Writing an Open Licensed Book

To celebrate last week’s release of MacRuby 0.6, O’Reilly and I started publishing the draft of my MacRuby book online: https://macruby.labs.oreilly.com/

I started thinking about working on “MacRuby: The Definitive Guide” last year when I realized that the project had a great future but there was a serious lack of documentation. With the support of the MacRuby team, I worked on a table of contents and a pitch. The next step was to decide what we wanted to do with the book.

I know a lot of technical book authors and most of them will tell you the same thing: if you think that you are going to make money writing a book, you are wrong. Even if your book sells well, because of the time invested in writing the book, you are probably better off doing consulting work and charging by the hour.

So since day one, I knew that this project would not make me rich. The goal was to share knowledge not to reimburse my mortgage or save California from bankruptcy. While publishing a web book is great, distribution is quite limited, especially if you try to reach people outside of your network. That’s why I decided to start talking to a few publishers. Most publishers I talked to were interested in working on the book, however they were not really keen on publishing a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative licensed book.

Let me explain why I think releasing technical books under a CC license is important. As you might know (or have figured out by now), I am not a native English speaker. I actually learned my first English words thanks to the computer my dad had at home. The problem when you don’t live in an English speaking country and you want to learn about the cutting edge technology is that you have to understand English.  Thanks to the Internet, learning and practicing English is now much easier that it used to be. However, if you want to have access to books, most of the time you have to wait until someone translates the book and publishes it in your country or you have to manage to get an English version delivered to your country. This is often a pain because of national credit card limitations, international delivery restrictions etc… If you manage to find a way to get a copy, the book ends up costing a lot of money.

What does that mean in practice? Most of the technical books are first available in the English speaking western world, then slowly translated and/or distributed around the world. By the time you get a legal copy in Bolivia, Algeria or Vietnam, a new edition is probably out in the US probably because the technology evolved. Maybe that explains some of the book piracy worldwide?

Think about it for a minute: knowledge is power and time is money. And what do we do? We delay knowledge distribution. This is why I am a big fan of the Khan Academy and its awesome free online courses.

Turns out O’Reilly shares my vision and has already published a lot of books under various open licenses: https://oreilly.com/openbook/ I was also interested in publishing the content of my book ASAP so people could access it right away even though there would be lots of typos and missing content. This is also something O’Reilly has already done with the CouchDB and the Scala books.

Talking with Jan Lehnardt about his experience working with O’Reilly on the ‘CouchDB: The definitive guide’ book, I realized that we seem to have some shared interests. I contacted Jan’s editor and we decided to start working on the MacRuby book. The book will be available later on in all the usual commercial formats and I hope people will show their support so O’Reilly will be encouraged in their choice to continue publishing CC licensed book. At the end of the day, purchasing a CC licensed book helps supporting the authors, the publishers but also all the people who can’t have access to the latest technical books.

Finally, working on a book is not an easy thing, especially when you have to write it in a language that’s not yours. But I have to say that the community support has been amazing. Even John Gruber sent a fireball my way. And since the announcement was made, I have received a lot of comments, tweets, emails etc… It is very encouraging and it gives me the motivation needed to work on the book after a long work day.

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