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A Novel Idea: Write a Book with GitHub

08.28.2013
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You may think that Git and GitHub are just for writing code. For the most part, you'd be right. Git and GitHub revolutionized programming, making it super easy to manage and store revisions of projects when writing code. But GitHub stands to revolutionize the revision and management of writing something other than code: books.

This article on GitHub Teaching is the central repository of all of the techniques developed by Matthew McCullough, VP of Training at GitHub, and all other committers visible in the repo history--and that illustrates what is so revolutionary about this idea. 

Version Control for Books

The article linked to above can be thought of as a book about writing books on GitHub, which itself exhibits all of the virtues of open-source book authorship on GitHub. You can see who has committed content to the book, which pieces of content were authored by whom, and who has edited it.

Writing a book with GitHub (be it technical, non-fiction, or even fiction) is completely unlike any writing practice extolled by writers for centuries. Any book written on GitHub would not be the life's work of an individual locked up in a cabin somewhere pouring his soul onto a keyboard, to produce a manuscript not to be seen by anyone but his agent and editor before publication.

A book written on GitHub would be open source, published immediately all over the world and constantly evolving. It would have as many authors as committed to the project, and always open to revisions and re-revisions.

Decentralized Authorship

Any book written on GitHub would be open source, thus no individual could take ownership of the book in order to make a profit, and there's the rub--would any book written on GitHub be worth reading if no one could truly take ownership of the project? Perhaps that's why we don't see many book repos forked on GitHub ...

What do you think? Is GitHub a viable platform for book authorship? Could Git be used to write multi-authored, version-controlled books not only about technical subjects and programming, but also of fiction? Would you feel comfortable committing to a book repo if it was on a subject with which you were familiar? 



Comments

Jose Maria Arranz replied on Wed, 2013/08/28 - 1:46am

You're right, an EPUB is just a bunch of web pages + some XML to describe the structure, easily to be managed by a SCM system like git (public or private).


Jeroen Van Dijk replied on Wed, 2013/08/28 - 8:26am

Fun idea, writing a book in github. But a question and an opinion why it will not work...

Question: what will you put in subversioning? Pages? Chapters? Or that one document? Will you choose a document format? Or just save text? What will you accept for additions and modifications? Some committers could just check your spelling, and others might disagree and rewrite a chapter... What are your thoughts about this? (Maybe one owner is not good?)

Opinion: I think there are more reasons why books are not written in this open source world. Because, if someone adds an interesting chapter to your book, how about copyright on that part? Does it not already have copyright from someone else, and is it copied without mentioning the source? Books are more (and more easily) checked than software, and as the owner of the product you're getting yourself a lot of possible lawsuits if you decide to pull up a chapter with a copyrighted formula, a copied paragraph or just a scientist's quote without mentioning his name. If you wrote a text yourself, you know if you used another source. If you just take over someone else's text, then still the author is the one you copied. The Dutch law automatically adds a copyright, which lasts till 70 years after you die. Software evolves, changes, and keeps up-to-date. A book will get a new version sometimes, but the book's contents stays as the author wanted it to write, software lives till the customer has what he wants. It's just a completely different approach.

Loïc Prieto replied on Wed, 2013/08/28 - 9:30am

I find the idea fascinating. While i think some type of books can only be produced by pouring out your soul into the writing, and is thus, the work of an individual (most notably novels, essays and the likes), some technical books can be produced like this. Collectively owned and as such free to use. Free knowledge given freely to anyone.

A wonderful idea, one that can advance the world for everyone (that has access to the Internet).

Grzegorz Grzybek replied on Wed, 2013/08/28 - 11:06pm in response to: Jeroen Van Dijk

Actually there are books being written on GitHub. The most important (IMO) is Pro Git - a book which both teaches how to use Git and encourages to write (translate) it at the same time by creating pull requests to particular languages and chapters.

regards
Grzegorz Grzybek

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