Writing a Book with Google Docs

As you might imagine, a lot of the O’Reilly authors are a bit more technically savvy than most, which means they’re often willing to help us experiment with new authoring, editing, and sometimes publishing models (indeed, they’re often the ones who suggest the experiments).

Phillip Lenssen has a terrifically thorough post on his experiences using Google Docs to write the upcoming Google Apps Hacks:


  • Working from anywhere: In theory, as the book is stored on the Google server farm and not your home computer, you can access and edit it from anywhere, like an internet cafe, or your friend’s computer, or a public cafe with wifi. In practice, when writing a book you need to concentrate quite a bit. Some authors may be able to concentrate better when hooked up to their laptop in a public cafe, while others need to go have a non-changing, quiet place – like their home desk, room doors closed. If that’s the case, then the "work from anywhere" bonus of online applications is somewhat lost. Nevertheless, the fact that Google Docs allows me to collaborate on the same document with my editor, who sits across the ocean, is a great benefit.
  • Lack of features: Google Docs has much less features than programs like Word, which have historically grown over the years. In general I prefer a slim program to one that is so feature-cluttered, you will have a hard time finding all the options to turn off CRAP (Configurations Rarely Applied by People). However, every now and then you’ll also bump your head against the keyboard because a really basic, needed feature isn’t there… wishing Google would work faster on implementing certain stuff. We’ll see what 2008 brings in this regard.
  • You need an online connection: Working with Google Docs requires an internet connection. In my case, I need this internet connection anyway – even if I’d be using something like Open Office – because I have to check Google’s applications all the time to write hacks for Google Office Hacks. But let’s face it, even if you’re writing something not about the internet, it’s really great to have search engines back up your knowledge. So to me, the prerequisite of having to have an internet connection is not a real downside; your mileage may vary (and who knows, Google may also release Gears-support for Google Docs in the future).

Certainly this is beyond the capabilities of many non-technical authors; but we’ve seen time and again that today’s alpha-geek hack is tomorrow’s mainstream reality.

I have no doubt that Microsoft Word will be dethroned as the primary manuscript-authoring tool. I’m also certainly not prepared to predict what that tool will be, but online/offline synchronization will be a core feature, and I suspect it will look more like Windows Live Writer, Ecto, and other emerging lightweight blog-authoring tools.