What format?

This week saw further development in my odyssey to write my first open textbook. I met with the very helpful people at BCcampus who are managing British Columbia’s open textbook project, Mary Burgess and Clint Lalonde. I had a simple question:

‘How do I start?’

In particular, I wanted to know in what format I should start writing. Should I use Word, or WordPress, or html (and if so, what form of html), or something else? Obviously I don’t want to have to move writing that I’ve carefully formatted in one format into another, possibly – no, almost certainly – having to reformat everything again.

Clint answered my question with another question: ‘What format do you want to publish it in?’ Apparently, there are several formats for open publishing, including html, pdf and e-pub. To make matters more complicated, some of the devices that are used for e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, require their own unique, proprietal formats. ‘But I want to publish an ‘open’ textbook!’ I cried. ‘It should be available in any format and work on any device.’ What a naive fool I am.

Since I want the book to be able to be annotated or re-mixed, I need to have it in a flexible format such as html, but I also want readers to be able to read it like a book if they wish, which would mean pdf or e-pub.


Fortunately Clint had a solution for me, not perfect but pretty good. If I use a derivation of WordPress called PressBooks, it will output in html, pdf or e-pub formats.

Now as an avid blogger I’m comfortable using WordPress, (which is easy-peasy to use) so that seemed a good solution, at least as a start. As well as writing, I can use the ‘Add Media’ function to drop in graphics, video or audio, as in WordPress (with the same limitations, as well).

What’s more, PressBooks is designed for book publishing, with a ‘layer’ that sets up the structure of the book, including spaces for ‘front matter’, such as a foreword and content list, separate areas to compose each chapter, and ‘back matter’. Even better, BCcampus is working to add new features to PressBooks (which of course is open source), such as a search engine (who needs an index if you can search the text directly?)

So off I went, typed PressBooks into Google search, clicked on the web site, and with a few clicks had registered my own open textbook within the PressBooks site, under the title ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’

Next steps

So now I’m ready to go. I’m still checking out features, such as whether it will work on mobile devices (looks like it will work on tablets), but so far, so good. I won’t start writing for a while, because I need to develop a proper book proposal (for myself at least), including an outline of content in the form of chapter headings and abstracts. This I will be sharing with you, as I need your input, but I can build the outline straight into PressBooks from the start.

At the same time I need to think about how to build in activities. I’m thinking at this stage of adding features mainly through url links from PressBooks to other features, or adding plug-ins to PressBooks as they become available from BCcampus and other developers. For instance, PressBooks doesn’t seem to have a feature yet that enables you to build conversations around the content, although it does have the usual comment feature.

There are of course many other possible ways to go. I will do another blog on open book publishers and the advantages/disadvantages of going through an open publishing company. But I was astounded at how easy it is to start with Pressbook. Watch this space to see if it continues that way – and thanks to Mary and Clint for great advice.

Advice or warnings welcomed

So if you have already used PressBooks or have decided to go another route, I’d love to hear from you – as would the many readers who have been encouraging me to do this.


  1. Tony,

    I’m really impressed by your open sharing of your experiences in authoring an open text book. Nice one!

    A minor point: Have a think about a consistent and scalable way of managing the attributions and licenses of the images (and other rich media) you plan to incorporate into your open textbook to facilitate downstream reuse and packaging. Check how the epub and html outputs deal with theses attributions when exporting your text.

    An ideal solution is one where you simply link to a url which hosts the image and corresponding metadata — and the open textbook software automagicaly handles the attributions of openly licensed objects using CC’s machine readable code. From memory, I don’t think PressBooks has that capability yet (although this may have improved since I last looked.)

    You’ll save a ton of time if you need to change how you are attributing images etc by sorting out a solution before you start authoring.

    • Hi Wayne,

      That is a great suggestion. You’re right. PressBooks doesn’t have that kind of capability yet.

      At BCcampus, we are using the WordPress plugin CC Configurator to add CC license information to the book, which also adds the embedded metadata to the book. But that only covers the actual book that is created. We are still manually adding in CC license information to the books when we use existing content, primarily images where we add the CC information as the image caption. We have also extended the CC Configurator plugin to add derivative information to the book when we have made a derivative copy of an entire work.

      So, for example, we are creating a derivative version of the OpenStax Intro to Sociology textbook. We have imported the book into PressBooks and are localizing it – going through the book and adding in Canadian specific content. At the footer of each page, we have altered the CC Configurator to add in the derivative information stating that our version of the book is a derivative of the OpenStax book, and the terms of the original license and the new, derivative license.

    • Wayne, do you know of an authoring tool that has that ability? To automatically pull and display CC licensed material that you use? I’d love to track it down and see if we could modify it for PressBooks.

      • Clint,

        Apology for the tardy response – I missed your question. I’m not familiar with a specific tool in the WordPress environment that solves the challenge. The only related technology I can think of is the OpenAttribute (browser plugin) which helps on the authoring side.

        In the Mediawiki environment we keep the metadata and licensing with the image page and when using the wiki –> print technology, attributions are handled automatically. In theory it should be possible to replicate that for Pressbooks?

  2. Hello Tony,

    Over the past few years I have been dabbling with making ebooks. Not too long ago I advised Jisc on how teachers could get started. You may find my assorted posts helpful

    I would definitely suggest that getting the workflow right will pay off in the long run, test A LOT and be consistent. For example on a recent project, the writer wasn’t using headings and lists consistently so it took ages to check and recheck. Time that would of been saved if they’d thought about the whole project from the beginning.

    If you want to add interactions then this won’t work in all formats/devices so you should have a fallback for that too.

    You’ll also be interested in Craig Mod’s ‘post-artifact publishing’. Happy to help in anyway as i really enjoy your blog and its been helpful to me many times.

    • Zak, your advice in your “Choosing the right ebook format” post ( is bang on, and along the lines of what I was getting at when I answered Tony’s question with a question. The message to be as device agnostic is even more important when dealing with openly licensed books that allow for others to copy, reuse and remix. The reality is many platforms for authoring ebooks are proprietary and lock users into vendor specific software and applications (like, oh I don’t know, Apple’s iBooks Author).

  3. Does it allow you to seperate data and design?
    Can you get your data out?
    If you do get your data out, can you reuse it somehwere/anywhere else?
    If someone else wants to use your content, can they remix it easily? (assumung you are amenable)

    • Hi, John
      Good questions. On the data extraction, I don’t know, but will find out. If it’s straight semantic content that you mean by data, yes, under the copyright licensing agreement, that’s possible. If you mean data analytics generated by PressBook, that I don’t know, but would assume it’s possible as it’s open source.
      Re-mix is essential. At least one of the exporting formats will allow remix.
      Anyone else want to comment on this?

    • Hi John,

      To answer your questions:

      1) Yes it separates design from data. That is one of the powers of the tool. Write once, output into many different formats, including XHTML, ePub, PDF, MOBI, and a WXR file, which is a WordPress backup file.
      2) Yes. You can export your data out in any of the above formats.
      3) Yes. Theoretically, you could export your data as a WordPress backup file and import into any WordPress site.
      4) Yes, again using WordPress. But Tony could also make all of the versions of the book available and people could pick their foramt. For example, he could export an XHTML package as a zip file and make that available for others to use using an HTML editor.

      Hope that helps.


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