I really need to write some posts about PressBooks

This thought has run thru my head almost daily for the past few months, ever since I arrived at BCcampus and started playing with PressBooks as part of the open textbook project .  I need to take a page from CogDog’s book and get better at documenting process and practice, like he does with posts like this on building TRU’s rMOOC site.

So, here we go. The first of what I hope will be a few posts about PressBooks.

First off, PressBooks is a WordPress plugin designed for creating ebooks. The brainchild of Hugh McGuire, PressBooks was released as an open source project earlier this year (there is also a hosted version at PressBooks.com).

Interest in PressBooks as a platform for creating open textbooks began last year with my predecessor Scott Leslie. Last year, BCcampus supported the creation of a couple of small scale open textbook projects using the hosted PressBooks service (earlier this summer we migrated the books to our own self-hosted PressBooks server, which we are still configuring and customizing). You can see the books Database Design and Project Management, created by Adrienne Watt.

Over the summer, one of our developers, Brad Payne, has been active with the PressBooks development community, writing code to extend the plugin, concentrating on adding more input formats to PressBooks so we can import existing open textbooks and use the platform as a textbook remix tool. Brad’s excellent coding on Open Document Type and ePub importers were accepted into core PressBooks this summer, meaning that we can now import existing open textbooks that are in those formats into PressBooks. Brad is currently working on a Word importer. Last week I imported and ePub version of an existing Philosophy open textbook into PressBooks and was quite happy with the results here (a blog post about this process is coming).

So, why are we so interested in PressBooks?  As you would expect with this project, we had a number of requirements, both core and optional. And we looked at a number of authoring/remix platforms (and continue to do so, watching closely the development work that both Connexions and OERPub are doing in this space). But for now, we have decided to focus on PressBooks.

For one, the authoring platform is built on WordPress which has proven time and again to be both powerful and flexible as exemplified by solid edu projects like ds106, edublogs and UBC blogs. The PressBooks UI authoring experience for faculty should not be a big hurdle, especially if they have worked in WordPress before.

PressBooks allows us to create a well structured website for each book, as well as publish that same content to ePub, PDF and mobi (Amazon Kindle) formats. Create once, publish many times using transformations gives students and faculty maximum flexibility as to how they want their textbook content delivered. A caveat about PDF publishing. It does require additional software that is not open source – Prince XML – to produce the PDF outputs.

However, other than Prince, the project is open source. We felt this was particularly important considering that this is an open textbook project. Not only philosophically, but because it enables us to become part of a development community and contribute to the development of the plugin.

The web version produces a very nice, mobile and tablet friendly user experience. Not a lot of flash here, but very useable on a number of platforms.

It is web-based, meaning that there is no software download & install for authors.

Those are some of the reasons why we are working with PressBooks. But, as with all software, there are challenges. Perhaps the biggest is that it is a platform designed for ebooks and not etextbooks, and there is a difference. ebooks (particularly works of fiction) are written to be read in a linear fashion and a great deal of emphasis is placed on the written word. Textbooks, on the other hand, don’t always have the same linear narrative and often include additional pedagogically oriented content types like sidebars, indexes, q&a’s and other such material to hep students really understand the content.

There is also no search feature for the website versions of the book (you do get search capabilities if you use the ePub or PDF versions of the book as search is baked into both ePub and PDF reading software). But the website version of the book does not have a search engine, which we think is important for electronic resources that are often used as reference resources by students.

There are more pros and cons, which I will get into more detail in the future. But for now I wanted to get the “I’ve got to blog about PressBooks” monkey off my back and start the conversation as I know there is interest in BC about the platform.


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out https://edtechfactotum.com/.


6 thoughts on “I really need to write some posts about PressBooks

    1. I've been playing a bit with both, mostly as conversion tools to move textbooks from one format to another. Both are good tools well suited to working primarily with ePub documents. I'll be writing about both in the future and the role they might play in our workflow. I don't think we'll be using Sigil much, but some people might like to work with it so we will have it on our list of recommended platforms. Calibre, however, is a real powerhouse of a tool for document conversion. It didn't do as clean a job of Word to ePub converting, but many of the existing open textbooks we are working in that are in Word are not well formatted and that would cause problems on whatever platform you used.

      Both are also fairly complex tools. Steep learning curves for both.

      I should have mentioned one of the requirements we had for an authoring/remix platform was that it be web-based and require no end user installation. Another reason why PB was attractive.

  1. Keep those PressBooks posts coming. I referenced it at a meeting of researchers at TRU today and there was definitely interest.

    1. Good to hear. I'm also putting some pressure on Brad to do some blogging about the programming he is doing as I think others would find that interesting. I'll keep nudging.

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