An Introduction to PressBooks: A Digital Book Publishing Tool Built on WordPress

We recently had the opportunity to interview Hugh McGuire of PressBooks, which is now in public beta. PressBooks is built on WordPress and provides a way for authors to create clean, well-formatted books in multiple outputs: .epub, print-ready PDF, InDesign-ready XML, and HTML.

1) Tell our readers what Pressbooks is in less than 50 words.

PressBooks is a simple online book production tool, exporting books as: EPUB (for Kindle, iBooks, etc), typeset PDF (for print), and web (public or private). PressBooks is powerful enough for publishers, and simple enough for authors. It sits atop WordPress, but it’s a complete reworking, tailored for making and distributing a book.

2) How does Pressbooks work?

If you’ve used WordPress, then PressBooks will be familiar and comfortable, though a little different. We’ve stripped out much of the Admin, and rebuilt it with simplicity and focus in mind. We’ve built on WordPress MultiUser, with each book is a “blog,” and each chapter is a “post” (custom post type of course).

The main admin panels are Book Information (where things like Book Title, copyright information and ISBN can be added), and Text where you organize your text, and of course there is User Admin and Media Admin, and a couple of other limited settings.

We’ve strived to make the UI sensible and suited to the task of making a book, and spent an awful lot of time building and perfecting the export tools so that you get a nice, clean, valid and well-designed epub (the open ebook format) out the other end, as well as a beautifully typeset PDF, if you want to send your book to the printer or print-on-demand service.

We’ve added some default ebook designs (these are epub CSSs), and will very shortly allow users to upload their own epub CSS. In the works are similar features for web & print.

We also do some XML exports (for instance an InDesign XML format), but these are more experimental at the moment.

3) What problem does PressBooks solve?

Mainly: PressBooks makes it easy to make beautiful books in multiple formats, from one “source file” … online.

I think it will solve some other problems, such as collaborating on a book. But, generally we believe it should be as easy for writers and publishers to make and distribute a beautiful book (ebook or print) as it is for them to make a beautiful website. We are replicating for books the model of the web (and WordPress in particular), which is: “build on a solid, structured framework, and apply different styling (Themes & CSS).”

We see no reason this model (content + structure + presentation) should not be applied to books as well.

4) Have you had much interest from writers so far (examples of some books would be great)?

Actually we’re not fully tracking what books are going from PressBooks into distribution channels, but we know of a few (beyond the book we did with O’Reilly, “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto.”).

Harvard Business Review Press published “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently,” with PressBooks as their production tool, and they have another book in the works. We’re working with Columbia Business School Press on another project, and in fact Ciprian Gherghescu just published: “How To WordPress – 10 Easy Steps to Creating A Killer Website Using WordPress” …

We’ll be adding distribution at some point, but the main thing we want to do is give publishers and authors a very powerful, but straightforward publishing process…. and we’re less worried for the moment about what happens once we’ve helped someone get a book out the door.

5) What are the benefits to Pressbooks as opposed to other self-publishing models?

We’re not really a self-publishing platform, any more than WordPress is a self-publishing platform. We’re a very good and powerful tool that will help any publishing entity (from individual authors to the largest publishers) have a more efficient and sensible digital publishing workflow.

Still, a self-publisher can upload a Word file to Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing, and that would be “easier.” PressBooks offers a whole other level of control of your content, what happens to it as you are creating it.

6) Do you have plans to release any plugins so that WordPress users can publish books from their own site?

There’s an existing plugin that does that — Anthologize — and our model will be a little different, focusing on making a more powerful book production & distribution environment.

We do plan to enable importing from an existing WordPress blog into PressBooks – which currently isn’t possible. In the works.

As we start implementing some other neat features that could be applicable to other WordPress users, we’ll be releasing those plugins to the wider community.

7) At the minute Pressbooks is all about publishing a book – do you have plans to integrate social media or marketing tools to help writers promote their books?

Yes! We think the Trojan Horse in PressBooks is: “What happens when books can easily (with the push of a button) get online?” … and the answer is: all the wonderful stuff that happens with other kinds of content online: sharing, linking, commenting etc. So now that we have the core of PressBooks working well, we’re starting to evolve the idea of how we can start really exploring what it means to be be producing & distributing a book in an online environment – which includes social media & marketing tools.

In fact, we’d like books to be considered social media as well.

8) Where do you see Pressbooks going over the next few years?

We have two things we’d like to focus on:

  • 1. We want to help make it really easy and really cheap for all kinds of publishers (from single authors to huge companies) to make beautiful books in many formats
  • 2. We want to really explore what it means to have “books” online as structured web objects…

Intrigued by PressBooks? Check out their demo slides, visit the PressBooks website and sign up to get started.

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