When we really need to get a book written and published quickly, and can rally a dedicated team around it, how fast can we move?
Book Sprints are the leaders in rapid book production. Their CEO and Lead Facilitator, Barbara Rühling, regularly leads her clients’ teams from zero to book in just five days. Arthur and Barbara talk about how she and her team work, and what other book-makers can learn from it.
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Arthur Attwell 0:04
Hello, and welcome to How Books Are Made, a podcast about the art and science of making books. I’m Arthur Attwell.
Arthur Attwell 0:22
I spent my first decade in publishing learning that all books take months or years to make, and I’ve spent the next decade unlearning that. Most of the books I’d been making over months or years took that long because we weren’t focusing solely on that book. The actual productive effort that creates a book can be measured in days. The only reason books take longer to finish is that life and other books get in the way. When we really need to get a book done fast, and can rally a dedicated team around it, how fast can we move?
Arthur Attwell 1:00
For many years, the leaders in the field of rapid book production have been Book Sprints. I think of them as the Impossible Missions force of book-making, a crack team who fly in from halfway across the world to make a book happen in a matter of days. Their fearless leader is Barbara Ruhling, a deft facilitator who can lead any team from zero to book in five days. Barbara is the CEO of Book Sprints, and a cultural anthropologist. She studied in the US and Germany, lived and worked in Colombia, and is now based in Berlin. I wanted to learn more about how she and her team work, and to chat about what we can all learn from that. Barbara, I’m so glad we’re speaking at last. It’s been years since I first got to know about Book Sprints and what you do, but somehow you and I have never actually had a chance to meet and catch up. Thanks for joining me on the podcast.
Barbara Ruhling 1:55
Yeah, thanks for the invitation. I’m super happy to talk to you.
Arthur Attwell 1:57
As you know, I have a children’s book nonprofit that I co-founded, that I’m involved with now, though, not on a day-to-day basis anymore. The premise there at Book Dash is that we make books very fast. I have to admit that we took a big chunk of our inspiration from Book Sprints, not only for our name, which is a nod in your direction, but also and mostly because it’s just remarkable to see what can be done. Let me not get ahead of myself. I think the first thing is, could you tell me more about what Book Sprints is and does?
Barbara Ruhling 2:33
Sure. A Book Sprint is a collaborative writing sprint of five days, where a group of experts comes together and collaboratively writes, edits, revises, and then publishes a book, with a strong facilitation and a rapid book production team in the background. So the book has been illustrated, lay-outed, proofread during those same five days, and it’s ready to be published.
Arthur Attwell 3:01
Amazing. Really incredible. I remember many years ago, the first time I came across Book Sprints, I think that Adam Hyde had set up a Sprint at the London Book Fair, and was somehow connecting it to an Espresso Book Machine. So the actual printing even happened during the fair and everything. How did that work?
Barbara Ruhling 3:21
Yeah, that was shortly before me, Adam, Adam Hyde, who is our founder and who developed the whole Book Sprints method, experimented a lot in the early years and even had a mobile book printing van that he drove around with, and then used the night of the last day to print and bind the books and have them ready actually, at the end of the of the Sprint. We don’t do that anymore, even though working with printers sometimes make us wish we would have our own mobile book binding and printing van.
Arthur Attwell 3:53
[LAUGHS] Sounds amazing. Yeah, that would really be fun. I mean, I know from my own experience, that really the key to making this work at all … I mean, there are many keys, but possibly the biggest one is facilitation. Really considered, thoughtful, experienced facilitation. Can you tell me more about how the facilitation works? What does the facilitator bring to the Book Sprint?
Barbara Ruhling 4:18
Yes, yeah, I think that’s really the secret sauce that makes it work. I started as a facilitator at Book Sprints, I was trained by Adam and Adam came up with this kind of unique facilitation approach that is very production oriented. While of course, there is a lot of team building happening and a lot of exchange of ideas, generation of new ideas, the main focus is really to have a product at the end of those five days. In that sense, it differs a little bit from other facilitation styles where it is more about maybe conflict, mediation or learning.
Barbara Ruhling 4:55
All of that does happen, but this very timeboxed, very clear focus of that tangible result changes the phases of the Sprint, it changes the focus. It’s quite incredible what people are willing to invest, the motivation they get out of it, if they have this goal. The facilitator, I sometimes say, is mainly there to get obstacles out of the way. Obstacles are often people themselves. Especially if you have a group of experts, they have been in the field for some time, and they have strong opinions. We all know meetings that go on forever, discussions that go in circles. The facilitator is there to keep the group on track, find consensus, move forward.
Arthur Attwell 5:43
I’ve had a few years to wrap my head around it, right. I’ve done my own share of rapid book production, although in a totally different field, in children’s books. I think that for those who are coming to this for the first time, perhaps we should explain what happens in each day? What’s really happening there, day one through five, on a daily basis? What is the production team doing in the background? To paint a picture of how this process really unfolds. Can you take us through that?
Barbara Ruhling 6:12
Yeah, we … our slogan is from zero to book in five days. We start from zero, the only thing that is allowed in terms of preparation is kind of like a working title and the subtitle, but nothing below that, like no table of contents or preconceived book structure. The group of people that comes together, that’s the preparation that happens. If you invite a marine biologist, that’s the knowledge you will have in the group. If you invite a climate change denier, that’s going to be a position that you will have in the group.
Barbara Ruhling 6:45
We start from from zero with a big group discussion about the scope of the book, the content, what can go into it, what shouldn’t, the target reader, we do lots of and lots and lots of sticky notes. Often within the first hours, we come up with a preliminary book structure that is completely created collaboratively. That’s so important that that doesn’t happen before the Sprint and isn’t sort of like a pre-given. It’s not about assigning tasks to different people and say, Oh, you’re the marine biologist, you should write this chapter. It’s really asking the marine biologist, what do you think is important? And bringing in these different perspectives and having an open mind of creating something completely new.
Arthur Attwell 7:34
You’re obviously seeing a sort of collection of post-its on the walls and whiteboard exercises, and that sort of collaborative work.
Barbara Ruhling 7:40
Lots, lots and lots of that. From those post-its we come to the first chapter outlines. Often small groups work together to sort of break it down a bit more and see, okay, what could this chapter look like, what could this chapter look like? Get some feedback from their peers, and then start drafting. All of this already happens on the first day. Then over the next days, there’s an iterative cycle of drafting, editing, revising, restructuring, coming back into group discussions whenever there’s the need for it. But a lot of the conversation happens through the writing itself.
Barbara Ruhling 8:20
The way we work in a Book Sprint is the premise of complete shared ownership and authorship of the text. Even though you may start writing this chapter, it’s then taken over by somebody else, or another small group, and they become the authors, they don’t send comments back to you. They take over and make the changes that they see fit and only bring back into discussion if there’s anything … of course, sometimes there’s some debate around. That way, we only move forward, there’s only one living version of the document. That also helps in terms of time. Also, over those iterations, often like three or four edits, the group starts developing a collective voice, a collective style.
Arthur Attwell 9:04
Does that collective style sort of happen naturally, or do you have to facilitate it and massage it into place?
Barbara Ruhling 9:09
Sometimes more, sometimes less. We, we like to, not upfront too much of it, and just start, let people start writing a bit. As they write and then read each other’s texts, often, naturally, they will see Oh, we really like this style, no, or they see Oh, we really address the reader in a very different way. What … let’s agree on one way or the other. Once we find sort of what the preferred voice is, and the preferred style, we often form a small group that does a last edit, top to bottom, at the end to make sure that this is kind of in a good flow and, and consistent.
Arthur Attwell 9:49
Is everybody working into a collaborative document like a Google doc or something similar?
Barbara Ruhling 9:54
Yes, we work a lot with a open source software called Editorial which is developed by The Collaborative Knowledge Foundation that our founder Adam Hyde also founded, which is a collaborative writing and book production tool. It’s a little bit different from Google Docs in the sense that you see the book table of content emerge as you write, so it helps visualise sort of the outline and the structure of the book. On the back end, we have a team of book designers and illustrators and copy editors that work on the same platform remotely, and already starts sort of developing a style for the book, depending on whatever the group comes up with. They, maybe on the first day or in the second day, they may decide, this should be a manifesto and it should be bold colours, or this should be more academic and a little bit more toned down. So the, the layout will adapt to that.
Barbara Ruhling 10:52
Any ideas for illustrations that the writers come up with … diagrams, cartoons, they can just make little sketches on a napkin or anything they like. We have fantastic illustrators who turn them into illustrations very, very quickly, so all of that happens in the same time. That’s also an iterative process. Usually, that’s usually three, four rounds of back and forth until we find a common style that everyone likes. Then, yeah, we have had books with up to 180 or so diagrams, made in those five days.
Arthur Attwell 11:26
That’s just amazing.
Barbara Ruhling 11:28
The last element, our copy editors, we have usually one or two copy editors, who start a read-through whenever the day of the writers end. We work mostly with the copy editors in New Zealand and in South Africa, so they’re in different time zones. Sometimes it works out that they can sort of have a normal working day whenever our group of writers ends their day. They do very light-touch editing, because they’re working on a living document, which is still going to be edited the next day, and just make small corrections. Then they always send feedback back to the group. Because usually, during the Book Sprint, the individual writers and small groups, they will be working very intensely for a day or two on just one chapter. The copy editors can send feedback about inconsistencies, repetitions, because they see the entire document every day, and will sort of give new tasks to the writers for the next day.
Arthur Attwell 12:26
Fantastic. The cover design, does that happen at some point? That’s always an exciting moment and a difficult moment for the team.
Barbara Ruhling 12:32
Yes. The same illustrators also usually make proposals for the cover, often towards like the end of the five days. Sometimes the group has time and brain bits to think of cover ideas. Sometimes it’s just something that our illustrators come up with, based on the illustrations that they’ve already been working on for the entire week and then they can make different variations. Sometimes you have a little vote. It can be very emotional, yeah. It’s, it’s always a great moment, I’m sure with Book Dash it’s the same thing. It makes it very real, you know, seeing a cover, all of a sudden. Oh, it’s not just a word document or a PDF? No, it’s going to be a book!
Arthur Attwell 13:11
[LAUGHS] It really is a very magical moment. I was recently reading some of the blog posts that you’ve written and that some of your clients have written about this process. Everyone’s clearly so joyful about it and, and what can be achieved. What are some of your highlights over the years, your sort of favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
Barbara Ruhling 13:27
I think we, about half of our clients are software companies, and we write a lot of technical books. This is where Adam first started creating the Book Sprints method and open source software. We still do a lot of those. We work a lot with NGOs, international organisations, universities … One of my favorite Book Sprints was one that I did in Nigeria with an NGO. It’s also the only book that ever turned into a fiction book.
Arthur Attwell 13:57
Barbara Ruhling 13:57
By accident. Yeah. We, we brainstormed so many contentious topics on the first day that the writer said we should fictionalise this so we can actually speak more freely about these topics
Arthur Attwell 14:11
Barbara Ruhling 14:13
I freaked out a little bit because I didn’t have any experience in this but gladly, we had some fiction writers in the group and one television scriptwriter, which was really helpful because they also write scripts collaboratively. Then we turned everything around on day two and wrote a fiction book in five days, collaboratively.
Barbara Ruhling 14:31
So interesting. You know, in a earlier episode, I was talking to Sam Beckbessinger, who’s done collaborative fiction writing for Marvel and Serial Box and the same theme came up that TV writers and scriptwriters are so used to, right, working collaboratively that there are skills there that the book production world could learn from and they, there, it really works.
Barbara Ruhling 14:52
Yeah, I would, I would love to have a sneak peek. But if you think about it, I mean, every book is written collaboratively in one sense or another. No, I think the the myth of the genius author who sits alone in the cabin in the woods. I mean, that’s usually always the, a partner, an editor. Teachers know this, this, like shoulders to stand on, colleagues to discuss with. So I think it’s also a little bit how we construct this idea of authorship, no, and how far we’re willing to take it. But for sure, in television and Book Sprints, we take the collaboration very far.
Arthur Attwell 15:27
Yeah. Am I right that this week, you’re working with the World Wildlife Foundation on a Book Sprint?
Barbara Ruhling 15:32
It’s our second Book Sprint with the World Wildlife Foundation. They have a fantastic science department and they think a lot about how to create change in the world with systems thinking. We did a Book Sprint about two years ago, about the principles of systems thinking for NGOs, not just conservation, but also NGOs in general. Now we are following up with a more practical toolkit to yeah, give people who want to try it out some tools and some understanding of how they can apply systems thinking to conservation and other areas.
Arthur Attwell 16:08
So exciting. If you could talk about it, what sorts of people are in the room and how many people are all working together on this as we speak?
Barbara Ruhling 16:16
At this moment, we have five main writers in the room. Usually, yeah, we have between five and 15 writers, that’s our preferred group size. It depends a bit on how, how descriptive or how generative the text is, if it’s more about idea generation, and coming up sort of with new topics and new themes, we prefer groups that are a little bit smaller. If there is a lot of content to cover, and it’s more about sort of downloading existing knowledge and finding a way of combining different perspectives, a larger group can, can also work really well.
Arthur Attwell 16:53
That’s really interesting. The big question, of course, is the quality question, right? The one we faced at Book Dash in the early days, and I think we’ve dispelled it by now. You must answer this question all the time. Naturally, people will wonder whether a high quality book can be produced so quickly. How do you answer that question, when it comes up?
Barbara Ruhling 17:16
Yeah, the quality question is so interesting. For me, the quality is there if the book is really useful for the readers, and what that means can be so different. We work with such niche topics sometimes, that no, no publisher would would touch the topic. But then sometimes they find hundreds and hundreds of thousands of downloads online and are translated into 11 different languages. We have this book on how to read and understand oil contracts. It seems to be very niche, no? It’s hard for us as a facilitator to say what the quality standard is because as facilitators, we don’t really know the topic. It’s, it’s very hard to judge. No, we can see, yes, we saw complete sentences and they make sense, but I don’t really, I don’t really know. It became this huge, enormous hit. Like I said, hundreds of thousands of downloads and translated into 11 languages. So there was a real need, and there is a real use for it.
Barbara Ruhling 18:29
It was such a low budget production, they didn’t have our copy editors on the team. Of course, there are some spelling mistakes in the book. But it’s still so useful. It doesn’t really, it doesn’t really take away from it. So yeah, I answer the quality question by saying, the groups we work with, they tell us in the beginning what they want the outcome to be. If we reach that outcome by the end of the sprint, and they are happy with the result, then that means for me, we achieve the quality that we need to achieve. Some of the software manuals that we write, for example, there’s no way for me to tell what the quality is. I need sort of our clients to tell us, and if they tell us the stories about how they use books everywhere, and workshops, they give it out to their clients, how many downloads or sales they have, and they keep coming back to us, then that shows me that we achieve the right quality.
Arthur Attwell 19:30
The quality question is really interesting to me, because when I look at the traditional publishing process, which is, takes a long time, and is very distributed, my sense is that most of it is dead space, is just air that can be squeezed out. And that there are, sometimes there are books where it helps to have ideas that come to you spontaneously on a long walk or lying awake at night. That’s wonderful, but for the most part, the vast majority of book production is about focus, sometimes about facilitation or coordination, and about productive effort. If you were to squeeze all that dead air out of a production process that normally takes six months or a year, you would end up with five to ten days, you know, five days in person. Presumably, that’s what Book Sprints proves.
Barbara Ruhling 20:26
Yeah, I think I think you have a really good point. I mean, if we bring together 10 experts for five days and five long, intense days, often 12, 14 working hours, then that’s a lot of woman hours and man hours coming together. They are, like you saying they’re much more focused, because you don’t lose time, you know, when you send the draft to a colleague, and you wait for feedback for three months, and you already forgot what you wrote initially, and you have to get back in the mindspace. Yeah, people are very focused, and that speeds it up a lot.
Arthur Attwell 21:01
Yeah. We’ve been talking about five-day Book Sprints so far, in-person, but everything changed this year. You can’t really do in-person Book Sprints under pandemic conditions, so now it’s virtual Book Sprints, right? What has changed about your process, doing this online? What are the pros and cons and the trade-offs?
Barbara Ruhling 21:23
Yeah, we, we spent 10 years saying that this cannot be done online. It’s so intense, people really need to be in the room together. Now since April, we have been proving ourselves wrong over and over again, we’ve done a whole series of virtual Book Sprints now. The first thing that we changed is, we extended it from five to ten days. The days are a bit shorter, we have a lot more breaks, we also often have teams that work in different time zones. So some people may start the day very early, and others may stay up very late. We spread it out over 10 days and everything is a little bit slower, we have to be a little bit more structured, we have a lot more formal check-ins. As a facilitator in a room, I can sort of just walk around and look over people’s shoulders and get a sense of where everybody is and if somebody is stuck. Online, this has to be a little bit more formal, I constantly have to check in a lot more and ask everyone and …
Arthur Attwell 22:28
Then you feel like you’re interrupting them.
Barbara Ruhling 22:31
Sometimes I do. Yeah, sometimes I feel like I’m interrupting them. Sometimes I have to take myself out of the way and let people just write for a bit. The other thing that is different online, I think, is we visualise a lot more. It’s really helpful for people to keep focused, we write down almost everything, decisions taken, target audience. We do a lot more visual exercises. It’s overall a little bit more structured. We usually have a very organic facilitation style, so even though there are five phases of a Book Sprint, from conceptualising, to structuring, to writing, revising, and the final sort of book production publishing, it can be quite organic from one phase to the other and not everything happens at the same time. Online, we have to be a bit more structured and a bit more formal and have a little bit more sort of set timeframes, and so on.
Barbara Ruhling 23:31
We were very surprised it’s actually working really well. I mean, the obvious cons are the socialising, the networking, the fun of being with a group of colleagues together. Sometimes we go to really nice retreat-style locations, and people spend, you know, share meals and have a really good time together. That’s much harder to emulate online. But we’re surprised that it actually still happens, the participants tell us that they still feel that bonding, even to colleagues they’ve never met before. They work so intensely together, that there is still, they really feel like they get to know each other and they bond even online.
Arthur Attwell 24:12
Barbara Ruhling 24:13
Interestingly, one of the pros I think, is that people have a little bit of more personal space. There’s, there, we encounter so far less interpersonal tensions. Working together for five days in the same room and spending all the time together, there are often quite a bit of tensions. Of course, that’s what we are facilitators for, to make sure everyone, if they need a bit of space, or they need, they need someone to talk something through or, yeah we try to mediate. That was something we were quite concerned about, because it’s much harder to sense in an online space. But it’s actually so far, a little bit less, which I think, maybe because people can take a little bit more distance if they feel like they, you know, they’re getting a little bit on an edge, or they’re challenged a bit too much, they can step back for a bit and they’re in their own home, which helps.
Arthur Attwell 25:06
Yeah. Presumably, it’s a bit hard for people who are in their own homes to commit the focused stretches of time, there are going to be interruptions. How do the participants manage that? I mean, that’s a problem we all have trying to work from home, right? So it’s intense, more intense. What approaches have people come up with or had to put in place?
Barbara Ruhling 25:27
Yeah, that’s, that’s probably the biggest challenge. For an on-site Book Sprint, we often travel to a different location and then once you’re there, you’re fully committed. Working from home means, you know, your normal life, of course, goes on around you. As much as we try to set ourselves up for a week that is extraordinary, that’s very intense, very focused, and shouldn’t be seen as like your normal work week, nine to five, life still interferes, right. But I think this year, we all learned to work with those interruptions and having kids and pets and household deliveries, come in the way. Yeah, exactly. It is a challenge.
Barbara Ruhling 26:12
Also, because I think it’s harder to explain to a superior that you can’t be reached, you’re not available for other tasks in that time, people tend to have a lot more meetings going on at the same time and calls and some people do like, a full work day, and then do a six-hour Book Sprint in the evening or something like that. That’s been a challenge. That’s also why we, one of the reasons why we do 10 days instead of five days. Still, I think the pool is so big, collaboratively creating this idea and having the, the carrot on the stick of the book in the end. People get so motivated, they somehow still make it happen.
Arthur Attwell 26:56
Barbara Ruhling 26:56
They, they kind of like work around all the other obstacles and make it happen and show up and show amazing commitment. We’ve been really amazed by how, how great our participants have been dealing with this.
Arthur Attwell 27:08
That’s amazing. Yeah, it’s a testament to the magic of the book, this thing, the book that no one can quite cleanly define, and yet is a an object of shared reverence. People really love the, the practical art of the book and creating it. That interests me on a very big philosophical level, because we live in an age where everything is website and video, app and interactive, and yet the magic of the book remains untarnished. What is it, do you think, that keeps people thinking, let’s make a book? This, this thing that we have in our brains needs to be a book.
Barbara Ruhling 27:46
It’s, it’s quite amazing. It’s such a highly valued cultural artifact. In our Book Sprints team, we often joke about it, if we told people let’s do a PDF documents sprint, you would never see the same level of motivation, even though some of the books we make are never printed, they may just exist electronically. Yeah, we really have a lot of value that we attach to the book. At the same time, in a Book Sprint, I think we deconstruct the notion of what a book is completely. There’s this, yeah, really interesting book by Martha Woodmansee, on the construction of authorship, how in, in the Renaissance, this idea of the genius author came to be and before that, books were much more seen as sort of living documents, you know, copied by hand from monk to monk, and each person would add something to it then, and the original author didn’t play that big a role.
Barbara Ruhling 28:48
Then we created this idea of the genius author. In a way we are deconstructing that with ideas like Book Dash or, or Book Sprints, but at the same time, we also make a lot of use of the power of, of this artifact. People get really excited about having their name on the book. Some people we work with are published authors, and some are just very good in what they do in their field, they have a lot of practical knowledge. They may have written blogs or other media, and are very excited about getting their name on a book. Yeah, even us, I mean, having, holding a book in hands is great fulfilling feeling. But why that still has that value and doesn’t seem to go away? No, I mean, everybody has been talking about the end of the book, and it just doesn’t go away. There’s something to it that I don’t quite understand.
Arthur Attwell 29:43
It really is very special. One day, I hope to put my finger on it, although maybe not. Maybe I just love the magic and it being a little mysterious why this thing has such power.
Arthur Attwell 29:53
You also have a whole other role in your life, which I just am curious about. Something completely different. You also manage a film festival. Tell me more about that. How does that fit into your life?
Barbara Ruhling 30:05
Um, yeah, for many years, I used to manage a documentary film festival together with the wonderful team of curators and filmmakers, and artists in Columbia. My training is as a cultural anthropologist, which led me both to facilitation, you know, I always feel a little bit like it’s an anthropological study, getting into a new group of people in a completely new field that speak a different language, a different jargon. Yeah, but my training as an anthropologist also led me to documentary filmmaking, which I really love. I had the luck to be part of this crew in Colombia, making a documentary film festival that traveled through the country and showed films in all kinds of unexpected public spaces for free. That’s definitely a magical project.
Arthur Attwell 30:58
Yeah, that sounds really, really special. I can totally see the thread there of cultural anthropology through documentary filmmaking, and the way that you spread the films, and then into book-making, collaborative book-making, especially. That’s, yeah, that makes perfect sense. I am very much looking forward to seeing what else Book Sprints produces. I’m excited to see what you finish this week with the World Wildlife Foundation. That’s super exciting, obviously a favorite organisation of people around the world. So good luck for that. I hope it goes really, really well. Thank you again, so much, for joining me, taking time away from your intense Book Sprints week, to chat here.
Barbara Ruhling 31:40
Thank you so much, Arthur. It’s been a pleasure.
Arthur Attwell 31:43
Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this, it’d be such a help if you’d take a moment to share that with a friend or on social media. You’d be amazed at the effect that every share has on our downloads. So thanks for that, too. You can point people to howbooksaremade.com where I’ll also post links to things we talked about today. We’ll also add a transcript of this conversation there.
Arthur Attwell 32:06
How Books Are Made is supported by Electric Book Works, where my team and I make books all day, every day, in sunny Cape Town, South Africa.