There are a number of web-based book production platforms out there at the moment. Booktype was the first. Its birth was around 2006-2007 and it started as a series of extensions (written in Perl) to the TWiki platform. TWiki was, and is, an old school wiki with a very pluggable architecture.
Booktype is now a stand-alone book production platform built with Python (Django). I founded the project and kept it going for many years, and I’m very proud of it. It is free software and now has a permanent new home at the Open Source, Berlin-based, development house Sourcefabric. I’ve since moved on to think about similar issues for the Public Library of Science.
Since Booktype, many platforms have come out of the woodwork including Atlas (closed source), PressBooks (semi open), gitbook, Inkling, PubSweet, Lexicon, Penflip (closed), Gitbook.io, FastPencil (closed), and many many others.
Seeing these evolve has been interesting. Most interesting is that I see a lot of mistakes still being made which we made in the early days of Booktype. I’m not saying Booktype is perfect, it is far from it, but I wanted to document what I consider to be a few high-level gotchas for those wanting to build this kind of platform. We need more book production platforms that improve the game. We need to avoid making the same mistakes over and over, so I hope the following will give those building tools from scratch at least something to think about.
This article is first in a series. It should be noted that I am targeting my comments at those that wish to build Open Source book production platforms. I’m not terribly interested (actively disinterested), in closed source platforms. Hence the narrative encourages you, the Open Source development team, to consider book production platforms as a distinct category of software – don’t use existing software such as MediaWiki, or WordPress etc to do the job.
I firmly believe that book production platforms should be built as stand-alone applications dedicated to the work at hand – building books. Book production platforms should be specialised software that ‘thinks like a book’. Your users want to make books, not blog posts or wiki articles, and they deserve a platform that is built with their goal as the central premise.
Don’t learn this the hard way as I did. Booktype started with a wiki and it did a pretty good job. At the time TWiki could be considered as a kind of rapid prototyping framework for Perl, much like Django or Rails is for Python and Ruby respectively. It provided essential login features and user management, plus a host of plugins to extend functionality with diffs, reports, permission management etc. It did pretty well for a while. However, the wiki-like paradigm soon started to grow old. Initially, I had pulled the guts out of the wiki and replaced wiki markup editors with HTML editors (more on that later) and did a whole lot of crazy URL redirects using .htaccess to get nice book-like book/chapter URLs and attending structure. That was OK, but when it came to other functionality that books needed, then the wiki paradigm was sagging pretty noticeably. It also took increasing amounts of time and effort to build an interface that was clearly intended for making books instead of wiki pages, not to mention the issues with updating a core application framework for security or performance improvements when the internals had been hacked so extensively it no longer really worked the same way as the original application.
A bit of template paint helped with some of these issues, and I commissioned some programmers to extend TWiki to fill in these book-wiki gaps, but, after a while, it became obvious it would be better to build a dedicated standalone book production platform from scratch. Given all my experience since then, I am convinced that if you want to make books you should have a software built specifically to do that.
Book production platforms are a specific category of software as the functional needs are quite different from those for producing wikis, blogs, or other types of CMS. When building book production software there are essential paradigmatic differences that just force you out of the existing categories and into the new…
The following are some examples, and I will document one or more at a time as this series continues. First of all, the Table of Contents.
Table Of Contents
Any book production software needs a way to create and manage a Table of Contents (ToC). Neither wikis, CMS, nor blogs have the need to structure content in this way: they are designed for non-linear, contextual navigation (you click on a link from within a paragraph to be taken to somewhere else). The closest these other software paradigms get to a Table of Contents is through navigation bars and breadcrumbs and hacking together ‘lists’ of associated content.
However, books have a very linear structure so one thing follows another in a vertical narrative. That’s not to say you can’t break the structure. However, if you intend to create paper books or electronic books, then it is very difficult to escape this very strict linearity. An easy and fluid way to manage this vertical linearity is a must for any book production platform.
There have been attempts at making this work with other types of software. Mediawiki makes an attempt to do this with the concept of ‘collections’. A user can save references to articles in a list then jockey them into order. Other software, such as PressBooks, has attempted the same with blogs – organising blog posts into a list. But the solutions are never satisfactory. It always feels like a compromise – the poor user is asked to work with something that feels like it’s actually built for another job, and it is.
A Table of Contents interface should be the heart of a book production platform, and the platform should own that space. There needs to be a fluid and fast interface for creating new chapters, moving items around, quickly seeing the structure of the book, and if you like the idea of concurrent production, then it needs also to be able to show at a glance who is working on what. The user needs to be able to add and remove chapters at a click, move chapters outside of the ToC while keeping them available for possible later use, or rename them – right from the ToC without the need to dig down into individual chapter settings. Additionally, the changes in structure need to be dynamic: updating immediately for every user without the need to refresh. The status of individual chapters needs to be ascertained from a single glance at the ToC. The interface for book production should be fast, clean (separate from additional blog or wiki cruft), and feel like it is an interface built specifically for the job it is attending to.
The ToC is how people get an overview of a book, and book production software necessarily gives them the tools to manage that overview. So start with the Table of Contents as a central UI element, and let the user go from there. The user will then feel that the platform is all about managing their book. The UI will communicate ‘book! book! book!’…not ‘wiki!…err…book!…errr…wiki!’. A ToC as a central motif communicates the purpose of the platform and gives the user a tool that gives an immediate overview of the work at hand, and the output feels like a book from the very beginning.
Book production platforms need to have a Table of Contents interface as a central part of the paradigm, and this should be reflected in the UI – it should not just be something that has been tacked on as a ‘workable solution’. Start building something to manage a ToC beautifully and work out from there.