursday, January 08, 2009

Editor Interview: Talking about Open Content with O'Reilly's Mike Loukides

With a recent string of interviews with authors working on (open) books for O'Reilly, I wanted to see what the folks inside O'Reilly had to say about this trend. Mike Loukides (@mikeloukides) was good enough to answer my questions in a short interview. There's some great stuff in here whether you're an aspiring author, interested in open content, or how thinking conversations (in the web 2.0 sense) impact book marketing. Read on to see what Mike had to say.


Mike, it looks like you guys are riding a string of Creative Commons books either out or in the pipeline (Real World Haskell, Relax with CouchDB, and Ruby Best Practices). Historically, you've done a number of other open/free books as well. I'd like to pick your brains a bit about your willingness to head down this road.

Noah Slater told me "Our editor told us a surprising rule of thumb, that releasing a good book under a free license makes it sell more copies, and releasing a bad book under a free license makes it sell less copies." Why do you think this is?

Mike First: I'm not trying to back down from what I told Noah, because that is what I tell authors. But there's no hard data, and very little soft data: it's just our sense of what happens. It would be next to impossible to do a controlled experiment.

And I do want to correct one thing. I don't think in terms of good books and bad books; I think in terms of successful and unsuccessful. Plenty of good books are unsuccessful. What really drives success is the community that forms around the technology and the book.

That said, the mechanism is fairly simple. If there's a strong, thriving community around the technology—let's say CouchDB, since you're talking to Noah—the free online edition of the book will increase buzz, and make more people aware of the print book. A lot of people will download the online book, and decide they want the print book.

On the other hand, if the community around the technology is small, isn't thriving for one reason or another, etc., the existence of a free version will soak up what limited demand exists.

So I think free licenses for books is an intensifier: if a book is going to succeed, a free license will make it more successful. If it's going to fail, a free license will make it fail worse.

In the same vein, what can prospective authors do to make sure the open book they want to write is a good book? What makes the proposal stand out and say "I'd be a winner under a free license!"?

Mike Although I have a fair amount of ego tied up in making sure the book itself is as good as possible, I think in the long run it's only partially about the book. It's really about the technology and the community. If a community is growing, and people are excited, a good book will be successful (free license or not).

That said, there is an awful lot that authors can do to make their book more successful. None of this is magic: blogs, trade show talks, tutorials, all of that. A free online version of the book gives you a few more tools to play with. The authors of our Haskell book have done an excellent job of motivating the Haskell community.

As far as the book itself: readers want practical books. Readers want books that help them to solve the problem. If Noah and the other CouchDB authors had wanted to write a couple hundred pages explaining the principles behind CouchDB, non-relational databases, REST, and so on, without a single line of working code, it would be a disaster. I do get lots of proposals like this. They're generally disguised as "books targeted at management".

That's not to say that I'd turn down more abstract books on topics like software engineering. But I also think the case for writing that kind of a book with a free license isn't as strong. Would Martin Fowler's Refactoring or Kent Beck's Test Driven Development have been more successful if there was a version with an open source license? Possibly, but I don't think it's as clear a case.

O'Reilly seems to embrace open, flowing communication. You've got active bloggers, you work closely with User Groups, and you seem to have jumped on Twitter in a big way. How does this willingness to have conversations with your customers change the way you bring books to market?

Mike That's probably a better question for someone in Marketing.

But yes, all of these things give us more tools to work with. It certainly helps to get people talking about a book early on, it certainly helps to get people motivated and excited so that they want to read the book. And with some books, like the Haskell book, we got huge amounts of technical feedback from the public. That was a real help in making it a great book.

Other than technology titles, what other genres do you think would benefit from more openess (license, development, and conversational)?

Mike That's a really interesting question. One thing I like to point out is that we almost lost Shakespeare's entire works because there was no such thing as copyright protection in the 17th century. Plays were trade secrets, and the few plays that were published were generally published in unauthorized editions: several years after the fact, a few actors sat around a table and tried to remember the lines.

At the same time, I think the DMCA was a ridiculous intellectual property land grab. Music has always thrived on artists ripping off bits and pieces from each other: that's really central to how musical creativity works. But in the current climate it's entirely too easy to write a song and end up being sued because it's similar to some song that was published 5 years ago and happened to be buried in your subconscious. (Part of the problem in music, I think, is that you're dealing with relatively short sequences taken from a relatively limited repetoire—24 notes in a typical singer's range, 88 notes on a piano keyboard.)

It's worth noting that Noel Paul Stookey, from Peter, Paul, and Mary, started something equivalent to the FSF back in the late 70s. So free licensing didn't start with RMS and the GPL. (I'm trying to look up info on what Paul did back then, but I can't find it now. If you dig into this and find anything, I'd appreciate a link. I don't think he got very far with it. But in 78, I don't think it was needed the way it is now.)

Sticking with books: I think anywhere you can build a book out of a conversation, you'll do well. We've got some interesting experiments coming out: 97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know (Feb.) was built on a wiki, with contributions from roughly 40 software architects. We had the book about halfway done, with contributions from a couple dozen architects, and then opened it to the public. The response was great.

So, if you start from a conversation, almost anything is possible. There's a sense in which all the design patterns books are really about conversations. So can I see freely licensed books in fields like software engineering? Definitely. Can I see it in science? It runs against the way scientific institutions currently work, but open, collaborative science—doing science in public, on a wiki, as it were—was discussed a lot at our last SciFOO camp, and you should have seen how excited people were. Science changes a lot when it becomes more open and less tied to traditional publishing institutions.

1 comment:

sdsantos said...

The interview is great. You should try a make a longer interview/conversation.

The idea of free distribution working like an intensifier seems plausible. It's out on the open, it will have more feedback and be more affected by it.