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PEP 660 -- Editable installs for pyproject.toml based builds

Title:Editable installs for pyproject.toml based builds
Author:Daniel Holth <dholth at>, St├ęphane Bidoul <stephane.bidoul at>
Sponsor:Paul Moore <p.f.moore at>
Type:Standards Track


This document describes a PEP 517 style method for the installation of packages in editable mode.


Python programmers want to be able to develop packages without having to install (i.e. copy) them into site-packages, for example, by working in a checkout of the source repository.

While this can be done by adding the relevant source directories to PYTHONPATH, setuptools provides the develop mechanism that makes the process easier, and also installs dependencies and entry points such as console scripts. pip exposes this mechanism via its pip install --editable option.

The installation of projects in such a way that the python code being imported remains in the source directory is known as the editable installation mode.

Now that PEP 517 provides a mechanism to create alternatives to setuptools, and decouple installation front ends from build backends, we need a new mechanism to install packages in editable mode.


PEP 517 deferred "Editable installs", meaning distributions lacked that feature. The only way to retain editable installs for these distributions was to provide a compatible develop implementation. By definining an editable hook other build frontends gain parity with

Terminology and goals

The editable installation mode implies that the source code of the project being installed is available in a local directory.

Once the project is installed in editable mode, users expect that changes to the project python code in the local source tree become effective without the need of a new installation step.

Some kind of changes, such as the addition or modification of entry points, or the addition of new dependencies, require a new installation step to become effective. These changes are typically made in build backend configuration files (such as pyproject.toml), so it is consistent with the general user expectation that python source code is imported from the source tree.

The modification of non-python source code such a C extension modules obviously require a compilation and/or installation step to become effective. The exact steps to perform will remain specific to the build backend used.

When a project is installed in editable mode, users expect the installation to behave identically as a regular installation. In particular the code must be importable by other code, and metadata must be available to standard mechanisms such as importlib.metadata.

Depending on the way build backends implement this specification, some minor differences may be visible such as the presence of additional files that are in the source tree and would not be part of a regular install. Build backends are encouraged to document such potential differences.

The Mechanism

This PEP adds a single optional hook to the PEP 517 backend interface. The hook is used to build a wheel that, when installed, allows that distribution to be imported from its source folder.


def build_wheel_for_editable(wheel_directory, config_settings=None):

Must build a .whl file, and place it in the specified wheel_directory. It must return the basename (not the full path) of the .whl file it creates, as a unicode string.

May do an in-place build of the distribution as a side effect so that any extension modules or other built artifacts are ready to be used.

The .whl file must comply with the Wheel binary file format specification (PEP 427). In particular it must contain a compliant .dist-info directory. Metadata must be identical as the one that would have been produced by build_wheel or prepare_metadata_for_build_wheel, except for Requires-Dist which may differ slightly as explained below.

Build-backends must produce wheels that have the same dependencies (Requires-Dist metadata) as wheels produced by the build_wheel hook, with the exception that they can add dependencies necessary for their editable mechanism to function at runtime (such as editables [1]).

The filename for the "editable" wheel needs to be PEP 427 compliant too. It does not need to use the same tags as build_wheel but it must be tagged as compatible with the system.

An "editable" wheel uses the wheel format not for distribution but as ephemeral communication between the build system and the front end. This avoids having the build backend install anything directly. This wheel must not be exposed to end users, nor cached, nor distributed.


def get_requires_for_build_wheel_for_editable(config_settings=None):

This hook MUST return an additional list of strings containing PEP 508 dependency specifications, above and beyond those specified in the pyproject.toml file, to be installed when calling the build_wheel_for_editable hooks.

If not defined, the default implementation is equivalent to return [].

What to put in the wheel

Build backends must populate the generated wheel with files that when installed will result in an editable install. Build backends may use different techniques to achieve the goals of an editable install. This section provides examples and is not normative.

  • Build backends may choose to place a .pth file at the root of the .whl file, containing the root directory of the source tree. This approach is simple but not very precise, although it may be considered good enough (especially when using the src layout) and is similar to what develop currently does.
  • The editables [1] library shows how to build proxy modules that provide a high quality editable installation. It accepts a list of modules to include, and hide. When imported, these proxy modules replace themselves with the code from the source tree. Path-based methods make all scripts under a path importable, often including the project's own and other scripts that would not be part of a normal installation. The proxy strategy can achieve a higher level of fidelity than path-based methods.
  • Symbolic links are another useful mechanism to realize editable installs. Since, at the time this writing, the wheel specification does not support symbolic links, they are not directly usable to set-up symbolic links in the target environment. It is however possible for the backend to create a symlink structure in some build directory of the source tree, and add that directory to the python path via a .pth file in the "editable" wheel. If some files linked in this manner depend on python implementation or version, ABI or platform, care must be taken to generate the link structure in different directories depending on compatibility tags, so the same project tree can be installed in editable mode in multiple environments.

Frontend requirements

Frontends must install "editable" wheels in the same way as regular wheels. This also means uninstallation of editables does not require any special treatment.

Frontends must create a direct_url.json file in the .dist-info directory of the installed distribution, in compliance with PEP 610. The url value must be a file:// url pointing to the project directory (i.e. the directory containing pyproject.toml), and the dir_info value must be {'editable': true}.

Frontends must execute get_requires_for_build_wheel_for_editable hooks in an environment which contains the bootstrap requirements specified in the pyproject.toml file.

Frontends must execute the build_wheel_for_editable hook in an environment which contains the bootstrap requirements from pyproject.toml and those specified by the get_requires_for_build_wheel_for_editable hook.

Frontends must not rely on the prepare_metadata_for_build_wheel hook when installing in editable mode. They must use build_wheel_for_editable and inspect the resulting wheel.

Frontends must not expose the wheel obtained from build_wheel_for_editable to end users. The wheel must be discarded after installation and must not be cached nor distributed.


With regard to the wheel .data directory, this PEP focuses on making the purelib and platlib categories (installed into site-packages) "editable". It does not make special provision for the other categories such as headers, data and scripts. Package authors are encouraged to use console_scripts, make their scripts tiny wrappers around library functionality, or manage these from the source checkout during development.

Rejected ideas

editable local version identifier

The ideas of having build backends append or modify the local version identifier to include the editable string has been rejected because it would not satisfy == version speicifier that include the local version identifier. In other words pkg==1.0+local is not satisfied by version 1.0+local.editable.

Virtual wheel

Another approach was proposed in PEP 662, where the build backend returns a mapping from source files and directories to the installed layout. It is then up to the installer frontend to realize the editable installation by whatever means it deems adequate for its users.

In terms of capabilities, both proposals provide the core "editable" feature.

The key difference is that PEP 662 leaves it to the frontend to decide how the editable installation will be realized, while with this PEP, the choice must be made by the backend. Both approaches can in principle provide several editable installation methods for a given project, and let the developer choose one at install time.

At the time of writing this PEP, it is clear that the community has a wide range of theoretical and practical expectations about editable installs. The reality is that the only one there is wide experience with is path insertion via .pth (i.e. what develop does).

We believe that PEP 660 better addresses these "unknown unknowns" today in the most reliable way, by letting project authors select the backend or implement the method that provides the editable mechanism that best suit their requirements, and test it works correctly. Since the frontend has no latitude in how to install the "editable" wheel, in case of issue, there is only one place to investigate: the build backend.

With PEP 662, issues need to be investigated in the frontend, the backend and possiblty the specification. There is also a high probability that different frontends, implementing the specification in different ways, will produce installations that behave differently than project authors intended, creating confusion, or worse, projects that only work with specific frontends or IDEs.

Unpacked wheel

A prototype was made that created an unpacked wheel in a temporary directory, to be copied to the target environment by the frontend. This approach was not pursued because a wheel archive is easy to create for the backend, and using a wheel as communication mechanism is a better fit with the PEP 517 philosophy, and therefore keeps things simpler for the frontend.