Pressbooks is a WordPress based tool which launched late last year and which I saw demoed at O’Reilly TOC. It was an impressive tool which I couldn’t get to work right at the time (during a noisy conference session). I’d always planned to try it again with a real project so I could judge how well it really worked.
I did get the ebook made, after a fashion, but I faced an insurmountable problem with Pressbooks so I ended up making it elsewhere. That’s not a criticism of Pressbooks so much as a statement that it isn’t yet the tool I need.
I thought I’d spend a few minutes this evening explaining what went wrong. While I know it might be more polite to send this privately, I’m hoping anyone working on similar tools will read this post and take it to heart. In broad strokes, Pressbooks currently lacks 2 major features.
There are limited import options (currently) and there are limited options for automated editing of a text.
Like many of the new tools, Pressbooks was originally designed to be used to build a book from scratch. You’re supposed to type the text into the editor panel much like I would write a blog post. That’s all well and good as a concept but it falls down when it’s put to use.
You see, writers like to use their favorite tools, and these are frequently office apps which they’ve used for years. They’re not going to want to switch over to Pressbooks, so their preferences will need to be accommodated. (And while WordPress does have a built in option for importing chunks of text from MSWord, it is still hit or miss – so much so that I usually only import plain text.)
And it’s not just writers that need to be supported; this tool needs to work well with outside content because it is not the whole of the publishing ecosystem. If I cannot integrate a tool into my overall production model then I won’t use it. The same goes for any tool that requires too much fiddling.
And so an import option is one of my needs. I’d really like it if tools like Pressbooks could accept content from outside and be able automagically process the content so it shows up on my screen formatted properly.
Luckily I just got an email from Hugh Rundle, one of the creators of Pressbooks. He’s about to roll out an import option (WordPress, Blogger, and Tumbler XML). He also expects that my other import needs will eventually be filled new features which rolled out with WordPress 3.4.
That leads me to my second request: Editing.
Pressbooks has a very basic text editor – the same one as on this blog, in fact. While I appreciate the familiarity, I also know that it has limitations. The text editor only has minimal abilities like spellcheck and it’s missing even the most basic abilities like find&replace. What’s more, it’s missing any ability to do the more advanced meta editing that I can do with other tools.
For example, with Pressbooks I can edit a single part of a book while with my preferred text editor (TextPad) I can have 40 or more parts of a book open in 40 or more files – all at once. I can then search for and correct a formatting error in all the files – at the same time – with a minimum of effort. The same is true for spelling, double spaces, and virtually any common error. Do you realize just how much work that saves me?
Don’t get me wrong, Pressbooks is a cleanly made and smoothly functioning tool. But it’s rather lacking in sophistication, and that creates more work for me. I would much rather stick with the tools I have. They’re simply more efficient.
As I see it, Pressbooks is intended to replace all the steps in a book creation process. That’s all well and good, but in my case Pressbooks is trying to replace 4 different tools, each of which is used at one stage of the process. I’m going to stick with those tools because each one is currently better at its task than Pressbooks is. And I expect that to be true for at least some time. Given that Pressbooks has but single development team while each of these tools has its own developer, the other tools will likely stay ahead of Pressbooks.
P.S. If you think my requirements are high then you should be very glad that I didn’t list the tools that Rich Adin, a professional copyeditor, uses on a daily basis. There’s no way Pressbooks could possibly replace the workbox full of tools he’s built up over the decades. It would be cruel to even list them all.
P.P.S. A note for other developers: Pressbooks is about to add the sophistication I need, even though it launched late last year. Take heart in that. It means you too can launch and then add features at a later date.
image by RebeccaPollard