Continuous publishing through Live Editions

One of the biggest challenges of technical publishing is that sinking feeling you get a few moments, days, weeks, or months after you first see a book in print: it’s obsolete. No matter how much hard work you put into a book, you can only do so much future-proofing. Sometimes obsolescence comes slowly, but often, especially for popular topics, books have a depressingly short shelf life. Readers want to be able to use the latest and greatest, and blame books quickly when something no longer works.

We’ve been working for a while on a new way of ensuring that our content will continue to have a life after it’s been set down in print. Last week, we released Learning Rails: Live Edition, the pilot for what we hope will become a common way to ensure that our customers can get current content from us, even if it’s not yet time for a new edition.

Learnig Rails catalog page

The Live Edition is presently available as an Ebook (PDF, Mobi, and ePub) bundle, and the updated content will also be available through Safari Books Online and eventually print on demand. Customers who buy a Live Edition will get all the updates to the book up until the next new print edition of the book, when the cycle will start again. (For Learning Rails, customers will get all the updates for the upcoming 3.x version of Rails.)

Live Editions follow a different process. Instead of a long wait for a slow new edition, the model is “release early and often.” Authors can quickly respond to reader feedback and errata immediately, rather than filing it away for a reprint or a new edition.

Right now, Live Editions are built as an extension of our normal DocBook publishing process. Authors do have to make their updates in markup, rather than Word or OpenOffice. This may be unfamiliar to some authors, but gives them the power to do things like add or remove index entries as the book changes, and gives them a quick path to seeing PDFs in final form.

We plan to create more Live Editions in the near future, starting with topics where change is constant and having the latest information is the critical feature.

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  • Excellent! Congratulations Simon and Edd for the first Live Edition. I believe this will be the future of many IT books.

    I hope to see this technique in other books, even when we, the authors, will have a constant work to do ;-)

  • helebek

    Still why would you wanna pay for the next edition? You are still going to be charged for the next edition is out.

  • helebek – When the gap between releases of a product is months and the gap between releases of new editions of a book is years, the Live edition will be vastly more up to date.

    In the specific case of Learning Rails, 3.0 would normally trigger a new edition, but in this case we’re leaving the Live Edition open even if there is a new print edition. It’ll vary for other projects, but there are many cases where you’d be smarter to be the Live Edition and ride those updates for a long time.

  • bowerbird

    great idea!

    and you can get the ruby community to provide input!

    that way, your information will always stay up to date!

    and the ruby community will pay for fresh information!

    so you get people to volunteer information and then
    you charge them to buy it back from you! very nifty!

    in honor of tom sawyer, you could call ’em “whitewashers”!


  • Bowerbird –

    On this project, at least, I’m not expecting Ruby or Rails community members to turn up in droves with suggestions for the book. Errata are certainly helpful, but it’s still very much an author-driven process.

  • Rick Jelliffe

    Simon: How do you handle version identification? Presumably not a new ISBN. (In fact, do the online PDF publicatins even have an ISBN?) Just interested for professional reasons.

  • bowerbird

    simon said:
    > I’m not expecting Ruby or Rails community members
    > to turn up in droves with suggestions for the book.

    then i’d expect the book will become inferior to a wiki
    where such community members do turn up in droves.

    of course, you can always hope such an animal fails to
    come into being. but that’d be betting against the net.


  • bowerbird –

    Well, I originally started writing Learning Rails because I wasn’t content with the tutorials I found when I first started working with the tools.

    Rails certainly has developed a richer set of documentation since then, much of it even more beginner-friendly. I haven’t seen anything on the Web that really aimed at quite the same audience, offered a pace this slow, or went into quite this depth, though.

    This isn’t a bet against the Web – it’s a bet that the Web can let us do interesting things that weren’t possible in print, while satisfying an audience that hasn’t (yet) found what it wants on the Web.

  • Rick: We don’t identify each version at this time. The whole “EBOOK” bundle is assigned a single identifier, as it changes the bytes available for download change. The content is also stored in subversion, tags are made as it’s released but at the moment those tags are not propagated along the content tool chain. To date there hasn’t been a need. There very well may be a need in the future. Errata could be made simpler, but given it’s always going to be done by hand (At the most allowing readers to change content directly doesn’t seem likely) it’s not a huge issue. The source content itself (not any given version) also has an identifier assigned to it.

  • CVBruce

    This is what Adam has been doing at Take Control. I think it works great.

  • Rick Jelliffe

    Simon: So haven’t you all just invented the web site? Just a different browser and bigger chunks.

  • Rick –

    I don’t think we’re re-inventing the web site, though I do hope we’re on a road to re-inventing books. It’s difficult to merge the expectations people have of books – depth of content, neatly pruned and polished, and a (usually) coherent large scale structure – with the hopes they have in web sites for updated content.

    The two media both involve text and pictures, but the rest of the details are very different, and only sometimes substitute well for each other. Over the next few years I do expect that substitution to increase, as each medium learns from the strengths of the other, but we’re a long way from actually being there.

  • Rick Jelliffe

    Simon: Doesn’t your answer also reflect an attitude that a website *won’t* have that depth, pruning, polishing and coherence? I suggest this is not an attitude of “people” but of OR, with no disrepect intended. The book is just a license to press the Save As PDF button for the website.

  • Rick –

    There is content on the Web that is every bit as good as the content in books. There are sites that are immaculately pruned, carefully polished and have as much or more work poured into them as goes into a book.

    Unfortunately, my odds of getting something pruned, coherent, and deep on a specific subject (when I want that) are much better if I look for a book in a store rather than a site on the Web, whether or not it has a “Save as PDF” button.

    Much of the time that doesn’t matter – I can assemble what I need through a series of searches, connecting material from different sources to assemble a solution. I do that all the time in fields where I’m either familiar with the subject or don’t need to dive so incredibly deep that it’s hard to keep up.

    When it does matter, though, it really matters. It can be intensely frustrating to see something that I want to do, but can’t get to because there are too many missing pieces.

    I’ve had two cases in the last nine years – when writing wasn’t my primary occupation – where I set out to create long-form content specifically because of those challenges. I hadn’t really thought of comparing them until now, but –

    The first time, I set out to write about the .NET Compact Framework, as at the time that was the closest thing I could find to the iPhone programming we do now. It was a side project, on my own time, not associated with O’Reilly or any kind of revenue stream. I got all the way to Chapter 2 before the rest of life overwhelmed me.

    The second time, I set out to write about Rails. That time, a co-worker at O’Reilly thought it had promise, and it became a formal project with a revenue stream, editorial support, illustrator support, an indexer, and, of course, a schedule. I didn’t succeed in making the schedule, but even with the disruption of a new baby’s arrival, we did get the book written, I think successfully. And now, of course, we’re continuing it, with a little less formal support but considerable momentum.

    It is certainly possible for a community to provide support to a project, and to move beyond the author-as-visionary story that’s motivated publishing for far too long. Wikis and similar tools can help communities provide a home for these conversations, and produce results as detailed and up-to-date as any book.

    That doesn’t happen that often, though, and there are a lot of reasons for it. The ones I see most prominently include:

    * Authors have sentimental attachments to seeing their book actually in print, which seems to be less of a draw for getting content online. (This is fading, but still holds for many.)

    * A revenue stream has a way of focusing effort. As Stewart Brand originally put it, “Information wants to be free. It also wants to be expensive.” Different kinds of information seem to have different preferences.

    * The people most motivated to create documentation for a toolset are those closest to it – because of financial or ego investments in the products themselves. Those motivations don’t always produce the best documentation.

    * Experience is a virtue in knowing how things work, but not necessarily a virtue in explaining them. Apart from the massive infrastructure, this is probably the area where publishers can help the most. We’re used to figuring out how something will sound to a prospective reader, as we do it constantly at the heart of our practice.

    The Web is getting better at these things all the time. It’s fair to say that where the Web once filled in the (huge) information gaps left by (print) publishing, publishing now fills the gaps the Web hasn’t yet filled. Hopefully projects like this one will help us fill those gaps.

    The convergence is happening – it’s just not finished yet.

  • bowerbird

    simon said:
    > This isn’t a bet against the Web –
    > it’s a bet that the Web can let us
    > do interesting things that weren’t possible in print,
    > while satisfying an audience that
    > hasn’t (yet) found what it wants on the Web.

    you seem to define “the web” as a place with technology…
    i was defining it here as the people who occupy that place.

    you’re betting that a group of people will not come about
    that provides a free product that is superior to your book.

    if they don’t materialize, your revenue stream will continue.

    if they do, you will be in a dogfight. and you’ll likely lose.

    it’s also interesting to note that, had o’reilly anticipated
    that such a group would materialize (and do so _before_
    your book came to market), your “revenue stream” would
    probably have never happened in the first place…


  • I define the Web as a medium, a means for people to communicate. It certainly has its own culture, its own practices, and its own virtues, and you’re welcome to define it as “the people who occupy that place”.

    You seem to be spoiling for a fight – a dogfight, perhaps. I’m not particularly seeking one.

    The Rails community is about as Web-oriented a technical community as exists, with a vibrant culture of screencasts, podcasts, wikis, and online documentation, not to mention lots of small conferences. It’s one of the most difficult spaces out there for online competition.

    There’s still, for now, enough interest to sustain some books and certainly enough to sustain Live Editions, which build on work already done.

  • bowerbird

    simon said:
    > You seem to be spoiling for a fight – a dogfight, perhaps.
    > I’m not particularly seeking one.

    gee, i’m sorry you see it that way, simon.

    i was simply having a friendly discussion.

    and indeed, since the discussion is about
    your book, and your website in support of
    your book, i thought we were doing you
    a favor by drumming up some publicity…

    kinda like chris brogan advised authors
    to do, just recently, on this t.o.c. blog…


  • Bowerbird:

    Sorry for the apparent lack of clarity – I meant that it sounds like you’re spoiling for a fight between web content and published content. I’m not sure why.

    I think that leaves us in the context of a friendly discussion about the dogfight…

  • bowerbird

    simon said:
    > I meant that it sounds like you’re spoiling for a fight
    > between web content and published content.

    not at all. indeed, i believe they will not just coexist, but
    actually complement each other in a synergistic fashion…

    web content is great — dynamic, fast-paced, up-to-date.
    and published content is great — frozen and convenient.

    there’s a need for both, and i envision people will regularly
    publish web content off to a print-on-demand hard-copy,
    one they might have customized for their specific needs…
    (this customization factor is important if the book is about
    programming, for instance, but yes, it’s less so for a novel.)

    the dinosaur part of the equation as we now know it will be
    the _publishers_ and the general bricks-and-mortar market.

    the print-on-demand process doesn’t need a publisher
    as a middleman, and the whole idea of trucking around
    physical copies of books already seems “old-fashioned”.

    (and since those physical copies are all exactly identical
    — i.e., not at all customized to the individual recipient —
    the process drops from “old-fashioned” to “antiquated”.)


    you might think that i’m in favor of the “wisdom of crowds”
    as opposed to the “voice of the individual author”, but that
    is incorrect as well.

    i don’t think you, as an individual, could in fact compete
    very well against a community of ruby enthusiasts who
    had pulled together to create a communal pool of ruby
    that would substantially replace a need for your book…

    _but_ i would be rooting for you! i really would!

    i _love_ to see an individual out-smart a crowd. i do.

    and in a lot of cases, i can see it happening, quite easily.

    a crowd is never gonna write a novel like an individual can,
    for instance.

    but a tech book? well, that’s a slightly different _animal_,
    if you know what i mean…

    still, i salute you for trying! :+)


  • Roy

    Would we be seeing some rails 3.0 chapters soon?

  • Yes, there will be Rails 3.0 updates soon. The new release is arriving just a little after the arrival of my new son, so I’ve been more distracted than I’d hoped.

    I am working on it, and hope to have substantial material out before or during RailsConf (June 6-10).

    Thanks for your interest, and sorry for the delay!

  • Roy

    RailsConf throw a wrench into things? Any rails 3.0 chapters coming soon?

  • bowerbird said:
    > a crowd is never gonna write a novel like an
    > individual can, for instance.
    > but a tech book? well, that’s a slightly
    > different _animal_, if you know what i mean…

    There’s still the “author’s voice.” I’m guessing that unless you have a very strong editor, a tech book written by twenty different people would not read very smoothly.

  • Roy

    Ummmm…..Rails 3? Live edition and all that??? It’s November….