What Happens When Anyone Can Edit Your Book, Online?

John Broughton (Author of an O'Reilly book)
General
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This is a case study of an unusual publishing initiative, something that has never been done before. Some books have been published on-line first, readable and printable for free, and then later sold in hardcopy, but this was different.

Concept

O’Reilly Media, the publisher of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, and the Wikimedia Foundation, the owner of Wikipedia, agreed to post the book on-line, on the Wikipedia website, as fully-editable content. And the book’s author agreed to O’Reilly’s proposal to do this.

  • The Foundation stood to benefit from this because the publicity might get more people interested in editing Wikipedia articles (free, detailed instructions!), and the book’s contents might help current editors get better, as well as interested in doing more
  • O’Reilly (and the author) stood to benefit from on-line, editable version because it might spur sales of the hardcopy book (readers have different preferences for form factors) and because edits of the book might correct errors or improve wording or even add new sections that could be useful in a future version of the book. (Such edits, however, could not be used directly because of copyright issues.) O’Reilly also stood to benefit in general (reputation, possibly increased sales for other books in the Missing Manual Series, etc.).

From XML to wiki markup: technical issues

The book was in XML format when it was published in January 2008. The markup for the MediaWiki software is considerably different. O’Reilly had some experience with converting from one to another, but the existing script for doing so left a lot of things still to be done manually. So some time was spent revising it, and figuring out other ways to do mass changes to avoid manual editing. Page numbering in particular (a hardcopy book has page numbers, while a wiki does not) was particularly problematical.

Publicizing the wiki version of the book

O’Reilly and the Wikimedia Foundation worked out a joint press release. After that, much of the publicity would be within the Wikipedia community. And adding links to existing Wikipedia instructional pages would help editors find the wiki version of the book.

A book open to all for editing: what happened?

To be discussed: The extent of vandalism and other inappropriate changes; the extent to which useful copyediting was done; the extent to which extra content was added; monitoring (or not) of the changes.

Impact on hardcopy book sales

To be discussed: did book sales increase?

John Broughton

Author of an O'Reilly book

My first experience with programming computers was in a 1969 National Science Foundation program. Since then, I’ve held various computer-related management positions in the headquarters of a U.S. Army Reserve division, worked in internal audit departments as a Certified Information Systems Auditor, and was the Campus Y2K Coordinator at U.C. Berkeley. I’m a Certified Management Accountant, and have a B.S. in Mathematical Sciences from Johns Hopkins University; an M.B.A. from Golden Gate University; an M.S. in Education from the University of Southern California; and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of California at Berkeley.

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Comments

John Broughton
03/11/2009 3:16pm EDT

The main point of putting the book at en.wikipedia.org wasn’t to gather new material for the book (though Peter Meyers, of O’Reilly, mentioned that the publisher would be open to incorporating a major addition by someone else into the next version of the book). The main point was to make the resource available freely to the Wikipedia community (editors), who can modify it in ways that they think make it the most useful for that community.

Guy Paddock
03/11/2009 12:50pm EDT

Not the greatest presenter. Also, the author didn’t live by the ideas he seemed he was trying to promote by opening up his book—he mentioned that if anyone made any substantive changes to his book online, he wouldn’t use them. So… what was the point?

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