18 February 2009

The unbook movement

As some of you know I have been keenly interested in a movement, started by Jay Cross, called the unbook. I have gotten some questions about how the unbook differs from a traditional book, so I thought I would answer them here.
The driving forces behind the movement are the acceleration of business change and the inability of traditional publishing to keep up. With new technologies such as print-on-demand and online marketplaces, authors can now publish books, in both electronic and print formats, at the push of a button. The unbook, due to these factors, operates in a fundamentally different way than the traditional book.
A traditional book is released in editions. When a work is revised or updated, a new edition is released. These revised or updated editions usually offer small, incremental changes, such as a new preface or introduction, a new chapter, or small changes to the content.
An unbook is more like software:
1. An unbook is never finished, but rather continually updated, based on feedback from users andtheir evolving needs.
2. An unbook is released in versions. As in open source software, version 1.0 of an unbook is a significant milestone, indicating that it is stable and reliable enough for use by the general public. The significance of a new release is indicated by the size of the gap: For example, the difference between 1.1 and 1.1.3 is minor, while the difference between 1.1 and 2.0 is major.
3. An unbook is supported by a community of users who share their experiences and best practices with each other, and help each other troubleshoot problems encountered in their practice areas. An unbook’s community is a very real part of the unbook’s development team.
I have published an unbook, Marks and Meaning, to catalogue my continuing efforts in the field of visual thinking and information design, and to develop a user community focused on that discipline.
An unbook is mindware: software for the mind: And in the case of Marks and Meaning, my hope and intent is to develop not just software, but an operating system which improves on our current thinking models and makes our minds more useful and usable.
In the same way that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) improved the usability of computing devices, I hope, with your help, to develop a graphical operating system for the mind.
The field of information design is developing so rapidly that I believe an unbook is the only way to do this.
I believe that the unbook form has real potential, especially for emerging disciplines like information design, such as user experience design, agile software development, social media, and knowledge management, as well as established disciplines which are undergoing significant change (finance? government?).
To support these efforts, Jay and I have set up a website to support the unbook movement and provide a comprehensive catalogue of available titles. Please take a moment to visit theunbook.com and leave us a note! And if you are working on an unbook or plan to start one, let us know so we can add it to the uncatalogue.

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Unknown said...

Ok, the unbook seems like a really interesting idea, and as someone who has enjoyed your posts, the prospect of your unbook appeals, but what is your thinking for the future? Especially given that Marks & Meaning is purely print, not PDF, I'm curious what your strategy is for the release of subsequent versions, and what sort of pricing model you envision.

Unknown said...

Hi Rob,

The business model is evolving alongside the content and process, so don't take anything I say here as a promise -- it's subect to change.

However it seems to me that, similar to the software business, a number of business models are possible; everything from freeware that's completely open source, with multiple authors, to something that's completely proprietary and must be paid for.

Right now I'm opting for a hybrid model that's easy to administer.

Buyers of the printed book get access to a user community that includes an email discussion group, some photo sharing and can access all the pages of the book online (as jpegs), as well as comment on the pages.

I am also about to launch a public group blog for that user community, and anyone who has purchased the print book will be invited to join the group blog as an author.

As I publish new versions of the book, readers will have to buy these "upgrades" to the print book in order to access the new content.

At $25 per copy of the book, I don't think it's that much of a stretch to ask people to pay each time. In the end it's the community and a lot of very rich dialogue, as well as the content, that they are paying for.

So far I have found that the caliber of the conversation in the email discussion group is richer and more focused in many ways than the typical online conversation.

I suppose that buying the book demonstrates a certain level of commitment to the ideas and tends to filter out the trolls and some of the other online voices that can sometimes add more friction than value.

I would love to hear any thoughts or suggestions you have on the matter.

Unknown said...

So, I broke down and picked up the book. If nothing else, you deserve credit for improving my stick figures, so I figured that was a fair tradeoff.
Anyway, the issue of pricing and revision is kind of a key one. The idea of tying the book to a community definitely seems like a potential solution, though it raises the question of whether you're selling the book or selling memberships. If the real value is in the community, is that really scalable? I mean, it clearly is to a certain extent - informal book communities are just another way to look at large swathes of fandom - but that seems to invite diminishing returns. There are only so many communities, especially ones with rich content, a person can stay on top of.
But what makes me most curious is your decision to go purely print, rather than also offer an ebook, kindle version or what have you. An electronic publishing model would seem to allow smaller increments of versioning, and would allow you to price things in a manner closer to software. It would not be unreasonable, for example, to have a "Dot revs are free, but a new version requires buying an upgrade" approach. If the upgrade is at a discount you get the added benefit of making your early adopters feel rewarded, but that's something of an aside.
Going purely with print, suggests that the upgrade path will not be particularly granular, or at least I hope it's not: $25 for version 1.0 or 2.0 might be reasonable, but another $25 for 1.01 or 1.2 is hard to swallow. Not that I object to print – viva la dead trees – but it must have been a consideration.
So it comes down to the big question: why did you decide to make that particular tradeoff and stick to print?trat

Unknown said...

Thanks Rob!

I hope you feel that you get what you paid for. There are still a lot of kinks to work out, to be sure.

I suppose I am selling memberships. At the moment there are something like 70 people in the discussion group, sharing a lot of great information and ideas. There's also a private Flickr group where members can look at every page of the printed book online, as well as comment and annotate the pages.

But the biggest reason I stuck to print is that I want people to mark up the book and fill it with their own experiments and drawings. I want them to engage with the content and enter into a true "visual dialogue" with me and the book. And the sad truth is that the interactivity that's possible on the internet still does not come close to the friction-free, intuitive interface of a printed book, where you can underline, circle things, draw stick figures, dog-ear pages, etc.

Unknown said...

Heh. Ok, I admit that's a fantastic reason.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dave,

I do most of my reading as ebooks now. Tools like Skim make reading and annotation easy and I like having the text and my annotations searchable.

Have you considered having a down loadable version or an online 'membership' without a printed copy of the book? I'd be happy to pay the same amount to you as for the printed book and to not pay the shipping ($14.95 to Australia and I noticed it is minimum $5 to USA).

Clark said...

I was curious about the biz model also, and glad Rob took up the fight. I too think it might be electronic, not print, or at least have that as an option. That is, let the reader determine whether to print.

Further, I'd say that .x upgrades ought to be free (at least electronic), but x. upgrades might be a new price (and, like software, upgrading is cheaper than buying initially).

Unknown said...

Good points all. Still playing around with the business model and appreciate all the thoughts I can get.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave, I remember the unbook rom a session at the Delta Centre.

Met a fellow in Toronto the other day who's developing a system called a "Blook Report". He basically brings the examples and and ideas in the book he's reading to life. The first one he's working om is "groundswell":

Eric Wilbanks said...

Dave...love the idea. I just posted a lcomment over at Unbook.com so I wpon't repeat the whole thing here. Suffice to say I think you should really reconsider the name "unbook" because of the confusion it creates. Centuries-old mental models are difficult to re-brand...

Unknown said...

Hi Eric!

I saw your post and tried to answer it. Short version is that I see your point but all the other cool letters (i.e.,) were taken :)

Plus the name wasn't my idea, it was Jay Cross's, and since he coined the term e-learning, who am I to disagree with his coinage?

Unknown said...

Barry, blook's a great word too and pretty closely related to the unbook idea.

Groundswell looks interesting but I wouldn't call it an unbook because continued evolution doesn't appear to be part of its DNA

dave davison said...

The term "Unbook" gives me an empty feeling.

I favor the "Networked Book(NB for short)" a term coined by the Institute for the Future of the book. The term "blook" was coined by LuLu for their "blooker awards" several years ago.

Here's a related link:

metarand � Blog Archive � Extending The Publishing Paradigm: Book As Souvenir

I have been blogging about the "unbook" or NB as I call it for 3 years so I am very supportive of your undertaking this novel way of publishing.

I favor a free ebook and for pay paperback. In every case where i have been offered that choice I have downloaded the pdf and purchased the paperback soon afterwards.

If you expect to stimulate conversations with your readers, and perhaps crowd=source new added value to your original - I think you would be moving in the right direction.

Unknown said...

You might be right Dave. I just listed my unbook as a downloadable ebook for the first time this week (for $9.95) and did see a spike in sales. We shall see if this is a trend. However so far none of these people has come back to buy the print version.

The nice thing about the internet is that you can track all this stuff.

So.. moving in the right direction and "trending toward free" anyway.

I like "networked book" name but at the moment don't want to derail the momentum we seem to be getting with "unbook." Also the word "unbook" seems to provoke more controversy, which does seem to stimulate the dialogue about what it is (and isn't).

Have you checked out the conversation at http://theunbook.com? Or just Google "unbook" to find some interesting chatter.

Unknown said...

My concern about the unbook is it's validity. As a college student, professors tell us to feel free to utilize WIKI as a starting platform for research, but to never rely on it as a source. If the unbook is constantly able to being edited and revised, what kind of a source is it, then? Furthermore, what kind of regulations and restrictions will academia have to develop in the near future towards utilizing literature and software following the unbook philosophy? Is this a reality we will have to face? Or is it the extent to which we have pushed our virtual world into a dream no longer cohesive with our daily lives?

Anonymous said...

My eyes were opened to the power of the unbook a few weeks ago, when I found a copy of the unbook "I'm Outta Here: How Coworking is Making the Office Obsolete," lying around the co-working space I am part of. Books are a great medium. I am a big fan of the hardcopy I can carry on the bus or take to the beach without worrying about getting sand in it.

I think the hardcopy book is a valuable marketing tool. If it's lying around in a lobby, people are going to pick it up and check it out. There's something tangible about a book that makes whoever wrote it seem important.

Unknown said...


You are right to have that concern. Unbooks should be scrutinized just like wikis or any other source, even the New York Times, which is not immune from error.