Three online tools to produce ebooks in-house – Part 1: PressBooks


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:

Another advantage: A low entry cost, including free options, opens them up to smaller publishers.
Unlike online conversion services such as Smashwords and BookBaby — which automatically convert marked-up documents to ebooks with little customisation— these new offerings include visual authoring environments and some also add workflow management to accommodate multiple editors and contributors. Another advantage: A low entry cost, including free options, opens them up to smaller publishers.

I’ll start with PressBooks but also see the Vook review and the Inkling Habitat review.

PressBooks adds ebook production to a blogging platform

Good news: PressBooks is completely free. [Update: PressBooks is no longer completely free but retains a free account option.] You can open an account by going to

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.


The PressBooks dashboard. WordPress users will spot the similarities. Click to enlarge the image.

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:

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.]

See also: Review of Vook and Inkling Habitat.

I’ll soon be launching Digital Publishing 101 and Digital Marketing 101, an online resource for publishing professionals. Join the advance mailing list here and I’ll keep you posted.

Comments (5)

  1. Paul Salvette

    Thank you for sharing the information on Press books. I had a look at it, and it is a very interesting concept that can help authors and small presses who face challenges working with pure XHTML markup. I’m curious about how the metadata is packaged into the EPUB. The Specification is so confusing on metadata, and an automated tool would really help everybody and offer some much needed standardization.

  2. Hugh McGuire

    Thanks for the write-up!

    @paul: yes, PressBooks handles all the metadata, formatting, packaging. You just put your content in, and we give you an EPUB.

    @martin: I wonder if you could elaborate on the “rough edges” … where particularly do you find things rough? What would be your #1 improvement request?

  3. Bill Peschel

    Interesting project. I started a book there today to see how it works. So far, the interface is intuitive, and the one problem I had (understanding the relationship between a Part and a Book), seems to be solved quickly.

  4. Hugh McGuire


    A regular book is made up of chapters: chapter 1, 2, 3 … etc.

    A more complex book might be made up of parts and chapters:
    Part 1
    Chapter 1, 2, 3 etc
    Part 2
    Chapters 4, 5, 6
    Part 3 … etc.

  5. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    @hugh: What I mostly meant by ‘rough edges’ relates to the usability and documentation. If you come from a WordPress background and don’t mind hacking a bit of CSS, you’ll feel at home. But I wanted to alert people who might compare it with purpose-built tools like Vook (review coming) or visual layout tools. It’s not as slick yet and they should cut a bit of slack.

    Specific examples? Here are a few that come to mind.

    * Improve documentation. It is very limited, just a forum, rather than a structured reference.
    * If you hit the main Help link, you get standard WordPress help, not Pressbooks, which will confuse many people.
    * You can’t import your Word manuscript and mark-up yet, as noted – but you can import WordPress posts. Very nice.
    * Formatting beyond the handful of supplied templates requires hacking code. Compare that, for instance, to Vook’s nice visual sliders to modify the CSS for a lot of common typographical and layout features. I know that grafting this on to a standard WordPress interface would be non-trivial.
    * There’s no help for the CSS, eg sample annotated style sheet to use as a starting point, ditto templates, and I couldn’t find any references to them in the forums or help.
    * An option for styling might be to provide some shortcodes – create a set of shortcodes, or support a great plug-in like Shortcodes Ultimate, to give users access to more advanced formatting without having to hack the CSS. This might cover a few scenarios like pull quotes, boxes, rules, tables, highlights, lists and so on.

    I haven’t used Pressbooks enough to have a view on the quality of its output across different devices, or more detailed usability issues. It’s a great initiative and as a WordPress fan, I’m keeping a close eye on it.

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