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Balancing Between Open and Closed Publishing


If there’s one thing technical authors have in common, it’s that they all want to help other people. The question is how to achieve that most effectively. In my previous post I discussed how I have fared with my first effort so far. The results have been mixed. Community response has been amazing in many ways but that hasn’t translated to amazing sales. That said I’m grateful to all that have contributed. In the end sales enable further efforts.

I was likely naive in thinking that having the content freely available while offering a way to purchase a digital copy would work by default. The greatest benefit of this approach has been possible extra visibility (easy to link) and the amount of external contributions. I believe this has improved the quality of the book further than I could have ever achieved alone. Next time around I might have a group of people that are interested in pushing the content straight from the start!

Current Publishing Solutions

As an author you have a couple of options. You can try to pitch your idea to an established publisher. They would take care of the logistics, provide editing and help with the marketing and sales efforts. In return they would take a significant chunk of the profit. Normally you can expect a royalty between 15 and 50 percent per sale depending on the publisher. If you are a tough negotiator you can receive an advance. That will help to fund authoring and will be deduced from potential profits.

Another option is to self-publish. You will take care of the bits a traditional publisher would. In return you receive a larger chunk of the profit but on the downside you have more work ahead of you. Especially as a first time author this will include some additional risk as you have to learn these things. If you don’t have a pre-existing audience you will have to earn it. More established authors have an advantage here.

Self-publishing Approaches

If you choose self-publishing you have some additional alternatives. You can do it the old fashioned way. First you find the potential reader somehow, demonstrate the value and close the sale. This isn’t the only way, though. Making the content freely available makes the sales effort voluntary. You can gain value, consider it zero and move along.

You can also try to compromise between these ends. Having some of the content available may encourage the potential reader to purchase the rest. You can also refine the content into different formats (audio/video) and aim to produce most of the income through that. A book can give you certain amount of prestige and lead to consulting opportunities.

The biggest benefit of having the content freely available is that it becomes easy to share it. It won’t feel like selling. You can gently point towards your content without feeling too bad. Your readers can contribute directly without having to go through an errata process. Business-wise the problem is that you are relying on generosity.

If you want something equivalent to an advance, there are a couple of alternatives. Platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo have become popular. Essentially they provide one way to receive pre-sales and validate the concept. Platforms such as Patreon allow you to receive donations that can contribute towards your efforts. Feasibility of these depends upon your legislation.

To measure potential interest before moving on with your idea you can set up a light landing page. There are services such as Launchrock that will allow you to set up one easily. You can start gathering emails of the interested readers and begin to build your audience. I went the hard way and build a site of my own but that doesn’t mean you have to.

An Alternative Self-publishing Approach

Given it is not possible for me to leverage donations or crowdfunding without potential trouble I started thinking about alternatives. It seems to me it should be possible to merge some of the best features of both open and closed approaches.

I like how open approach fosters contribution. It is encouraging and helps you to refine your content better faster. The problem is that it is difficult to demonstrate value and convert that into sales. The closed approach doesn’t have that problem but contributing won’t be as easy. In addition linking to content isn’t going to work by definition.

What if it was possible to take a bit of open, a bit of closed and a bit of Kickstarter, mix it together and end up with something that works for both authors and readers? I imagine it could work as a graduation process:

  1. A book idea is identified based on community demand. You as an author pick it up, perform further market study on it and decide to proceed based on that.
  2. The book will get started in a closed incubator (private GitHub repository for instance) and pre-sales begin. Early adopters will receive access to the content and will be able to contribute towards development of the book.
  3. After a predefined sales threshold is reached (Kickstarter bit) the book content will become available to the public. To make sure book content becomes open despite the sales, a time limit (a year or two?) can be set after which it will become open.

The idea is that by starting closed you provide incentive for early adopters to buy due to exclusivity. Just being able to contribute towards the development of the book can be a good incentive. You will still get contributions just like in an open model. This requires a certain level of trust, however. What if someone forks the content and runs with it?

The Kickstarter bit is there to push community towards a common goal. Open content is valuable as it will allow people to access knowledge regardless of their income. It is a shame to see old books become forgotten due to long copyright terms. The time limit is a way to work against this.

Too often good technical books become obsolete in a blink. Having them maintained by the community that uses them actively seems like a good idea to me. After all this is the way open source has proven to work.


Perhaps hitting some kind of a balance between open and closed ways of publishing would pave way for more technical authors. In addition it should help in keeping the content fresh. That is a problem that plagues technical books in particular. Technology tends to be a moving target and having books with better longevity isn’t a bad goal.

I believe an alternative model such as this could help to alleviate some of the risks involved. I am certain there are problems I am overlooking. But based on what I’ve seen perhaps it could work. What do you think?