Fork the Book

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

While we continue to refer to ebooks as ‘books,’ this genetic legacy seems to be inherited along with the name. Books are stable. Websites are not. That’s the lore.

However, this distinction is more than a little arbitrary and it’s interesting to consider what advantage there might to destabilising books. What would we gain and lose if books became unstable and staticness was viewed as a property of a particular era intimately linked to the days of the printing press and paper books?

The technology is right here to make books unstable. EPUBs, for example, are easy to re-edit and ‘re-publish’. In early 2012, I made a demo with Juan Barquero to demonstrate this reality (the ebook itself is no longer online but Phil Schatz took up the idea and you can see something similar here.

The demo uses EPUB as a storage mechanism and the editor enables you to edit the ebook directly. You can edit the pages in the ebook itself. While this is in itself interesting, it doesn’t offer much more than what you can do with word processing now. It is true that the book can be generated as an EPUB on the fly, but this is optimisation of current processes, it in itself doesn’t offer anything new. You could do the same with MS Word files, it would just take a little longer.

What is more interesting is that the demo uses GIT as a back end (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. The git demo opened the door to cloning, editing, forking and merging the book into infinite versions. Clicking the download button gives you a new version of the book in its current state, immediately, but there could be 5 different versions of the same book in production. Or 50, or 100. Creating a new version is simply a matter of clicking a button and the book will be forked to its own repository. Further, it is possible that each fork can inherit the improvements in other forks by merging the content of several versions into one.

What does this point to? It points towards a particular kind of book instability. However, while it is technically feasible, the question really is – does this kind of book instability have any value? I believe it does. I would go as far to say that this kind of book, which I would prefer to call a ‘forkable’ book, is more valuable in many situations than stable books.

As a very small case in point, let’s have a quick peak at the life of a forkable book. The Cryptoparty 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 speed with  which the book was created was as 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 publications were also created with Book Sprints the previous year.

Creating The CryptoParty Handbook was simply a matter of forking (copying) each of the other books and merging them into a new container. Easily done. The team, under my facilitation, then structured a new 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 which 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. As if this isn’t enough forking, the foundation books, from which the Crytoparty handbook was based, have also been forked into many many other books.

This is just one example highlighting what can happen when we allow books to be forkable. They become extremely powerful bodies of content that can be re-purposed infinitely for whatever context is necessary. That’s pretty valuable.

As a final note. 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 — and that points towards new sets of skills required in the emerging publishing practice.

Originally posted on 22 Jan 2013 on O’Reillys Tools of Change site: