Writing updates and asking “Is Github my new Dropbox?”

I’m testing the waters for the first time in using Github rather than Dropbox to coordinate a private project. I’ve used private repos before for material that wasn’t meant for public consumption or to stage material that would then later be released openly but this is the first time I’m testing it out for material that’s substantially not code.

I’ve been meaning to give this a go ever since Github changed its policy to allow unlimited private repositories. I used to be limited to just five in total and I guarded those slots carefully. Under the new policy, I have repos to burn. Today was the first time that I set one up to use in this way.

It feels odd using Github instead of Dropbox as I’m so used to my Github content being primarily open, and Dropbox requiring explicit permissions. Have you tried using Github this way? And how have your experiences been?

The reason I’m testing out Github is that I’m updating iOS Drawing for Swift. I have a week or so to burn while I’m waiting on editorial feedback and tech review on my Swift Style title from Pragmatic. It will take another 4-6 weeks for Addison Wesley to release iOS Drawing rights back to me but I figured I’d get a head start writing some test chapters and get some early feedback about the project while I had some downtime.

I’ve used Dropbox for years to provide material to beta readers and gather their feedback as well as to coordinate material on multiple machines. In testing out Github, I was inspired by Pragmatic’s workflow.

Pragmatic uses a delightfully retro SVN version controlled interactions between editors and authors. (I’ve had to create an SVN/git cheatsheet to remind myself how to SVN all the things.) Pearson/AW in contrast uses Basecamp to manage projects. Basecamp offers a lot of great team features including messaging, calendars, email updates, and so forth, and I’ve been quite happy with it.

Book projects tend to be hefty, especially those with lots of illustrations and sample code but Github has generous file policies. It imposes a 1GB repo limit, 50 MB file warnings, and 100MB file limits.  These are far beyond what I’d need.

I’ve recently changed my overall personal workflow, having been inspired by conversations with editors at O’Reilly. O’Reilly has been pioneering modern, flexible content using markup source. I took my lead from them. (I’m personally using CommonMark instead of AsciiDoc and pandoc instead of Atlas, but the ideas are similar.)

Pandoc has been a pure delight. Even if CommonMark offers less nuance and control than Microsoft Word (however ugly MS Word is, it has power and all the ugly but practical features you need for professional publishing), pandoc allows me to push from manuscript to book in seconds.

I don’t have to use Calibre to build epub, pdf, and mobi output. My code examples are readable and my tables of contents are perfect. I’ve written a bunch of command-line utilities that automate the process of building the ebooks, zipping up archives, and storing copies in a Dropbox beta folder. I still use Dropbox to provide early reader access.

I built Swift Style‘s first draft using this workflow, writing in MacDown, an open source macOS Markdown editor. I like MacDown’s side-by-side display but, to be honest, for material of any size, it has no way to keep the text and output in sync, especially once you introduce illustrations.

If I find some time, I’ll probably try to mess with the source to add this functionality because once you drop the ability to see your edits as you add them, the utility loses a lot of its charm but that’s a project for another day.

In the meantime, I’m just getting settled into Github for this project. A lot of my work steps are similar: I start by pulling and wrap up by pushing but now it’s to the repo, and not to Dropbox. Github offers more version control than Dropbox’s undelete functionality and I don’t have the same worries about filling up my quota.

I’m curious: Are you using Github for non-coding projects? And how has that worked out for you? Did the DNS incident a few days ago make you rethink? Or are you committed to this kind of collaborative tool? Let me know. Thanks!


  • Hiya. Nice post.

    Not GitHub related per-se — I can see that working well — but, I’d be very interested in reading more about your pandoc workflow.

    Keep up the good work!

  • I’ve used Bitbucket for quite a few LaTeX documents and their attachments.

  • It’s kind of fascinating to hear other Swift authors are also using Pandoc as a technical writing tool.

    I just finished my 1000++ pages Swift book using pandoc (though in German language, so not of interest for most readers here). I also typeset it self with a rather complicated pandoc –> sed –> latex –> postscript tool chain. All typesetting commands (index entries, manual line and page breaks etc.) are embedded in the markdown source — so I have only *one* source.

    Anyway, good luck with your books!