Pressbooks – a user review

Let me paint you a picture of book production in the 21st Century – in most cases, it’s very similar to book production in the 20th Century. Cambridge, for example, still uses a linear workflow where the editor works on the manuscript and then, once ready, passes it on to the typesetter to lay the book out. A series of back and forths then ensure between typesetter and editor, who marks up a PDF with corrections and changes for the typesetter to implement. Once the editor and publisher are happy with the product, the typesetter produces a print-ready PDF, and your book is published. Oh wait, you wanted an e-book as well. Let’s start a whole new process where we convert the print PDF to epub, with an added round of checking and proof-reading to see that the conversion process didn’t drop any content (it happens!). Now you want to edit or change something? Let’s go back to the editor and typesetter to fix this and back to the digital producer to make the change in the e-book. It’s (very) exhausting.

Which is why I was so excited to test out O’Reilly Media’s online publishing platform a few years back, developed in-house and used to manage their book production. The platform had a dashboard where you could create a new project and import a manuscript, stored in a database. The editor and author would both have accounts on the platform and could work simultaneously on the document. While editing, changes are saved in real-time, with a record of all changes kept. The editor can reverse these changes if needed. Any images could be uploaded directly to the platform and inserted in the book. The book designer (in this case, someone with web technology skills) would design a template for the book using CSS. This CSS would have options for the print version of the book as well as the e-book. At the end of the process, a printable PDF or epub file would be exported, for printing and distribution. If there were any changes needed, the editor could log into the platform, make the edit and export the files could quickly and easily. For me, this seemed like an ideal workflow for book production. Unfortunately, Cambridge, like other traditional publishers, has legacy systems in place, and the effort to switch over to this type of platform was more than the perceived benefit. This experience did, however, get me excited about alternative ways of producing a book and I set about exploring some of them, one of which is Pressbooks.

Pressbooks is an online platform based on the popular content management system WordPress. I’m a big fan of WordPress – I made this website with WordPress, and I’ve used it to run several blogs in the past. Pressbooks takes the functionality of WordPress and customises it for book development. I’ve used it to publish a few personal books, including my guide to using Bloom’s Taxonomy in a digital classroom. They give you the option to create a print or e-book as well as a hosted web-book (I haven’t looked into the web-book format, to be honest).

If you’re comfortable using WordPress, then the Pressbooks platform will feel very familiar. The dashboard and menu list are similar to that used for blogging. Instead of pages, the content is divided into chapters or topics with sections for Front Matter, Main Body and Back Matter.

The Pressbooks dashboard

On opening a chapter, you are presented with an editing window. The page title is the heading of your chapter, and the body of the page is your chapter’s content. As per WordPress, you have a full WYSIWYG editor. Here you can add formatting such as bold, italics and underline. You can also create lists and add hyperlinks. You can style text chunks using preformatted text boxes, which is useful for laying out educational material.

Technically, you could have more than one user working on the book at once. Useful if you have an author and editor working collaboratively. The platform keeps all revisions, and it is possible to go back to an earlier edit.

Version control (super important)

The book info section allows adding the print or e-book ISBNs as well as book title information, author details and a cover image.

Pressbooks uses the WordPress themes section to provide various templated designs for your book. You can select and switch between these easily. The themes have options for the print and e-book versions of your book, with an opportunity to customise the design if you are adept at CSS.

When you are satisfied that your book is print-ready, you have an option to export a PDF, epub or Mobi (for Amazon Kindle) file. It is that straightforward.

Click print

The limitations to this system come when you need to have a heavily designed book such as a textbook or children’s reading book. Here you would probably need a reliable CSS designer to create a custom theme, and even then I would be surprised if you could get the detail you sometimes need.

There is a free trial account you can set up and play around with the interface and options available. However, to use Pressbooks commercially, you did you need to buy one of their plans. For the e-book option, the price is $19.99, and for the print book option, it is $99. In a traditional publishing scenario, we would probably pay around $5 per page for typesetting a book so you can see how competitive an option this is.

Add any comments or queries below, and I’ll do my best to respond to them.

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