Write. Release. Improve. Publish.

How one author used O’Reilly Atlas and Early Release to write the best book possible.

Ilya Grigorik, a self-professed quantified-self geek, spent 412 writing High Performance Browser Networking. “That number is exact," he insists. “It’s based on RescueTime logging.”

Adding in the time spent on research and review, he put in a total of 918 hours and wrote 90,056 words for the initial book.

But, he says, the 46 hours he spent responding to feedback from Early Release iterations may have been the most valuable time he spent.

Getting feedback before publication

Grigorik’s book was made available first as an ebook-only “Early Release” edition; after continually incorporating reader feedback into the evolving draft, the final book was released in ebook and print formats.

Using traditional publishing tools, iterating and updating as quickly and frequently as Grigorik did would have been both time-consuming and expensive. Even simply incorporating editorial changes would have involved a painful process of sending files back and forth among collaborators, merging all the changes into one central document, and keeping track of all the versions and what occurred in each.

Version control when a book takes a village

But O’Reilly Atlas provides a platform and tools that make all of this fast and easy. Everyone involved in an Atlas project can work simultaneously. You work on your own version  of the text, then issue a request to alert your collaborators to your changes—and you can discuss the changes using Atlas commenting features before they are seamlessly merged into the master document. You can view (and compare) all changes made, and who made them, and easily revert back to any previous version. This saves a lot of headaches compared to traditional publishing workflows, but for books with an Early Release model, it’s especially valuable.

“Editorially speaking, version control might be the biggest workflow win with Atlas. I can just add reviewers to Atlas, and their comments flow back into the system where the author and I can see them,” says Courtney Nash, Grigorik’s editor at O’Reilly. “This is huge.”

“Ilya really got behind getting people to comment on the Early Release this way, which really helped the book in the long run,” she adds.

Instant changes

With Atlas, once changes to the book’s content are made, those changes are instantly implemented in every format—ebook, print PDF, etc.—with the push of a button.

Grigorik used the one-click “Build” button frequently in writing. The Build button immediately formats the text into any or all formats desired, so if you want to see how long the work is becoming or just want to see how it will look on the page, it’s a great tool to use during the writing process—as well as when it’s time to actually publish. “I’m one of those people to whom the shape of the text on the page is just as important as the content, so this was very useful as I was working on the content,” he says. 

The Build button also makes errata and updates—or revising an Early Release based on reader feedback—simple. “It’s always easier to do Early Releases when an author writes in Atlas,” explains Sanders Kleinfeld, Director of Publishing Technology at O’Reilly Media. “Having a book in Atlas makes it feasible for us to have a 24-hour turnaround in terms of getting ebooks posted for sale. We can get updates from the author pushed live really quickly. When authors write in another format like Microsoft Word, there are additional costs in terms of both time and money to get Early Releases live.”

Grigorik says that being able to quickly make changes and publish the new version not only enabled him to solicit more feedback, it helped attract better feedback. “The sooner you merge, the better, as many people find and comment on similar things. If you don’t—for example, if there is a glaring typo—they’ll zoom in on that and miss or skip the larger comment about the structure of the chapter. This is where a fast edit plus the Build button really helped.”

Analyzing reader engagement

But changes to the initial manuscript didn’t rely solely on reader’s active feedback; their passive feedback was illuminating, too. “We connected Ilya’s Early Release book to Google Analytics and got a ton of useful data regarding page views, etc. We didn’t have to guess which sections of the book people liked; we could see exactly which parts of the book were getting the most traffic,” says Kleinfeld.

“Getting early feedback is invaluable, and O’Reilly’s Atlas tool chain worked really well for that,” Grigorik says. “I can’t imagine doing a book without this kind of feedback loop.”