I just came across an excellent write-up called How to Fork a Book: The Radical Transformation of Publishing. “Forking” is a term borrowed from open source software, whose license allows anyone to make their own modified versions that diverge from the original, taking it in another direction, like a fork in a path.
Well, nowadays there are open source books. Forking turns them from fixed, unchanging artifacts into living works that grow and develop over their lifespans or even give birth, their very authorships blurring.
That, in turn, reminded me of conversations I had in the past year or so with Alex Schroeder about wikis: an electronic medium, defined by continuous rewriting and blurred authorship, that’s been in decline for a solid decade now. On my blog, I argued it’s because people don’t want authorship to become blurred, but clearly there are exceptions to the rule.
Yet it doesn’t seem to happen very often. While Wikipedia has been around for two decades now, and so have the Creative Commons licenses, the practice of taking a free culture book and building upon it is uncommon. In fact, this is only the second or third case I’ve heard of so far. It’s a lot more common in the field of videogame art, as I wrote in a book of my own. And even that is relative: most people simply stick to reusing free culture works unchanged.
Why it matters? Because, frankly, book publishing these days looks tired and adrift. Maybe people read more, assuming we can trust surveys, but I’m not sure they read books. Indies struggle to sell; big publishers report moving fewer units (yet making bigger profits, go figure); and don’t even get me started about what can be found in Romanian bookstores. Certainly most of my own reading time is spent online, jumping from blog to blog, going back, opening more tabs.
If this makes the web sound like one giant Memex, that’s because it is. It’s how we always wanted to read, but could only take notes, earmark pages or collect newspaper clippings.
Books don’t need to be reinvented. Reading, however, does — as an act inseparable from writing. Because we ache to create, yet our creativity is too often stifled.
Five years ago, I argued on TeleRead that self-publishing is the new punk. Turns out I wasn’t the first one. And you know what else punk is, by definition? A culture of reuse and remix.
That was going to be the end of the story. Let me ramble some more anyway. It’s hard to talk about books and forks without evoking The Garden of Forking Paths. Our story, however, isn’t about hypertext for once, but a future where asking someone if they read a particular book might elicit an answer more like, “Which edition? I’ve read the one maintained by this obscure artist collective in Hamburg as it stood in 2026”. In a way it would be not unlike in the Middle Ages, when each copy of a book was by definition unique.
Of course, medieval manuscripts also never changed anymore once completed, while digital works can remain forever in flux. In practice, however, even wikis settle down after a while, their text as complete and polished as it’s going to get. The original Wiki Wiki Web for example went read-only in 2014, only a few months short of its 20th anniversary. Others remain editable, able to be revived at any time should people want to. And if not, there’s always forking if the license allows it. Modern technology gives us the choice, and that’s what matters.
We’ve been free from the limitations of the past for a good while now. But old habits die hard.
Image: Source. RHeins photo snapped in in 2012 Jin’an, Fuzhou, Fujian, China. Creative Commons 3.0 licensed.