PressBooks: Your iBooks Author Alternative

It has been a depressing couple of weeks for big tech news, as I discussed in my previous post. (Addendum to that: check out this Lifehacker post about how Google wants to be AOL.) But despite big corporations and the government doing their best to make the web and modern computing as locked-down and boring as possible, hope endures. I don’t just mean the (no doubt temporary) defeat of SOPA/PIPA, but also the continuing proliferation of publishing tools which aren’t evil.

One of the things I was most disappointed about with iBooks Author was how constraining it was. You could export an ePub out of it, but the CSS was basically useless and once you cleaned up the HTML all you’d have was some basic, tagged text. Not very useful, especially if you put a lot of work into designing your textbook. And of course the End Use License Agreement is vague and threatening regarding what you can do with your file, anyway.

But fear not, self-enterprising publishing entrepreneurs! There are other tools out there, which are just as easy to use but which can also be integrated into more advanced and professional workflows. One I came across this week which I really like is PressBooks. It’s a WordPress-powered publishing platform. If you’ve ever used WordPress before you’re already comfortable with it. It looks and feels just like setting up a blog, which means you can drop HTML into it or just use plain text. The best part, though, is that it includes outputs to Epub, XML, and PDF. You can do everything in their interface, including uploading a cover, copyright information, or images and multimedia. They have a couple of different default style formats, but if you have your own CSS you can upload that, as well.

That last part’s the key. PressBooks doesn’t restrict you to only the features it feels are important. If you output to Epub, you can crack open your file like any other Epub and fine-tune it to your heart’s content. The PDFs look pretty good, but of course if you don’t like them you can take the XML (a valuable thing to have anyway) and write your own XSL-FO. On their website, they’re even promising to include InDesign-ready XML pretty soon, so you really could use this as part of a print-workflow if you wanted. Correction: In the comments below, Hugh McGuire notes that the ICML export option is XML-optimized InDesign, and that pretty soon you’ll have the ability to import your own LaTex styles for print-output, too.

Obviously there’s limitations with what PressBooks can do, but the point is that it’s a tool. You have options. You can use other tools if you need to. If you just want a simple, no fuss ebook, you can have it. If you want a epub that will act as a building block to a more complicated and elaborate product, you can have that, too. A simple PDF? No problem. An XML file for a more highly-designed PDF? Also no problem. You may not be able to make an interactive iPad textbook with rotating 3D images and an animated recreation of the Large Hadron Collider, but you can still make some pretty great books with some solid technical tools.

Oh, and did I mention it’s free?


  1. Thanks Tom! … a couple of notes about PressBooks:

    * the InDesign XML is working, though has some glitches around footnotes & ordered lists … just export the ICML file, and place it in InDesign. It works!

    * our print-output is generated using a LaTeX layout engine, and it’s been modified recently, so we will (soonish) give you the ability to add your own LaTeX sty file — to have the print output look as you like.

  2. Tom Elrod · · Reply

    Thanks, Hugh. I’ve noted this in the body of the post.

  3. not only all of the above but the development environment is not too dissimilar to i books Author (albeit a superior one imho) – so you can develop in pressbooks and distribute epub compliant exports wherever, whilst its a relatively painless process to cut and paste your chapters into Author’s chapters – directly or via an epub to word converter to preserve tables etc – and take advantage of that platform too should you wish – I’ve gone round in circles trying various approaches to combining online and epub publishing – pressbooks is the best I’ve come across in terms of workflow, usability, versatility, price (!) – as it is now but also visibly improving in real time

  4. Just to give a possible alternative. Sorry it’s also following the hype so only produces fixed-layout epub and ibooks. But at least the editor is web based for those who don’t have Mac. And an Android viewer is available too. Good for building quick material. Check at my site.

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