Living Websites, Living Books
To me, websites are living objects. They require regular care and maintenance. Such care starts with monitoring, from uptime control to visual site tests, demands technical quality control, and ends with content checks, all of them possibly requiring action at any time. Web maintenance is as complex as it is important, but only a living website, a maintained website with maintained content exemplifies craftsmanship and quality. (I write much about all these topics, and I try to lead by example.)
I do like, too, then, that years ago, at WHATWG level, Ian had driven the effort to move HTML from a versioned spec model to a “living standard” model. He didn’t do so for those same reasons that I just mentioned for websites, but there is overlap, and the decision is useful to scrap the problems versioning brings altogether and with that make the standardization process a true process, just like web design is a process, a process of iteration rather than “fire and forget.”
Overall I appreciate the sense that almost anything in life seems to be subject to change, to updates if we want. Keeping our work alive, tweaking and improving it when needed and feasible feels natural to me.
One area, however, where I didn’t at first feel this as a reader, but as an author, was with books. Much as with my articles I thought, oh, there’s something to add, there’s something to clarify, there’s a typo. In my first book nothing was to be done about it except to write a second edition. But when writing ebooks I noticed how I could walk back in, make changes, and re-publish the scripts—and doing so proved all easy with Amazon’s KDP (where forcing updates to existing readers is difficult though, so not to endanger readers’ highlights, and I’ll yet have to try other platforms to gauge how this would work there—I’m preparing a test with Lulu).
I’ve been releasing minor updates to my ebooks for a while now and you can tell by checking respective previews on Amazon and looking at the meta text at the beginning: It would say something like “Written and published 2015. Updated July 25, 2017.”, as with On Web Development.
This, now, is what I understand to be living books, and it’s what I find to be natural, for useful, to do for myself and to encourage others to likewise consider. I care less about effects on pricing at this point (irrespective of technical challenges with push updates I’m not sure living books warrant higher prices) than about the idea of, again, quality, of trying to provide the best possible product and service.
As such I’ve also approached O’Reilly to do similar with my Little Books:
[…]in my other ebooks I’ve somewhat established something I’d call “living books.” That is, I them again every once in a while and publish updates and improvements on the spot.
For the Little Books I could imagine something like this, too. Not as light as what I do in other books, so I can see greater content changes, but not that much as with new editions.
…but the conversations are ongoing and the results possibly nothing to be elaborated on here. The reasons why I share this are 1) that the idea of a living book goes beyond errata, but does not mean there wouldn’t be any new editions anymore (in fact, the living book process can be fairly light—it’s comparable to website updates in spirit), and 2) that I like to walk the talk, that I want to have a conversation about this, that I want us to think about how we can make books more useful and valuable.
I run out of fuel to paint the idea in ever more vivid colors; perhaps we can close by establishing that keeping our work up-to-date is to keep it alive; that this way, it can stay relevant and useful and valuable; and that maintenance is one key to quality. And just as we know this about websites, we can know this about books. Living websites; living books.
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have questions or suggestions about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message.
How would you say one should mark later corrections or complements? In an errata it’s obvious which parts are changed. With “not-living” books the speed that something changes is not that fast – but what’s different in a new edition is normally not retraceable.
Is it important to point out corrections? Or is it enough that it’s now better than before? How much does “living” mean to preserve earlier mistakes for reference?
If some mistakes aren’t completely deleted but struck through with a correction aside they can give you some value.
If it’s a fact that isn’t up-to-date anymore it shows a development and gives an impression about progress, e. g. „F̶o̶n̶t̶s̶ ̶a̶r̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶l̶y̶ ̶d̶i̶s̶p̶l̶a̶y̶e̶d̶ ̶w̶h̶e̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶a̶r̶e̶ ̶i̶n̶s̶t̶a̶l̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶u̶s̶e̶r̶s̶ ̶s̶y̶s̶t̶e̶m̶ Update 2010: Fonts in the file format WOFF (WOFF2) are loaded from the server and can be displayed even if the user doesn’t have installed them.“ [This example is not that precise, it ignores EOT]
If a statement is more precised by a correction you learn that the author still engages with his/her topic and tries to give you the best information available.
If the correction is just a spelling mistake it should be deleted in the text but maybe listed in an errata for reference. E. g. at the moment I read „Ulysses“ and on page 58 of my German edition there’s the sentence „nutter im sterben“. It’s a telegram which explains the lowercase but in my opinion it should be „mutter im sterben“ (mother is dying). Or is it a hint to the word /nutte/ (“slut”)? If I could consult an (open) errata I’d be able to see if this has been corrected as a mistake in a next edition – or otherwise write the publisher who may be glad about such a tip. The publisher O’Reilly makes errata available .
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Perhaps my most comprehensive book: The Web Development Glossary (2020). With explanations and definitions for literally thousands of terms from Web Development and related fields, building on Wikipedia as well as the MDN Web Docs. Available at Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Leanpub.