Monday, December 5, 2011

A Bit About PressBooks: A New Software System For Publishers

I've been beta testing a new software system for publishers. PressBooks promises to simplify the production workflow for publishers. I have to say it's not fully ready yet, but at the rate the developers have been making improvements, I should be able to get a book out the door with it maybe three months from now or sooner.

PressBooks is a web-based application for formatting both EPUB ebook and print versions of a book. The software is based on WordPress, that favorite of blogging platforms. A PressBooks user creates a project and then goes to work entering their book chapter-by-chapter. I found it easy to copy a chapter from a Word document and paste into a PressBooks text editing window. The window can be switched between a visual view and an HTML view. All the text formatting is done in the text window. There are other screens for editing the book metadata, such as title, subtitle, authors, EPUB ISBN, print ISBN (but not Library of Congress Control Number), bookcover thumbnail image, and more. Then comes the magic part. It's as simple as pressing a button (once each) to generate an EPUB ebook file and a PDF file for the print book interior.

Several predefined ebook CSS stylesheets are available, and user-defined CSS stylesheets have been promised for the very near future. The EPUBs I've generated so far for my test project all pass the EPUB validation suite, according to the Sigil EPUB editing program. The generated EPUBS do have some quirks, though. I haven't mentioned the following on the PressBooks forum, yet. Some metadata, such as publisher,  make it onto a metadata page in the ebook, but not into the content.opf metadata. Also, the generated table of contents page in the ebook does not contain some items that appear in NCX table of contents. And nowhere does the ebook display an ordinary copyright notice, such as "Copyright 2011 by Joe Author."

The generated PDFs for print books have more issues and make me say PressBooks isn't ready for prime time for this format. First are the margins; the inner margin is too narrow for paperback books, and there's no way to fix it. Next is the copyright page. The all-necessary phrase "All Rights Reserved" is put on the same line as the subtitle. There's also no provision for commonplace items such as a disclaimer, credits for cover art or quoted materials, or publication history. There's also no choice for typeface. I think PressBooks uses Palatino, but Thursday Night uses Bookman for its fiction. There's a lot that's right about the PDF. PressBooks uses some variant of the TeX typesetting engine, and because of they, the typesetting is excellent. If you laid a PressBooks version and a Word version of the same book side by side, they wouldn't look the same and you would likely say that even though you're not sure why, the PressBooks version is easier to read.

Despite these issues, PressBooks is being enhanced so quickly that by the time you find this article, the issues I've mentioned may all be in the past. For my PressBooks test project, I picked a novel that I wrote, an Arthurian space opera called Percival's Descent, as the guinea pig. Since I don't have to worry about putting up with an impatient author, I can afford to give PressBooks the time to resolve whatever issues prevent the software from producing acceptable results.

PressBooks has already proven to me to be the right idea as far as production workflow, and I encourage other publishers to take a look at this service.