They could in the editing process if we use powerful tools from the software world. I’m thinking here of GitHub, the version-control system used by many software teams. What might a book look like created with GitHub? A team at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study has shown us with a dense (to non-mathematicians) volume called Homotopy Type Theory: Univalent Foundations of Mathematics. Andrej Bauer, an author and organizer of the project, explained on his blog that two dozen mathematicians worked together for about six months to create the book:
In the beginning it took some convincing and getting used to, although it was not too bad. In the end the repository served not only as an archive for our files, but also as a central hub for planning and discussions. For several months I checked github more often than email and Facbook[sic]. Github was my Facebook (without the cute kittens). If you do not know about tools like git but you write scientific papers (or you create any kind of digital content) you really, really should learn about revision control systems. Even as a sole author of a paper you will profit from learning how to use one, not to mention that you can make pretty videos of how you wrote your paper.
And as Wired.com noted in a story about the project, this was more than just an enjoyable project for some reasonably geeky folks: “If they’d tried to write this book by emailing each other files or using something like Dropbox, it would have been a complete mess. ... But GitHub made it fun.”
At least one writer (with programming skills) is working on a project to make this kind of collaboration easier than it is with GitHub. It’s called Penflip and has been described as “GitHub for Writers.” I’m signing up for the beta.
If books are to become living documents after their original publication—and I believe they should in many cases—we have another major hurdle: the book-numbering system called ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, a unique identifier created for commercial purposes. Any significant change to a book requires a new ISBN number—and that system is controlled by a single company that charges what I consider outrageously high rates for individual authors. And if you want to sell your book to libraries, ISBN numbers are pretty much required.
There’s actually a good reason for changing the identifier after significant alterations to a work. If we cite a passage from a book, we need to know what version of the book we’re citing, not just what page (or URL if it’s posted online). Wikipedia archives every edit made to an article, and you can cite any version of the article you choose.
It will get complex, fast, to apply this notion to books. But in an era in which some books can and should evolve, we should try. We should hack ISBNs and create a system that lets us constantly update our e-books and print-to-order physical books in a way that doesn’t break citations, even as it gives readers the most current versions.
The book world has already gone through major shifts in recent years, even if the biggest traditional publishers have tried to hold back the tide. We’re still early in this transition, perhaps the third inning if it’s a baseball game. When books can truly become living documents, it won’t be game over—it never is—but we’ll be in a much more interesting, and valuable, publishing ecosystem.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.