One of the challenges ebook publishers face is poor ebook production tools. The tools that are out there are usually aimed at techies. When Apple introduced iBooks Author earlier this year — an authoring environment that is powerful, supports rich media, and is very user-friendly — it brought this issue into stark relief.
But there’s good news on the horizon as lots of companies jump into this vacuum. Adobe is the big one, but there are lots of start-ups too, many in an interesting new category: online ebook production tools.
I’ll take a look at three online applications that have emerged over the last few months:
PressBooks adds ebook production to a blogging platform
The most intriguing feature is that it’s built on top of the world’s most popular website and blogging platform, WordPress. In fact, almost a fifth of all websites are now WordPress-powered and if you operate one, the PressBooks interface will look familiar. But it’s pared back to basics to focus on the job of book production.
PressBooks uses the WordPress visual editor for managing text and images, but adds some new features such as Add Part, Add New Chapter, Book Information for metadata and, of course, Export to EPUB.
With WordPress as its foundation, PressBooks can do some interesting things not usually associated with ebook production. For a start, each new book is a mini WordPress website so your book is truly in the cloud. It can be read online if you choose, using PCs, smartphones or tablets. And it even allows readers to comment on pages you select.
Pressbooks uses WordPress to advantage in other ways, adding e-commerce and online marketing features such as sharing of chapter samples and book promotions through social media. Here’s an example of a PressBooks ebook sampler which allows online reading with comments: http://fences1saybooks.pressbooks.com.
If you’re running a WordPress website, a nice feature is that you can import pages or posts from a WordPress blog. Most publishers, however, will be working from Microsoft Word files or similar. There’s no file import option currently (other than from a blog) so you must copy and paste from your source file. You’ll do this a chapter at a time so it’s quick.
The output formats are EPUB, print-ready PDF, and XML (no Kindle, but Amazon will accept EPUB and convert it free). For relatively simple ebooks, Pressbooks produces a good result. It has a handful of built-in templates which you select with just a click. For more advanced customisation, it lets you upload your own custom CSS style sheet.
If your material is time-sensitive or frequently updated, the immediacy and ease of updating this system offers is hard to beat. And you can display extra content online that it not included in the exported ebook. Another bonus: PressBooks will also produce a print-ready file for hard copy books.
But be aware that PressBooks is a work in progress. There are plenty of rough edges, documentation is sparse, and its capabilities are still fairly limited. But it does the basics in a fairly intuitive way. And its use of the very popular WordPress platform points to plenty of interesting opportunities as it develops. [Update: See also Update: PressBooks adds new features, pricing and distribution plans.]