open writing platformsTraditional publishing is awful. If you've written a book, you know what I mean.

Writing a book through an old-fashioned publisher is slow, bureaucratic and often unrewarding.

If you want to write a book in an open, flexible or collaborative way, what are your options?

Over the last few months, we've been keeping an eye on some of the new options for writers and publishers. Here's our overview of the best options available.

What are the disadvantages of traditional publishing?

It's easy to list the disadvantages to traditional publishing. Here are just 5:

  1. Slow updates: Books that take a long time to publish are rarely, if ever updated. If your technology changes, it may be 6 months of more before you can push out those changes.
  2. Low revenue: It's not unusual. Most publishers of technical books never see a penny after their advance.
  3. License restrictions: Almost all traditional books are published as All Rights Reserved. It's very hard to allow translations or re-use of your material.
  4. Cumbersome processes: Most publishers still create books by pushing hundreds of Word documents around. There's no use of modern, flexible platforms.
  5. Lack of collaboration: Because of the license and process problems, it's very hard to work with co-authors and it's especially hard to accept outside contributions.

Let's see some of the organizations that are providing better alternatives.

Penflip: Github for Writers

Penflip is designed to allow easy versioning. The creator of Penflip describes his vision this way:

"I'm building Penflip, a collaborative writing platform. It's similar to GitHub, but designed for writing instead of coding."

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In Penflip, all the writing is done with markdown in the browser:

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Once you've created a book, you can create versions and switch between them.

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Once a version has been completed, you can make a merge request to pull the new content into the master branch:

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Penflip allows you to download your document directly from the site with no preparation.

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It's worth noting that Penflip is designed to just be a writing platform. At this point, you would need to find another e-commerce platform to actually sell the book.

LeanPub: In-Progress Publishing

LeanPub is designed to be a complete writing, publishing and e-commerce platform.

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You can write your book in the browser, although this doesn't seem to be LeanPub's preferred method. When you join LeanPub, they share a Dropbox folder with you. They encourage you to write you book with those file, using markdown.

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LeanPub offers a full suite of publishing tools. You can sell your book, send promotional emails and even create Kickstarter-style campaigns to raise interest in your books. LeanPub takes 10% of all sales.

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Pressbooks: Publishing with WordPress

Pressbooks is a publishing platform built entirely with WordPress. Pressbooks is available as a WordPress plugin although they encourage you host with them.

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The Pressbooks interface is built on a WordPress multi-site installation. You actually write your book directly inside the WordPress content area, just as if you were blogging.

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Pressbooks offers publishing options that start at just $10.

Other open options

Here are some other open publishing and writing options:

Pratham Books: leading the way as a publisher

While researching this article, I came across a great story that illustrates how writers and publishers can use open techniques.

Pratham Books creates childrens books in India. Their site is built in Drupal and everything they do is published under a Creative Commons license. In the last 5 years, they've released over 400 stories and hundreds of illustrations under a CC license. They have a case study explaining how their licensing has helped and this blog post talks about how an open license has encouraged translations.

Their next goal is described as part of their Google Impact application:

"Building a collaborative, open platform that lets people share, translate and create children's e-books. Over the next three years, this project will create 20,000 new e-books in a minimum of 25 languages and enable 200 million total book reads."

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About the author

Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.