Getting Started with Writing a Technical ebook

The early release of my ebook Juggling JSON with jq comes out tomorrow! However this post is more about the process of writing the book itself.

Getting started on an technical ebook, (such as Juggling JSON with jq), requires a bit of upfront setup. On the ebook side, I decided to go the route of writing the book in Markdown, and generating the various formats using Sphinx. While I feel most comfortable using Markdown, and yet Sphinx uses reStructedText by default. So I had to coax Sphinx to accept Markdown by using a project called m2r. Generating the PDF version of the ebook took a bit to get working. Sphinx uses LaTeX to generate PDFs, and LaTeX while powerful can be clunky to work with. I wrapped everything up with an invoke script, and now I can quickly generating new versions of ebook in the various formats I want to support.

Something unique to writing technical books, is the need to have actual working examples. You can learn by reading, but working through exercises and examples re-enforces that learning. In the case of Unjumbling JSON with jq, I needed an example REST API that readers play with. I searched for some nice open APIs, but nothing seemed very compelling. Many of the open APIs require some form of user registration and non-trivial authentication method that would complicate the examples in the book. So I setup a simple demo API for the book. Thankfully with Docker and Flask, that isn’t a particularly daunting task. (Dockerizing most of my webapps definitely made my live easier overall.)

Finally using Gumroad made marketing and selling the book a lot more approachable. Getting everything setup for e-commerce is a daunting job, if you plan on doing it yourself. Thankfully for ebooks, and similar digital products, Gumroad solves most of the problems one can encounter. I definitely recommend using them if you are planning to do something similar.

Adding a Code Editor to Rookeries

One of the main selling points for Rookeries, is its ability to let the
writer write content using Markdown, and getting a live preview of the result.
Since the user will be writing in code, it would be a better experience to
use a text editor meant for code. Rather than try to undertake a large task
like this myself, I decided to look around for an editor.

Choosing a Text Editor

My three main concerns for a code editor is for it work properly, integrate
nicely with React and have nice syntax highlighting. After a bit of searching
I found out about the following code editors:

Setting up a Code Mirror-React Component

In the end I chose Code Mirror and specifically the react-codemirror project.
The syntax highlighting does not quite work yet, but I will work on that. The
other integration looked more mature, but ultimately did not want to work for

Setting up the Code Mirror component in Coffee-JSX turned out fairly easy:

React = require 'react'
CodeMirror = require 'react-codemirror'

MyView = React.createClass(
    render: () ->
        options = {lineNumbers: true, mode:'markdown', theme: 'monokai'}
        return (
            <codemirror value={ code } onChange={ @updateCode } options={ options }></codemirror>

CSS Gotcha!

Oddly enough just setting up the CodeMirror component did not work right out
of the box. In fact the result was rendering each line as a separated out

 box.  After a bit of digging, I found that the styling was based on the 
pre-existing CSS style provided by Bootstrap... not by Code Mirror!  

The reason turned out to be simple: I had not included the CSS from Code 
Mirror into the app. Since I did not find a CDN with Code Mirror setup, I 
decided to simply include Code Mirror's CSS into my LESS stylesheets for 
Rookeries, based on the example in react-codemirror:

    @import (inline) "../../../node_modules/codemirror/lib/codemirror.css";

This worked well enough, and I've included some of the CodeMirror themes as 

# Outstanding Issues

Currently the text editor works however the setup is missing an important 
feature: syntax highlighting.  In theory Code Mirror should enable syntax 
highlighting based on the passed in mode.  Setting the mode to 'markdown' does 
not seems to achieve the expected result.