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Forking the book

How long will it be before the book becomes "unstable" again?

As one of the first mass produced industrial artifacts the book remains a solid cultural signifier of stability. That aura is pretty strong and attractive and makes it pretty hard to think about books as being anything other than static and stable. It appears to be part of their DNA.

While we continue to refer to ebooks as ‘books’ stability seems to be carried on as part of the currency. We don’t really even challenge it. EPUBs and mobi (etc.) with their ‘self -contained’ exactly reproducible nature also appear to reinforce the static nature of things.

Books are stable. Websites are not. That seems to be a delimiter that’s ‘in the air’.

However this seems to be a little arbitrary these days. Books were only stable because of the (long brewing) perfect storm of the invention of the printing press, creation of copyright, and the evolution of authorship. Before these three things brought stability, books were added to as ideas changed and prose improved, just like websites.

Now however books and websites are made of the same stuff. So its interesting to ask ourselves how long it will be before the book becomes unstable again.

Well, of course the technology is right here to make books unstable again. EPUBs, for example, are easy to re-edit and ‘re-publish’. Take a look at this quick demo I have been working on with Juan Barquero (the interface will become part of a forthcoming Booktype release).

What you see in this demo is an editor working on EPUB (essentially using EPUB as a storage mechanism). You can edit the pages (remember it’s just a prototype, it hasn’t been tested, etc.) and save and export a new EPUB by clicking ‘Publish’. The interesting thing about this is that it uses GIT as a backend (Adam Witwer and the O’Reilly crew have also been working on using GIT with Atlas). GIT is a technology programmers use to collaborate on code. It allows programmers to copy (fork) code, work on it and then re-combine (merge) the changes with the work of others. So with this demo we are using GIT with a book so you can clone, edit, fork and merge the book into infinite versions. If you want to, you can then re-merge it all back again.

OK, so that’s interesting – but what does it point to? It points to a return of the instability of books. The question really is – will instability of the book return? I believe it will come back and come back sooner than we think. Why? Because it’s better for the book.

As a very small case in point lets have a quick peak at the life of a forkable book. The Crypotparty Handbook.

The CryptoParty Handbook was created in Berlin during a 3 day Book Sprint last October. It consists of over 440 pages of information for those wanting to be safe online. The book was created so fast because it reused content from two existing books (licensed under Creative Commons): How to Bypass Internet Censorship and Basic Internet Security. Both of these were also created with Book Sprints the previous year.

Creating the CryptoParty Handbook was simply a matter of forking each of the other books and merging them into a new container. Easily done. The team, under my facilitation, then structured the table of contents, removed chapters that were not necessary, identified content that needed to be created and then started writing and illustrating. It didn’t take them much time to produce a book which was immensely useful for their audience and a book that could also be easily remixed and translated.

The handbook has now been forked quite a bit. The first version hit 30,000 downloads in the first few weeks.  There have also been some interesting forks including one by the Liberation Tech list hosted by Stanford University from where it has been forked again another 50 or 60 times.

The book is now being used by CryptoParties all over the world to train people in small informal workshops.

This is just one example highlighting what can happen when books embrace their natural unstable state. They become extremely powerful bodies of content that can be re-purposed infinitely for whatever context is necessary.

This is not some kind of hippie content love-in. There are economies in action here. It takes skill to curate and corral content, shape it, get it to meet the needs of a specific audience, and find experts to fill in the gaps. It takes experts in facilitation and curation. Each of these are attributes required of successful publishers, content creators, and editors who plan to create tomorrow’s dynamic content.

Please note: the demo I provided is very rough. It will only take 60 save requests per minute in its present state. If it doesn’t save your edits it might be because there are too many people trying it out. If that happens to you, please come back at another time and try it again.

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Comments: 11

  1. How does an “unstable” book differ from a WiKi with an editor?

  2. adam-

    any place to discuss your work,
    _besides_ this o’reilly blog?


  3. A famous example to use as a discussion point: the two versions of Stephen King’s THE STAND — the original version, and the later un-cut version. Another way to think about books and versioning is multiple translations of a foreign language work: some are terrible and some are genius. Readers, in discussing such books with each other, need some sort of reassurance that they are talking about the same thing, or a similar enough thing. The discussion is already dynamic (and perhaps infinite), so the point of the discussion (the book, film, TV show, whatever) is more valuable when it is static (and finite).

    It is not only books’ ties to print that skew towards stability: it is the needs of the content market. The content market requires multiple certifications and assurances that this narrative thing that in many ways is not an object at all is object enough to be packaged, priced, sold, and bought. This is why we have cover art, ISBN numbers, inflated spine widths, and more. 

    I’ve been thinking about the tension between journey and object since my college thesis, so it is no end of surprise and interest to me to see this tension come into play (with a vengeance) with the emergence of ebooks.

    I like that you bring up Git – after thinking about our discussion on your other post I think that something like GitHub for authors and editors is what we need in terms of a digital-first book writing technology. Instead of doing a massive, painful conversion from .DOC on the back-end, ebooks will be drafted and edited at the HTML level using something like GitHub that can track versions and comments easily, and then the publisher (if any) will arrange for proofreading, copy-editing, and put on any necessary finishing touches and format optimizations at the end. But this will be quite minimal compared to what’s needed for a print publication now.

  4. ‘Books are stable. Websites are not ‘. This is exactly the challenge we have! As educational publishers, we have now for three years (and with success) published websites calling them books. We have maintained that they must be dynamic, so we have continuously updated and made corrections. But when we make major changes/updates to these online books, our readers complain – and with good reason! They may lose their notes and – and even worse – when they have their exams, the book may no longer have the same content as they were taught. In addition, readers in higher education have a requirement to be able to refer exactly to the sources they have used – and it’s a problem when the sources change.
    So we, as publishers, would like to have the instability of websites – exactly because it makes better books (and our books really ARE websites) but the demand for stability in a book is strong. I think that this will change – as you say, ‘instability of the book will return’, but it requires some major changes in culture, maybe especially in the academic world.
    Your suggestion to use Git to ‘version’ the book is very interesting, I think we can use something like that – it may be a way to balance stability and instability in our books (that is, our websites 🙂
    Merete, Systime (DK)


  5. It is worth noting in this regard that most wikis keep every revision of a page, and so if you want to cite a particular version, you can cite that revision rather than the current one. 

    There is no inherent reason that a book cannot change and progress and still allow a reader to reference its state as of any given time. An electronic book could contain both its present and all its past states at once.

    This does mean, though, that git may not be what you want, since git, and like things, are designed to roll back to a particular point, not to publish all the versions as a navigable whole.

  6. Books should be databases http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/06/your-book-as-a-database-a-primer/

  7. “Are you sure about an “object enough to be packaged, priced, sold, and bought”. Great quote by the way, but I think that these are all artifacts of specific business model not the book. That current dominant business model is tied to ideas of stability in content/books. That business model is also waning which is also an indicator to me that the currency of instability might be on the rise.”

    On the contrary, fiction over the last 100 years or so has had a pretty heated reckoning with questioning the authenticity and authority of authors and texts. I feel pretty comfortable to stand slightly on the realism/value of closure/stability side of that debate.

    For education, database (recipes, reference), and how to books certainly the wiki model will continue to grow, but I think that you’ll also see subscription models for those categories, and not many will call themselves books. Novels and certain non-fiction titles will remain as the ones calling themselves books and will be fairly static in terms of content.

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