PressBooks: Web-First Workflow Just Got Even Easier

PressBooks is an open source book publishing platform, that makes it easy for you and your team to author books, and to generate clean, well-formatted books in multiple outputs: .EPUB, print-ready PDF, InDesign-ready XML, and of course HTML. PressBooks is brought to you by the people behind Book Oven.—PressBooks

PressBooks is Hugh McGuire’s latest project. He gave us a sneak preview at Tools of Change 2011 during his Open, Webby Book Publishing presentation with John Maxwell and Kirk Biglione. Much like the Anthologize project that I blogged about last August, PressBooks turns the WordPress platform into a book-publishing platform. PressBooks goes a step further, though, by streamlining the WordPress interface and exporting directly to ICML for InDesign imports for print production.

Neutral Content: Why the Web?

With the ever-growing number of formats we’re seeing in the publishing industry right now, it is imperative that we prepare for the future by storing our content in a neutral format. We want to avoid the conversion disasters we saw a few years ago that were a direct result of storing content in a specific format (Quark, InDesign, PDF) instead of having neutral, flexible archives of our books. It broke my heart when I heard a publisher describing the horrible process of finding one of their books on eBay, cutting the spine, scanning it, and then having it converted to ePub—there is a better way!

That neutral format is XML (see BNC 101: What is XML? for more information) and while that is a scary word at first glance, it’s actually very easy, especially since HTML is XML. (We can debate this point, but stay with me here.) HTML is open, transparent, easy, and fulfills the needs of book production. John explained it best during the TOC presentation:

The web isn’t dead; it’s not going away; it’s pretty much the central platform of human expression today. It has something like 50 billion pages, and is used by over a billion people. And it’s growing and evolving.

The web is (already) the publishing platform of our time, and of the future.

So it makes zero sense for book publishing to be apart from it. When we conduct almost every other aspect of our lives via the web, what reason is there to be doing book publishing away from it, [and] only engaging the web to do marketing?

Web-First Workflow Evolution

In the past few years I’ve been actively participating in and cheering on the progress of web-first workflow for publishing. Here’s what’s been happening:


Adobe does the publishing industry a huge favour by launching CS4 with a complete, open XML file format for InDesign called IDML. That allowed John Maxwell and a team of students in the Simon Fraser Master of Publishing program (including myself) to write a transformation script (XSLT) to convert the web (HTML) into a professional publishing format (ICML/IDML for InDesign). Since HTML and IDML are both XML, you can convert one to the other pretty easily.


John and a new team of students at SFU prove that you can use WordPress for book production with The Book of MPub.


PressBooks is born, building on the work that came out of SFU in the years before.


PressBooks graphic

I have alpha access for PressBooks and have been doing some testing. It’s still in the early days, but I’m really happy about what I’m seeing so far. PressBooks streamlines the WordPress interface by creating separate sites for each book you produce. That way, you don’t end up with a big jumbled mess of content. It also makes WordPress more book-friendly by turning pages and posts into parts and chapters. The real advantage is the easy export options: keep your book as HTML, or export as EPUB, print-ready PDF, or IDML for InDesign import. Even though the project is still in alpha, my tests of the EPUB export had great results. Here’s how it works:


Creating a new chapter is exactly like writing a post. Choose visual or HTML editor, and the implementation of TinyMCE Advanced lets you easily import Word docs that you get from your authors.

PressBooks Edit Chapter


These chapters can be organized into different parts of the book as well, and you can add as many parts as you’d like.

PressBooks Add Part


Current export options are EPUB, PDF, and IDML (though the IDML option is not fully hooked up yet).

PressBooks Exports

So I tested the EPUB export.

PressBooks ePub export

And even validated it with EPUB Check!

PressBooks ePub check

I’m really excited to see where this project goes. If you’re interested in trying PressBooks, go to their website and sign up to get an alpha invite.