I'm desperately looking for a book publishing solution that can handle revision control and layouts. My issues/requirements are as follows:

  1. Typists are extremely non-technical and I would like to keep training to a minimum (that being said, I value revision control higher than training and will go great lengths to get RC implemented).
  2. Volumes spend almost as much time being edited before they go to layout as they afterwards. Hence, I need a way that non-technical people can work with a formated document without breaking the style (as per style: full, advanced text layouts - chapters, headers, footnotes, indents, etc)
  3. Revision control is CRITICAL. We currently have a spaghetti mess of versions (all in word so there hard to diff) and we need to rein in on the madness.
  4. While I work with svn/git from the command line all day long, most of the typists struggle with Word. While we will train as necessary, a proper cli (for me!) and as much automation as posible would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks! p.s. I asked a software question here based on this question. If I'm in the wrong place, please point out where this question belongs.

  • What are your needs as far as layout? I think Scrivener might be able to handle the version control, but you do have to export to something else for professional layout. Jan 1, 2012 at 20:33
  • It's hard to explain, I'll add some details to the question. Update: done.
    – Mbrevda
    Jan 1, 2012 at 20:46
  • My impression is that someone has pasted an office memo in toto here. Can the OP rephrase this as a simple straight-forward question?
    – Kris
    Jan 2, 2012 at 4:46
  • 3
    @Kris - you tell me, can it be any simpler? I have had this question in my head for a few months now, and wrote it up to SE as clearly and concisely as posible. All content/wording is original - no email forwards or asking other to do my job (Its for a non profit where I volunteer - I don't/ am not get paid, btw). I think the opening line summarizes what they need, and the rest explains it. Feel free to edit make concrete suggestions about how to improve the question.
    – Mbrevda
    Jan 2, 2012 at 8:05
  • I think the question is just fine.
    – Slick23
    Jan 3, 2012 at 16:59

5 Answers 5


Adobe InDesign has Version Cue. And in newer versions there's Adobe Drive.


I don't know if there's one solution. You may have to approach this from a few angles.

First off, you do need to train your "typesetters," but in procedure as well as the program. (Someone who can't handle headers and indents is not a typesetter, but a typist.)

Second, while I loathe recommending anything by Microsquish, Word does do what you're asking for. So you will have to invest in getting your typesetters trained to use Word's functions: templates, styles, headers/footers, sections, section breaks, indents, and so on. It's not hard to find software trainers in major cities, and most will schedule lessons on-site if you have enough students.

Third, it sounds like you have problems with file management. If your main concern is revision control (that you don't have seventeen Finals which have to be merged), then you should only have one master copy of the document. It should live on a server, and it should never be worked on from a local hard drive. All typesetters will have to access it over the network or from one workstation, period.

Since formatting is already chewing up a large part of your time, budget it as part of the process and try to make it a manageable chunk rather than an open-ended time-suck. It will have to be part of the procedure that Tracking is ALWAYS on, and only authorized editors can approve the changes.

Lastly, while it may not be in your budget, a separate option might be to have ONLY text editing done in Word, and the layout done in an actual DTP program like InDesign or Quark. That would address a lot of the indent/header/footer etc. issues, because your Word typists wouldn't be doing that formatting work at all.

ETA I had one more thought re process: what about assigning projects per person, rather than allowing everyone in the group to work on them? So only John works on the Smith novel, only Mary only on the Jones novel, and so on. Would that cut down on some of the spaghetti?

  • I stand corrected on typists vs. typesetters. They are typists. We are CURRENTLY doing most of your recommendations (I implemented one central server a few years ago, everyone uses Word) - and yet I'm here. Sigh. Thanks for trying. p.s. text only was something that I was considering, especially as I can revision-control that six time to Sunday. But that will be all over the wall in post-formatting edits.
    – Mbrevda
    Jan 3, 2012 at 14:58

Would Google Docs work for you? Maybe a Google Apps account for your organization? This will work better if you can separate writing from layout. That is, people write using Google Docs, applying corporate standards for text styles and for organizing stuff into parts, chapters, and sections. Then a separate process does layout and typesetting.

Other than online tools, I don't know of any software that is both writer-friendly and version-control-friendly. Writer-friendly word processors typically save in a binary format, which is not easily diffable. Markup-based text formats (docbook, TeX, markdown) that play nicely with version control tend to be challenging for non-geeks.

But I wonder... Word processors' recent binary formats tend to be zipped XML. Could you add svn/git hooks that unzip the files before committing, and re-zip them on checkouts?

That might improve diffability a tiny bit. But merging (if you need it) will be a nightmare.

If the projects will be in use by only one person at a time, consider Scrivener. Scrivener saves in plain old RTF files. I use that for most of my writing projects, and version them all with git. This works beautifully for my personal projects. It's no good for collaborating, because there are a few xml files that combine both project information (e.g. how the individual RTF files are organized) with user information (e.g. which file is open, and where the carat is in each file). Also, if two writers each add a file, they both get the same file name, and checkins collide in ways that are too difficult to untangle.

When I'm collaborating with geeks, I use a text format called Markdown, and use folders to aggregate chunks into larger chunks. I doubt that Markdown can handle complex formatting... but again, perhaps layout and typesetting could be performed separately.

  • how I wish Google Docs could solve the problem - it woud be a dream come true. However, the limited (and canned) formatting options, together with limited file size make this unfeasible. As I mentioned, I will teach them how to use version control need be. I will also use a pitchfork if I need to - VC is PARAMOUNT to me. Where can I hear/read more about markup-based options? That might be the route I want to pursue.
    – Mbrevda
    Jan 4, 2012 at 7:27
  • Start with the Wikipedia entries for TeX, LaTeX, DocBook, and Markdown. Markdown is the simplest. You already know some of it. StackExchange uses markdown syntax in posts (for bold, italics, block quotes, lists, probably some other stuff). DocBook is XML-based. TeX (and the related LaTEx) are completely their own thing, quite complex and powerful. Wikipedia nicely describes each, and links to official pages. One thing I like about markup is that I can break sentences across lines of text. That makes it easier to move phrases around during editing. It also plays nicely with version control. Jan 4, 2012 at 7:41
  • @Mbrevda: IMO, TeX/LaTeX isn't that hard unless you are doing a lot of formatting, and obviously has major advantages over WYSIWYG. And writing markup if one already has a style file isn't exactly rocket science - my experience is non-technical typists can cope unless you want them to figure out non-trivial stuff for themselves. And tex.sx is a very useful and friendly resource - I wish it had been around when I was learning LaTeX in the mid-90s. Jan 8, 2012 at 6:03

I haven't tried it myself, but apparently TortoiseSVN can handle diffing Word Docs.


Found out about that in the answers to this stackoverflow post: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/29810/is-version-control-ie-subversion-applicable-in-document-tracking#29837


Looks like Open Office has a plugin that may do what you want: Team Drive


My suggestion might be quite a no-brainer, but this is something we have used at my old workplace, when we had run out of time and woke up to the nightmare of version hell. (Like having files named SOMETHING_FINAL_FINAL_v2.doc...)

What we did was rename the files upon editing by including the date and time of the last edit. Since your people are non-technical and you seem to be quite computer-savvy, I'd suggest you write a short command line script that does just this: opens the last version, lets you edit it and when you close it, makes a copy of the last edit with date and time appended to the file name. If this is in place, the only thing left to do is to enforce using the script and make sure people don't open the file using another method. This should work with virtually any text editor. To make things even simpler, here is the actual code I used for version control (in a different setting), so nobody forgot to register the students who attended class and to make sure we had a backup copy after each modification (if in doubt about how to use it, etc., leave a comment and I'll try to answer the questions):


SET fname=File_2_edit %date%@%time%.docx
SET fname=%fname::=_%
SET todel=%fname:*,=%
CALL SET fname=%%fname:%todel%=%%
SET fname=%fname:,=.docx%


COPY "File_2_edit.docx" "%fname%"


What you could also do (I didn't test this one that thoroughly), you can use e.g. Google Docs, where several people can edit the same document at the same time. But I wouldn't suggest this one for documents where copyright issues could arise or non-disclosure agreements have been signed...

It is really up to you, depending on what you feel more comfortable with. :)

  • Have a look at how source code revision software works. You never have versions, they are always revision of some master item. Also, I need more automation. If I could rely on users to follow instructions, I would never be here in the first place!
    – Mbrevda
    Jan 2, 2012 at 21:04
  • I honestly have difficulties to think of something more non-technical than this. If you can't get your team to follow a simple set of instructions (i.e. click on a specially created icon to start the document and not in some other fashion), well... I imagine what mess formatting must be.
    – Count Zero
    Jan 2, 2012 at 22:45

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