Open Source Documentation Issue: “Maven, The Definitive Guide”, the Sonatype Approach

Sonatype, the Maven company founded by his creator Jason van Zyl, recently released “Maven: The Definitive Guide“, a book available for download as a PDF and as a print book through O’Reilly.

Mark de Visser, the new appointed Sonatype’s CEO, answered few questions about the book and how it helps to grow the Maven community.

Among 2009 open source opportunities I named the Sonatype case because is one of the open source vendors appropriating returns from the commons creating economic value from existing open source products.

Good documentation can promote the adoption of the projects, and Sonatype expects to cross 1 million total page views to their comprehensive Maven documentation.

I asked Mark de Visser about how documentation fit into Sonatype’s business plan.

Matt Asay talks about the commercial rationale for delivering the source code for software products: “Open source is a means to cheap distribution, a way to get software into the hands of would-be buyers at little to no cost. It’s a way to make the software experience social and less risky, because users can try before they buy.” I think it makes good sense to add free distribution of documentation to this strategy: the would-be buyers must have the best possible experience with the software to become actual buyers and good documentation is a critical part of that experience.

At Sonatype we are taking our documentation to a new level of sophistication. The online version of Maven the Definitive Guide has been updated nearly daily since it was first published, whenever we build Maven we build the Guide, so they can remain synchronized.

Can you tell us something about the results until now?

In January we had more than 45K unique users of the documentation, about 8K chose to download the PDF version so they can use it offline or in printed form. O’Reilly books has published a print version of the book which is now in its second print edition, and successful by technology book standards.

The net effect for Sonatype is that it has created a relationship with a very active part of the Maven community, connected the Sonatype and Maven brands and demonstrated Sonatype’s thought-leadership to the Maven ecosystem. In short: we have increased our chances to conduct commercial transactions with the community of Maven users. In many cases these Maven users apply Maven to the build processes at large global companies.

JBoss not providing good free documentation helped the business, though.

JBoss decided to make their documentation a commercial resource, not available for free, and had a great deal of success with that approach. I suspect that most of their original users of their open source product had J2EE experience with WebSphere or WebLogic when they evaluated JBoss. The Maven situation is different; it is a new approach to building software and cannot expect evaluators to be successful without good documentation and access to best practices.We need to make documentation easily and freely available to grow and mature the Maven ecosystem.

So, how deals come to you through documentation?

Sonatype sells Nexus Professional, a commercial product that helps organizations manage the repositories of open source software components that are used in their software builds. Sonatype also sells training, support and consulting to organizations that use Maven. Many of the commercial relationships Sonatype has with these organizations started when the they used the Maven documentation on our site.

To us free, high quality documentation makes a lot of business sense.

Are you planning to write more books?

Our lead writer, Tim O’Brien, thinks we can take this initiative still further than we have so far. We are planning free books about repository management with Nexus, about Maven – Eclipse integration with M2Eclipse, about Continuous Integration with Maven and Hudson and more.Viewing these books online will be free, for the PDF download we will ask (but not require) registration. We publish books under a Creative Commons license, requesting only attribution. We have already started and will expand ability for the community to provide feedback, questions and contributions through Get Satisfaction and IntenseDebate, and those who want to keep abreast of related news can follow the @mavenbook twitter account or our Sonatype blogs.

Going with O’Reilly helped?

Our publisher, O’Reilly, has been an invaluable part of the success of Maven: The Definitive Guide. When you write a book, you usually deliver a product to the production department of a publisher and that publisher prints a few thousand copies which are distributed to a network of book sellers and intermediaries. Once you deliver the manuscript, both the content and the community are out of your hands. This “dead-tree model” of publishing is as antiquated as it is impersonal, and, with the Maven book, we saw a chance to break the cycle and work with a publisher like O’Reilly who is very open to the idea of publishing a freely available book. Our editor, Mike Loukides, wasn’t hesitant at all to agree to publish a free book and talked about the success they have had with books like the Subversion book and the Asterisk book, both of which were free but generated a great deal of print sales. We will jointly evaluate options to deliver print-on-demand versions of the print books, which match closer to the dynamic nature of our constantly updated online books.

I look forward to know if you will eventually manage to print updated versions.