How to Book Sprint, in Sixteen Steps

by Lambert Heller & Helene Brinken

This February, we ran the five-day book sprint at TIB which resulted in the Open Science Training Handbook, a 300,000-characters knowledge resource which by now received a lot of appreciation, ranging from its use in FOSTER’s own Open Science Trainer Bootcamps to a number of ongoing translation projects. We as the two facilitators of that book sprint consider this mostly a success for the community of Open Science trainers, which would not have been possible without the fourteen dedicated, experienced Open Science trainers from ten countries, who volunteered as authors for this project. But at the same time, we see it as an interesting example of applying book sprints as a method. In the spirit of sharing and co-developing book sprints as an open method, we are happy to share our experiences in the most book-sprinty kind of blog article we could imagine: As a structured and practice oriented recipe on how to do book sprints, which is itself openly licensed, and open for comments.

A. Create the right setting

  1. Involve two book sprint facilitators in planning and executing of the event.
    Book facilitator’s role is to free up the authors: The authors should be allowed to focus solely on content creation, starting from day one of the sprint event. To run a book sprint means handling challenges on multiple levels for multiples days: group dynamics of your authors; growth and management of the book content itself; and  influences and interactions with the surrounding. (We’ll touch on all of these in a minute.) It can be extremely helpful to share this responsibility, therefore, better have two facilitators. Also, in order to help book sprints to develop and to spread as an open method, you should have one facilitator who’s already experienced with book sprints, while it’s enough for the other to be interested in learning the method.
  2. Don’t spend to much time selecting or preparing tools and technologies for your book sprint.
    Mostly, you should make sure that your tooling is not getting in the way of continuous, collaborative writing, that is accessible from the first day by your most technology-adverse authors. Therefore, consider Google Docs, or if you (understandably so) have concerns about ownership / openness of using such a vendor, have a look at tools like FidusWriter, Wikibooks, or an Etherpad like CryptPad.
  3. Make sure to offer your authors a quiet, comfortable shared environment that allows them to focus on content creation. 
    One large room or (better) two rooms work well, this is how the authors are free to choose how they organise themselves. Some might prefer a quiet place, while others might need some proper group discussion. Also, it’s nice to have light foods and drinks at the place, plus tools that help to visualize content and structure, like e.g., some whiteboards, pens, and paper. Essentially, just make sure the authors feel comfortable to stay at that place, together, most of the time during the whole sprint.

B. Invite the right authors

  1. You want a group of authors to write a certain book: Tell the world in only one sentence what this book will be about, including its main audience and intended impact for / with that audience.
    Book Sprints are a method to get the work done of writing practice-oriented books. Authors of such books are people knowledgeable about that specific practice. Your book’s potential readers users are those interested in making a certain change, looking for support by reading that book. Therefore, release your book initiative as early as possible. Don’t restrict yourself to your “family and friends” or the “usual suspects”. Instead, be responsive to input from a broad audience of potential contributors and readers.
  2. Be sure to select authors who are dedicated about spending several days for doing almost nothing else but participating in writing a book, and who are ego-less enough to do this together.
    Compared to all the other steps, this is probably the most important one. Take your time to look for the right people. If you do not know enough people from your own network who definitely fulfill these criteria, don’t hesitate to ask publicly, on all channels available, six months ahead of the event, like we did for our sprint. Many people you don’t know yet could turn out as a potential author of your book. Be sure to be picky about those who apply to volunteer for your sprint. Their strong motivation is key to the sprint’s success.
  3. Don’t invite more that 8-15 authors to your book sprint, and definitely make sure to have a diverse group of authors.
    This is not just about complying with some abstract policy of morals. Having that diversity will help you to synthesize relevant knowledge from different perspectives and backgrounds, and deliver in a way best understandable for a broad, diverse audience.

C. Kick of the actual book sprint event

  1. Target for a minimum viable product (MVP): A book that can be fully understood and used by its intended audience, but which mustn’t be perfect in any dimension.
    Good books are more than the emanation of authors’ genius in 3-5 days. Reviews, corrections, formatting, illustrations, book descriptions and metadata, multi-format design, cover design, index authoring, typesetting, copy editing to a house style, and a range of other contributions that often take place outside of authors writing need their own time and deserve their own credit. Help those people by delivering a MVP which stands on its own feet. (Thanks to Simon Worthington for inspiring conversations on this!) Of course, there are slightly different recipes for running book sprints, focussing more on a comprehensive process orchestrating all necessary contributions within the 3-5 days of the sprint event.
  2. Allow your authors to own their book – collectively, to the fullest extent, and to the result of feeling responsible for it until after finishing the book.
    Authors arrive at the book sprint usually with an attitude somewhat like “okay, you claim this book sprint magic works – now tell me just what I’m supposed to do”, which is perfectly okay. Providing an author guide (even before the sprint event), which outlines the mission and objectives of the book as well as some practical advice for writing, can help the participants to feel prepared. However, when you begin to let the authors collectively outline contents and structure of the book (e.g., by card sorting), you will notice how the notion of a joint responsibility comes up. Support the authors to execute on that!
  3. You know about leading group work, locking up a group’s creative energy, other design practices, or agile methods? Don’t hold back, have everything ready for the sprint, use it when you think it’s helpful — and let your authors write during the rest of the time.
    Three practical examples from the Open Science Training Handbook sprint:

    1. We applied user-centred design methods to set the scope for the book, and to foster a focus on the audience by letting the authors create personas, empathy and journey maps of typical Open Science trainers. The results were briefly presented and stayed with us during the rest of the sprint, pinned to a whiteboard. (Many thanks to OpenCon 2018 for a cool workshop on design thinking.)
    2. We frequently inserted quick “energizers”, in order to have a quick funny and‌/or physical group action before and between longer writing periods. In one of the energizers, Patrick Hochstenbach, who later created the wonderful illustrations for the handbook, asked the audience to come up with a hand drawing of a certain concept related to the books topic, “Open Science Training”, as quickly as they can. This exercise was funny and relaxing, and sharpened authors’ senses for what might need to be illustrated in the book, and how.
    3. Starting around the middle of the sprint, we used a physical Kanban board to assign and keep track of book-related issues of all kind.
  4. Encourage your authors to do the actual writing either alone or in groups of two authors. Encourage mutual reviewing and rewriting every few hours.
    Good writing often takes place alone or in pairs, but periodic mutual enhancement and review make sure that everybody actually acts like being behind the whole book, see the point raised before.

D. Finish your book in 3-5 days

  1. Praise your authors and encourage them to celebrate what they achieved, now and then. But also: Around the middle of the event, encourage them to start deciding on what to throw away, what to reorganize – and how to introduce and summarize the book.
    When drafting the book structure at the beginning, you will plan for more than you can get actually done. Deciding about what you finally try to get finished takes time and energy, as a facilitator you should consider this. When you decide on what to throw away (or stop to enhance upon), you can alternatively also reorganize stuff. Also, your authors will be ready to assign one or two of them to write an introduction or summary, since by now all of you will have a pretty good idea about what the end product will look like!
  2. Encourage your authors to apply a license suited for Free Cultural Works (our favourite: CC-Zero) to all of the content they produce in the sprint.
    Make it as easy as possible to refer to your book, and to use and adapt it for their respective purpose. Don’t expect them to contribute back in return. If ever, this is only likely to happen when you ask people directly to contribute, maybe while engaging with them on the content (e.g., training workshops where your book is used as a learning material.)
  3. Be sure to give anybody credit who contributed to the book in any role and by any means, during and after the sprint.
    Be loud, and be explicit about their respective roles or contributions. Have a look at standards like CASRAI CRediT.
  4. Starting with the last day of the book sprint, make the book available online, and be as inviting to comments, suggestions and contributions from everybody as possible.
    If you have read the steps so far, this step might not need any further explanation!

E. Take care for your author community after the sprint – and help others to start their own sprint next

  1. If possible, ask the facilitators also to shepherd your community of authors and contributors after the sprint.
    Keep up a mailing list, Slack channel or similar, and as a facilitator, tell your authors and contributors about successes (e.g., mentions and responses to your book, and download numbers etc.), ask them for opinions on enhancements, let them know about new and related projects. Ask individual authors for help or contributions when you have good ideas on how to make the book better. (Thanks for coming up with the excellent term “shepherding” in this context, Bianca Kramer!)
  2. Encourage your book sprint facilitators, authors and contributors to publicly share their sprint experience.
    At TIB, we did this early on with our first book sprint, CoScience, in 2014. (In German only.) With the Open Science Training Handbook, we also did this via short videos we took onsite. About both book sprints, we gave a number of short talks on different occasions, e.g., at re:publica 2014 in Berlin, which consequently inspired an number of other book sprints. Ultimately, this will turn out as essential in order to let book sprints develop further as an open method, accessible and owned by everybody who wants to contribute.

Helene Brinken

Project officer of FOSTER Plus and FIT4RRI at the SUB Göttingen

Lambert Heller

A librarian, speaker & consultant working at TIB’s Open Science Lab. Into: Scholarly online practices, decentrailzed Web, and more. @Lambo on Twitter.

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