Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 2 – WordPress and Pressbooks

I moved this blog on to the wordpress platform in 2007 (I think.) I built a open learning search portal on wordpress in 2009. I have participated and helped organize a bunch of different “wordpress in education” events here in BC, and maintain wordpress installations for both BCcampus and etug. So I probably don’t need to tell you, I <3 wordpress.

A few years back, the folks at the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University spearheaded a very cool project to build a new digital humanities tool in one week. The result was the Anthologize plugin for WordPress which allows you to collect together a set of blog posts and publish them in a variety of web, print and eReader friendly formats.

Not long after (maybe even before) I became aware of both Comment Press and its successor While neither of these are in and of themselves publishing or packaging tools, in greatly expanding the ways in which readers and editors could comment on a text at the paragraph level, they added to an emerging vision of WordPress as a web platform for authoring multi-format books in a dynamic, networked way.

So when I began last year thinking about platforms that met all my goals for an open textbook platform, I pretty much knew I had these in my back pocket and that with not too much finesse or effort they could serve quite well.

And I still think that. But before we really got underway with our Open Textbook pilot, I kept scanning the horizon to see what other options might have come up since I found these. And boy am I glad I did, because I stumbled on Pressbooks.


Pressbooks is the work of Hugh McGuire, who also previously founded LibriVox, the biggest site in the world for audio versions of public domain works. Pressbooks is built on top of WordPress, and offers the same simplicity for authoring books that those of us who blog have come to know and love. Actually, it offers a BETTER system – the Pressbooks folks have customized the backend dashboard and interface of wordpress to suit it even better to authoring books specifically (see figure 1.) At first I had thought they had simply taken Anthologize and further customized it, but I recently learned that this was not the case. In addition, they have created a couple of custom post types to accomodate all of the additional book metadata fields that have accrued over the fears (see figure 2.)

Output is where Pressbooks really shines. To test it out I created my own book using the same “Intro to PowerPoint” content I tried porting to mediawiki. Again, there was no simple IMS CP to Blog import functionality, but given the fairly small amount of content, it didn’t take much more than an hour to setup the basic pages and copy the content over.

Actually, this point deserves some attention, because even more so than Mediawiki, Pressbooks didn’t like crufty HTML. And when your legacy content is coming via Word-to-HTML via Desire2Learn output, crufty is the order of the day!

But after a few go rounds to clean it up (and no small effort on Hugh’s part – thanks!!) I had a web-based version of the text, as well as both an ePub and printable PDF. Now as in the case of the mediawiki experiment, these results were produced automagically but similarly could be manually massaged after the fact. But more than this, Pressbooks also supports exports, a native format of the industry standard Adobe InDesign application, meaning that you can deliver the content of your book, properly marked up, to a professional designer and save them a ton of hassle. Similarly pressbooks supports uploading custom CSS to style ePubs, which means you can style these until your heart’s content (see figure 3 for all export formats)

Tale of the Tape

So how does this approach fare? Let’s run it through the criteria I outlined in last post and see:

  • collaborative authoring – whether via multiple authors on a single chapter, or by divvying up the book, this is no problem
  • can be done “out in the open” – absolutely, though one can make it private if one chooses to
  • results in all of a web, print and eBook version – definitely
  • is easy for authors and readers alike to use – I’m maybe biased, but I thought it was dead simple
  • is free/cheap and open/extensible (and produces open standards-based content) – yep, yep and yep (but let’s revisit below)
  • limits the choices upstream of what authors and reusers want to do with the book as little as possible – I’d say the answer was absolutely yes – this does not seem to be a “lock in” game at all.

When I have shown this to a few trusted colleagues, one of the first questions they’ve asked has been “have the components that customize wordpress to make it pressbooks themselves been open sourced?” It’s a fair question and an obvious one in the circles I run in. The answer currently is no. This is being offered as a service, albeit currently a free one. This is slightly troubling, but something that I hope to discuss further with Hugh and team to see what the way forward looks like. That said, given the wide variety of export formats, and my affinity for letting others man the widgets if I can, I absolutely hope and expect there is a way to use this as a service and to be diligent about exit strategies, flexibility and autonomy.

There is ultimately no one solution that will work for everyone and every scenario when it comes to open textbooks. As I try to describe in my talk February 7th (slides here or else feel free to join us online at 1:30pm PDT), it is a question of balancing affordances with what your users need, what you can do, and what you’d love to enable. But for now, Pressbooks has risen VERY quickly to the top of my list of approaches that I think do a good job of balancing all of these and providing a self-service, inexpensive platform to move forward with open textbooks. – SWL

11 thoughts on “Open Textbook Authoring Tools Part 2 – WordPress and Pressbooks”

  1. You are rocking the webs with these thorough reviews, Scott. Having played a long bit with, I am keen to check out Pressbooks.

    I’d also add that the commenting bit makes it useful for the drafting stage, as well as having somewhat of a versioning system built into wordpress.

  2. Thanks for the write-up Scott ..

    A small bit of clarification on the history of PressBooks: we’d already started to do some work when Anthologize was released (which was inspired in part, I’m told, by my article in O’Reilly Radar about using WordPress: )

    We looked at Anthologize, but decided not to use any of their code… for various reasons. So PressBooks is “from-scratch” …

    1. Appreciate the clarification Hugh; sure enough, that article in O’Reilly Radar is also what led me eventually to you and then Pressbooks. Hooray for google juice!

  3. Hi Scott, at the risk of asking a dumb question is the elluminate session tomorrow really at 1:30 PDT rather than PST? [feel free to delete comment – I just want to know when to try to tune in 😉 ]

  4. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for laying out these options – they’re rather timely.

    I think a suitable home for larger texts is one problem posed by Moodle 2.x. The old ‘book’ module is gone (was never that great anyway) and the new Moodle structure promotes repositories for content rather than stuffing the course shell.

    While I covet UBC’s Mediawiki installation, a WordPress-based solution seems more likely to fit a future that minimizes the number of installations we adopt. Simultaneously publishing to web, PDF and ePub will be a great selling point.

    1. Keith said: I think a suitable home for larger texts is one problem posed by Moodle 2.x. The old ‘book’ module is gone (was never that great anyway)…

      I agree the book module isn’t great but it was an essential part of any Moodle installation for me. I understand that there is a new version that works with Moodle 2.0:

  5. great article. the time for online authoring is ripening!

    Are you also aware of the efforts of Sourcefabric (one of europes biggest open source companies). We have a platform to be launched shortly.

    Its open source, supports collaborative and individual efforts, outputs to book pdf, epub, mobi. templated html, odt, fb2, rtf, almost anything you can think of. It also enables a tonne of other very good collaborative tools. It has already been used for authoring many books (including textbooks) in many languages including books with bi-directional text (Arabic, Farsi etc).

    I can give you a preview anytime this week if you are interested. Just email me and we can set it up.


  6. This looks seriously interesting, particularly if they come up with a version I can run on my own server.

    However, I can’t seem to access the epub version using the link above, and I noticed that almost all the images in the PDF have been replaced by [error retrieving image]…

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