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Show HN: GitBook – Build beautiful programming books using GitHub and Markdown (gitbook.io)
442 points by AaronO on Apr 3, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments



As someone who has just recently started writing programming books [1] I'm really excited to see more such tools!

Some thoughts:

1. Code examples are the biggest problem to me in the tools that I tried. There's many little things about them, that need to look right - line numbers, display on kindle, line breaks

2. At the beginning, I've used Git and vim for writing in Markdown. However, at some point I realised that I wasn't efficient - I switched to Scrivener [2] and dropped the idea of using Git. In my case, it made me much more productive.

3. Writing an ebook is different than writing code. You probably don't need much of the history.

4. Research is for me the biggest part of writing, experimenting with different ideas, collecting code samples. It's good to have a proper tool to support it. In my case, Scrivener [2] was a huge improvement.

5. I use a combination of Scrivener, Leanpub, Dropbox and getdpd [3] for the whole project. Scrivener for research and notes organisation, Leanpub for generating the result files (PDF, mobi, epub), Dropbox for syncing those two. Getdpd for the selling part.

[1] http://rails-refactoring.com/

[2] http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

[3] http://getdpd.com/


I also stated off writing a book using Markdown in Vim and was pretty happy at first. One of my goals was to have a Web site that mirrored the book content (http://osc.justthebestparts.com).

(I learned a lot about writing Markdown-to-epub+Web-site tools as well :))

But my book had numerous illustrations and occasionally lengthy code samples. What worked fine on a Web page did not play out so nice in a naive conversion to mobi/epub/PDF.

I ended up waiting until all content was basically done and then using InDesign to set the layout (primarily for PDF but it helped with the epub export as well). The biggest issue was making sure that breaks occurred in a sensible way. (I took a look at Scrivener and it just wasn't right for me. But I encourage people to try it out.)

I'm all for more tools that make it easier for people to focus on content over the nuts-and-bolts of production but one really needs to be sure that the tools are producing the results you want, and that's going to vary with the type of content.


pagination and breaks can be problematic in e-books, especially in conjunction with illustrations/captions.

but one shouldn't need to move stuff to indesign, as most e-book viewer-apps support css "page-break" now.

another good tip is to create small chapters/sections, recognition that screens tend to be smaller than pages.

-bowerbird


but one shouldn't need to move stuff to indesign, as most e-book viewer-apps support css "page-break" now.

If I were only targeting epub/mobi I wouldn't have bothered with InDesign, but getting the PDF just right was important to me.

nother good tip is to create small chapters/sections, recognition that screens tend to be smaller than pages.

Since the user can set the font and text size the idea of page size goes pretty much out the window.

Using CSS page-break doesn't quite help, since it presumes what has come before and how it fit on the page. What's needed is orphan/widow control and "keep with next" so that, for examples, related sections can be rendered on one page or the next but not split across pages.

In practice, though, I found I needed to aim for some sort of highest common factor across popular devices, keep test-viewing the results, and drop anything too clever.


jamesbritt said:

> getting the PDF just right was important to me.

i respect that. how were you generating the .pdf?

*

> Since the user can set the font and text size

> the idea of page size goes pretty much out the window.

what pagesize did your .pdf have? that's what i meant.

if you put each section on its own e-book screen, and make the sections small enough to fit on one _screen,_ or two, or three, they'll also fit on one/two _pages._

*

> Using CSS page-break doesn't quite help,

> since it presumes what has come before

> and how it fit on the page.

i'm not sure i understand.

so -- for the sake of others reading this thread -- let me explain further. when you create the e-book, if you segment the book into small-enough sections, it'll generally work, across almost all situations, no matter how the person has configured the fontsize. so there, a "screen-break" comes before each section, and before-and-after images you want to fill a screen.

conversely, for the .pdf, you _know_ the pagesize, and the fontsize as well, so you know where pagebreaks are, and you add/delete/change until you get what you want.

*

> What's needed is orphan/widow control

> and "keep with next" so that, for examples,

> related sections can be rendered on one page

> or the next but not split across pages.

it would be nice if the programs had enough smarts to do this automatically; until then, you do it manually.

but you don't need indesign to do it; you really don't.

i'd be happy to show you how i'd do your book, if you'd be interested in seeing it, if you send me a copy of it.

*

> In practice, though, I found I needed to

> aim for some sort of highest common factor

> across popular devices, keep test-viewing

> the results, and drop anything too clever.

that is the approach that is needed these days, yes.

-bowerbird


I don't recall now just how I originally did the PDF, but it was some CLI tool that read either the markdown or HTML.

let me explain further. when you create the e-book, if you segment the book into small-enough sections, it'll generally work, across almost all situations, no matter how the person has configured the fontsize.

That's probably true enough for ebook readers (and I got good results for just epub using my CLI tools) but once I went to InDesign for the PDF layout using it for epub generation was no big deal and that was where I was making final changes to the text.

i'd be happy to show you how i'd do your book, if you'd be interested in seeing it, if you send me a copy of it.

Thank you. If you (or anyone else following this thread) wants to grab it I put up links at http://osc.justthebestparts.com/grab/

(If you need the actual markdown files I'd have to see about packing those up. I was writing the book as a Webby-generated site using a combination of Markdown and ERB. I had some scripts that would then use that same generated HTML to package it up as epub. )

It would be great if I could use command-line tools to generate the PDF while not sacrificing the precise look and layout I want but I'm deeply skeptical this can be done without a visual tool and manual adjustments to adjust things for aesthetic reasons. (Or without learning LateX. :))


ok, that didn't take long. can't open your .epub file. it doesn't validate, and i wonder if anyone can open it. so that's a major problem that you will need to solve...

unzipped it to find out why, and discovered it was made with calibre. e-book developers hate that program because it does a rewrite of the underlying .html and .css files, creating an unholy mess that's very difficult to decipher. personally, i won't touch a calibre file; life is too short.

aside from the .epub, the .mobi and the .pdf do just fine in getting the content across, so even though i would likely have done them slightly differently, what you have is fine.

still, if you really want more feedback, i can give it. but the original markdown files would be best, concatenated so they're just one big file, with the text running linearly.

(a book really works best with the whole thing in one file, because that usually minimizes editorial inconsistencies while you're writing, and makes it easier to check later. it also dampens file-clutter considerably, which is good.)

-bowerbird


ok, that didn't take long. can't open your .epub file. it doesn't validate, and i wonder if anyone can open it. so that's a major problem that you will need to solve...

Weird. It was generated using InDesign (though I've now learned that opening the .epub in Calibre's ebook-reader will insert a bookmarks file into the zip).

I then used Kindlegen to turn that epub into mobi for sale on Amazon, and Calibre to create the mobi I offer elsewhere. No one has told me they had any trouble opening files and I've viewed them using assorted programs.

(a book really works best with the whole thing in one file, because that usually minimizes editorial inconsistencies while you're writing, and makes it easier to check later. it also dampens file-clutter considerably, which is good.)

I find it easier to break things out into chapter files. Turning the chapters into a Web site even if only hosted locally) makes it easy to navigate through the whole thing. It works for me.


got 'em, and will take a look at them, and e-mail feedback.

-bowerbird


I also started off on a very similar path writing my programming book [1] and ended up switching over to using LaTeX-powered Texpad for Mac.

It's resulted in a huge gain in productivity, in terms of both managing the content and the code samples and keeping everything nice and consistent. (That last item can become difficult, much quicker than I originally anticipated.)

It's wonderful to see more tools cropping up in this area; there's most definitely a need for them!

[1] http://www.alexpcoleman.com/your-first-web-app/


My company just published our first programming book, jQuery Plugin Development In 30 Minutes. I worked with the author to establish a workflow that leveraged GitHub and markdown, but at the end of the day the material had to be brought into Scrivener for the final production steps.

FWIW, Scrivener has limited markdown support that let me bring in the code blocks and terms that are formatted in the Scrivener editing window. But getting text formatted as code to compile properly to various versions (PDF, epub, mobi, etc.) took some work -- specfically I had to freeze the formatting for every block and term. It was a pain, but the final product turned out well.

The only other thing I would like to add is I wish there were a way to get the Scrivener manuscript back into markdown and Git, for future revisions. Anyone have ideas on how to handle that?


I'm working on a book right now and I struggle with the syntax highlighting part with Scrivener. Overall, I really like Scrivener, but it seems really hard to integrate proper syntax highlighting and code formatting in an efficient manner.


How does selling on your own site compare to selling on Leanpub and KDP?


I didn't consider and test KDP, so I can't say anything.

As for Leanpub:

1. Last time I checked, they didn't let me take the customer emails and use outside of Leanpub. I find it a very important limitation to the way I do the marketing - via my mailing list. In practice, my readers are more Leanpub customers, not mine. I want to build long-term relationship with my readers, to deliver more value to them, even after they bought my book. To be fair - Leanpub has their own tool for sending emails, I haven't tried that. I'm happy enough with MailChimp, not to see reasons to switch.

2. From the tools I researched, Leanpub is the best when it comes to PDF/mobi/epub generation. It takes a while to learn their process but it was worth it.

3. I'm really grateful that Leanpub allows the process I'm doing - generate the files using their tools, but selling on another site.

Overall, the tools you're choosing should fit your whole process of researching, writing, marketing, selling.


Do you write it in Scrivener too? Or just use it as a notebook and then write it up in another text editor?


Here's a cool book using GitBook : http://samypesse.github.io/How-to-Make-a-Computer-Operating-...

It's written by GitBook's co-author and teaches the basics of writing an OS in C++.


The article title is why I came, the book you mention is why I stayed. Very interesting read, I wish more was available!


Looks interesting. A little bit of feedback: - I didn't like that the table of contents disappeared on me when I clicked on a page. - Related to this, it would be great for the progress widget to show the actual name of each page/chapter, if not all the time, at least when you hover with the mouse. - In the table on contents: mark in some way the links that are going to take you away from the book and into a github view. - The Next button feels too big in pc. Takes away the attention from the content itself. Thank you for your hard work!


Thanks for the feedback. We'll look into fixing this. Keep in mind we built GitBook in our spare time over the past 3 days.

Feel free to contribute with Pull Requests ! (the beauty of being open)


"Keep in mind we built GitBook in our spare time over the past 3 days."

That's impressive!


> in our spare time over the past 3 days.

nice work. you went in with a clear head. congratulations.

i will watch your further development.

-bowerbird


Typo on the page - says 'exercices' under the Interactive heading lower right.


I completely agree. I didn't like that the table of contents disappeared. The page also made me feel like scrolling but that isn't supported. Awesome work!


Quick feedback: When I get to a "next" page, the focus must be on something other than the core content, because spacebar doesn't scroll the page. Clicking anywhere in the main content box makes spacebar traversal work :)

Looks neat, might be a good candidate for longer-form literature than jekyll pages.



Yeah, I wish you could do that without the focus call: http://stackoverflow.com/q/22046683/4525

But what then is the point of setting tabindex?


Not to be pedantic or anything, but git != github.

AFAICS, none of this is about github. It's about git, the protocol, the versioned object store and markdown, the markup layer.


A big part of that is true. It's mostly about Git. But it is also about GitHub, GitBook integrates well with GitHub repos, it links up your book to the issue tracker, watchers & stars as well.

Plus it's easy to host the HTML output of your books on GitHub thanks to their brilliantly simple gh-pages service.

So that's why GitBook is also about GitHub.


Export to epub and replace the textbook industry


Sphinx already does ePub, PDF, and HTML. (Pair with ReadTheDocs.org for automatic builds and hosting from a git repository).


I had no idea. Thanks for the info.


That would be nice I agree ! Care to open an issue/pull request ?


github.com/Connexions - does a lot of epub output from HTNL5. Phil Schatz is very good there and might be worth following up with.

cheers


Yet another web-based ebook viewer which disables zoom on the iPad and then has no way to change the font size. Sigh.


Add an issue on Github (https://github.com/GitbookIO/gitbook/issues) ;)


This is incredible! Here is the repo if anyone wants to star it: https://github.com/GitbookIO/gitbook

I will definitely use this for the CoderDojoNYC curriculum I'm building.


The front page and demo's seem to be all about interactive on-screen books. Does GitBook also do things like pretty PDF export? (Converting the HTML to PDF does NOT count!)


Cool. I built a somewhat-similar tool [1], which doesn't handle any of the interactive examples, but generates physical books (PDFs) and ePub, etc. I'm getting close to publishing my first "real" book with it, which should be cool to see.

[1]: https://bitbucket.org/elliottslaughter/bookmd


This looks pretty good. It's very similar to something I built [1] to scratch my own itch for some illustrated short stories I've been self-publishing.

I needed some more fine-grained control over page layout so I did go down a completely different route for generating PDFs - I do manual pagination and render the PDF pages using PhantomJS - but generating ePubs is something I've been wanting to do for a while.

Hope you don't mind me looking through your code to see how you've handled ePubs.

[1]: https://github.com/andrey-p/apocalism-js


Go for it. That's why it's open source. :-)

For BookMD, I use Pandoc [1], which is the most versatile Markdown generator in existence. Pandoc has out-of-the-box support for ePub, so I just use that.

The part where more customization is needed is if you want page breaks. For PDF output, Pandoc lets you use Latex directives in your Markdown (\newpage, etc.), so that should work fine. For ePub, I'm not actually sure what you would do, or whether you would even want the same sort of pagination.

[1]: http://johnmacfarlane.net/pandoc/


Hmm, that's not quite what I want in that case - I've used Pandoc before but I want pretty strict control over the way things are converted since I use my project to build books where layout is almost as important as the content. That's why I went for manual pagination and page-by-page conversion with PhantomJS rather than using Pandoc.


Sure, and with PDFs that makes sense. But with ePub, you're going to lose a lot of control anyway, so it's not obvious to me to what extent you can achieve the effect you want, even with a custom tool.


Just as a heads-up, the font 'appNormal' looks like this on Windows / Chrome 33:

http://i.imgur.com/mXfy7NR.jpg

Looks great on OSX etc, so as this is about beautiful books wanted to say. Hope that helps, and good luck with the idea - looks really interesting.


AFAIK, Chrome/Windows does not do font antialiasing/smoothing, which it does do on Linux and OSX.


More important than "smoothing" - the font baseline is all over the place


Yep, it's the baseline. It looks even worse in IE11

http://i.imgur.com/jWcyrz6.jpg

Normally comments like mine can be a bit pedantic, but in this case it's the front page of something that 'builds beautiful programming books', so I think relevant.


It still looks terrible on Linux for me as well.


Same problem on FF ESR 24.4.0


Not as nice as this but there is Github's git-scribe that uses AsciiDoc for writing - https://github.com/schacon/git-scribe

It hasn't seen movement lately though.


Cool! Good Job. I really like it. Many times the documentation for programming projects look like grab. This project is a big help. Many Thanks1


This kind of stuff is really cool. I've been working on something similar, execept it's integrated with Github pages. More info here if anybody's interested: http://www.bryanbraun.com/2014/04/02/publishing-books-to-git...


This is really cool. Could be used as an interactive documentation platform for libraries and frameworks as well.


Looks nice. Here's a few suggestions:

- The green "finished" bar on the last page should behave as a button. Take me back to the ToC.

- The section/chapter number should be displayed on every page.

- Not a fan of the green progress bar being animated. I think it makes the page loading seem slower than it is.


Similar concepts are found with Penflip (http://www.penflip.com) that go outside programming but offer similar functionality, depending on the breadth of what you may want to write on.


I'm a big fan of penflip. Create for collaboration and got some neat features for editing your books.


Interesting to see what @mhartl thinks about this since he recently launched softcover.io


Have been trying to google what this was ALL week after finding out about it here on HN a while ago! Thanks for the mention so I can properly bookmark it this time <3


Very cool. I was just planning on writing something like this for my website, but instead I'll devote the time to hacking this up. You may see a few pull requests from me in the coming days!

Nice choice on Markdown, and... three days? Nice work.q


Sure! Pull Requests are more than welcome.

I'm currently hacking up an epub export feature.


s/checkout/check\ out

"Checkout" is a noun. "Check out" is a verb.


In svn "checkout" is a verb.


Fixed, thank you


This is an awesome first implementation of a good idea. :)

If I was the type to communicate clearly enough in writing to create an open textbook, I'd use it.


Can also be used to create documentations. Cool!


Yeah! this is something I've always wanted. Now I can convert any github doc to a codecademy like learning experience !


What good timing! I had just started on a tutorial project, and was thinking of achieving the same using Jekyll + plugins.


i don't frequently get excited about randomy stuff, but when I do, its about stuff like this.

- why does your tweet button not mention you guys on twitter ? i'm like, hey I want to start the 'mention train'... but i don't know who to mention ? you could start by mentioning @railstutor ... just sayin !


I like "Intro to JS" book. Is it open source and available for local usage (download)?


Looks great. It would be cool if the left and right keys changed the pages.


This, absolutely. I kept pressing space and the right arrow key expecting the page to change.


Very nice :D README.md link to gitbook.io refers to github.io :D


Fixed!


This is one of the best thing came out this days.


Font is messed up on Chrome/Windows


Really Cool!


its good.


The title says it is intended primarily for programming books. But what if some fiction writers discovered it and got creative? Who knows, the resulting novel might become a work art.


It's primarily targeted programmers. Because they are already familiar with Git/GitHub & Markdown and we have some "unique" features for programming tutorials/courses, such as interactive tutorials.

But you're totally correct, gitbook could and should be applied to many other kinds of writers. Markdown is a nice input format, and as soon as GitBook supports epub & pdf, other writers could use it for "production" quality books.




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