James Dixon’s Blog

James Dixon’s thoughts on commercial open source and open source business intelligence

How to open source a book

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A Dana Blankenhorn post on The problem for open source textbooks turned me on to the latest attempt by California to foster open source textbooks and the challenges that they face.

I don’t know a whole lot about the publishing industry (other than the fact that it is not adjusting well to advances in technology and media). Based on my experience in commercial open source here are my thoughts on how to open source a book:

Lower Your Marketing Costs

If your business model includes spending a large percentage of your income on sales and marketing efforts, you need a huge shift. You need to get to a model where potential consumers are able, on their own, to prove to their satisfaction, that the book meets their needs. Severely cut back on advertising and marketing tasks that do not scale with little or no incremental expenses.

There is still value in printed content. I have bookmarks in my browser for the contents of Eric Raymond’s ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’. However last week, when I wanted to re-read a whole chapter, I hunted around the office until I found a paperback copy.

Lower Your Sales Costs

Ignore Tough Customers.

Some customer segments are hard to sell to. Ironically, government departments are one of these segments. The State of California is apparently very hard to sell textbooks to, they put lots of barriers into the process.

It is the same way with software. Open source and commercial open source software has a low-cost distribution system. The idea is that the consumer proves to their satisfaction that the software does what they need. This is what enables the up-front license fee to go away. This only works if the supplier does not have to spend time and money on RFPs and pre-sales activities. If a high-effort procurement processes is used, the process will favor high-cost proprietary providers.

The problem for state and federal government is that, at the same time they are expressing a desire to increase the adoption of open source, they remain fixed on a procurement process that is high-touch, high-cost, and favors proprietary vendors.

Lower Your Prices

Last year the music industry made over 1 billion dollars selling ring-tones. Meanwhile some musicians still insist that we can only buy an entire album, not individual tracks. The average selling price of commercial open source software in the enterprise market is about 80% lower than that of proprietary companies.

Publishers need to find ways to sell and license content in smaller packages. Publishers need to create a system where consumers can license content from multiple publishers to create a new book.

Lower Your Development Costs

Find ways to enable authors to create content without as much hand-holding. Enable crowd-authoring. Enable collaborative and competitive authoring. Let the community provide the feedback and the editing.

Summary: Change Your Business Model

Flatworld Knowledge is a company that is trying this. You can create customized works, they have per-chapter pricing etc. You can combine content from multiple sources and add case studies to make a new book. The one thing they don’t have is any crowd-authoring capabilities.

My advice to the State of California is this. If you want to save money by changing the way textbooks are produced, you are also going to have to change the way that you consume them. You will fail if you do not. Good luck, we’re all cheering for you.

Written by James

May 12, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Posted in open source

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