February 23, 2005

Project GNUtemberg: A free software print-on-demand project

Author: Marco Fioretti

Sometimes it would be great to have paper copies of a manual that was
never printed, or whose publication stopped long ago due to lack of
demand. On the other hand, printing whole tomes by yourself is slow,
not to mention that the result is of lower quality and more
expensive than a real book version. In some parts of Italy this
problem is solved by Project
GNUtemberg
.

The name is a mix of GNU and of that
of the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg. The "m" in
the name is not a spelling error, but a way to point out the country
in which the project was born: in Italian the letter "b" cannot be
preceded by "n."

Gaetano Paolone, a Debian
developer, first realized in April 2000 how cool it would be to be
always able to buy printed GNU/Linux documentation. After discussing
the idea via IRC with Antonella
Beccaria
the two started GNUtemberg. Its initial goal was only
to find and advertise all the places able to print and sell free
documentation. From there, the mission expanded to making all branches
of knowledge always and freely available to everyone, regardless of
the physical support: books, CD-ROMs, whatever.

GNUtemberg members make free documentation available on their Web site in printer-ready formats like PostScript and PDF. Free, in this context, obviously does not refer to price but to the fact that everything is available under a free license, as defined by the GNU Project. GNUtemberg, however, is not limited to GNU/Linux manuals, or to software for that matter. The founders want to promote its use for all kinds of printed material, as long as the works are made available under a free license.

So far, GNUtemberg looks like nothing more as a local version of the Linux Documentation Project, doesn't it? But its biggest added value is the fact that users are directly connected to "GNUtemberg Centers" that will print titles on demand. GNUtemberg is active in finding and encouraging print shops to see the business case and jump in. Any organization or individual with a high-quality printer or copy machine can join the project and be listed in the GNUtemberg
directory
. Currently this list contains eight stores, all in Northern and Central Italy. Participation is free: the Centers have no business relationship with GNUtemberg, and each one decides independently the price of each printed work. Some, such as Librando, don't limit their services to the GNUtemberg catalog, but print on demand any material freely available on the Internet.

Is this a war against dead-tree publishers? No, quite the contrary,
according to GNUtemberg members. They still encourage their users
to buy content with a free license as real books from real bookstores whenever possible, because, they point out, everybody wins in
that case. Authors and editors, seeing the demand, are encouraged to
write and publish even more under free licenses. Users, on the other
hand, get a real book, which is often more durable, cheaper, and of
a higher quality than anything printed on demand. At the same time, by showing their (financial) support to this model, they guarantee that
they will always be able to find the printed books they need, even
when their authors and editors lose interest in them.

Of course, a task like GNUtemberg's involves a lot of background work. GFDD, the GNUtemberg Free Documentation
Database, is a subproject aiming to classify and search free
documentation. The database structure is designed to find out
immediately, for example, whether some title was ever published, who
contributed to it, and whether and into how many languages it was
translated. GFDD uses the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set as
described in the Open
Source Metadata Framework
-- the same format already used by
OEBPS, the Open eBook
Publication Structure
.

A virtual CD-ROM full of information

The manuals collected by GNUtemberg are all available in the CD-ROM section of the
Web site. Many of them are in English. The "CD-ROM" name comes from the
fact that work is in progress to automatically generate and put online
one single ISO image of the whole content. Today, to make a GNUtemberg
CD-ROM, you must first mirror everything on your local drive with wget
or a similar utility.

When it's ready, this ISO generator will check when
new documents are available and create a new image. The roadmap also
foresees the possibility of creating images on demand, including only
the manuals you actually want, and full integration with GFDD. The project leaders welcome help in this area, especially the ISO generation part, and if you know manuals that should be added, please advise the project at cdrom@gnutemberg.org.

In recent times GNUtemberg has joined forces with other groups. One of them is the
nonprofit association Liber
Liber
, which applies information technology to the humanistic
field. Among other things, Liber Liber maintains Progetto Manuzio
, an online library named after the famous Italian Renaissance
editor Aldo Manuzio. For the record, this is the man who invented the
slanted fonts which, just for this reason, are still called
italic. This library also includes many university and high school
theses. To make their e-books more usable, Liber Liber and GNUtemberg
are working together to develop an editor and a browser for
the Open eBook format (.oeb). This
tool is still in an alpha state, but you can already get an idea of what
it will look like
.

What is missing?

A possible future enhancement to GNUtemberg would be
some detailed statistics, beyond mere file downloads. Knowing how many
CD-ROMs and paper copies are physically distributed by GNUtemberg
centers, for example, could help prove that this publishing model
is self-sustainable, or at least an excellent way to draw in customers
which will also buy something else. It would also be
great to have a section listing software and scripts that people can use to make PostScript or PDF files that look really good when printed. Even
today, however, GNUtemberg is one cool idea.

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