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What is DocBook?
Changes in the Fourth Edition

The nature of publishing has changed so much over the last twenty years that anybody can be a publisher these days. Now you can reach a world-wide audience by putting a few HTML pages up on your website. Or you can use desktop publishing software to produce beautifully typeset material that can be printed on demand or downloaded to a printer anywhere in the world. With DocBook, you can publish both ways from the same source material.

What is DocBook?

DocBook is a collection of standards and tools for technical publishing. DocBook was originally created by a consortium of software companies as a standard for computer documentation. But the basic “book” features of DocBook can be used for other kinds of content, so it has been adapted to many purposes.

The core DocBook standard is the DocBook Document Type Definition (DTD) maintained by the DocBook Technical Committee in OASIS. The DTD defines the vocabulary of content elements that an author can use and how they relate to each other. For example, a book element can contain a title element, any number of para elements for paragraphs, and any number of chapter elements. Using the DTD and XML syntax, authors mark up their text content with tag names enclosed in angle brackets like <chapter>. The markup is similar to HTML, but with more tags and tighter rules.

Text that is marked up in this standard way is can be processed by any number of software tools. A major advantage of DocBook is the availability of DocBook tools from many sources, not just from a single vendor of a proprietary file format. You can mix and match components for editing, typesetting, version control, and HTML conversion. You can assemble a custom system that is well suited to your needs, and many of the components are available for free.

The other major advantage of DocBook is the set of free stylesheets that are available for it. Written by Norman Walsh in the Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL), these stylesheets enable anyone to publish their DocBook content in print and HTML. The stylesheets are now developed and maintained as an open-source project on SourceForge. An active community of users and contributors keeps up the development of the stylesheets and answers questions.

As a publishing system, DocBook is best suited for any of these situations:

  • Large quantities of content.

  • Highly structured content.

  • Content that needs to be interchanged among otherwise incompatible systems.

  • Content that needs automated batch processing.

  • Content to be rendered in multiple output forms and versions.

DocBook is not a WYSIWYG word processor (although graphical editors are available for DocBook). DocBook is hardly worth the trouble for short or one-off documents. And since the formatting is strictly by batch process with stylesheets, DocBook is not well matched to highly designed layout-driven content like magazines.

DocBook is well suited to any collection of technical documentation that is regularly maintained and published. Because you are not locked into a single vendor, you have flexibility in your choice of processes and tools, both now and in the future. Multiple authors can contribute, and their content can easily be merged because all the authors are using a standard markup language. The files are plain text, not binary, so they also work well with most version control systems.

Setting up a DocBook system will take some time and effort. But the payoff will be an efficient, flexible, and inexpensive publishing system that can grow with your needs.