Movable typeA year ago, Hugh McGuire, the founder of PressBooks, was ready to give up. “If you talked to me last year at this time, I was ready to just quit because it was so frustrating,” he says of his latest startup, which allows people to use a simple blog-like content management system to publish e-books – for free. But a lot has happened in 12 months. “We’ve stuck at it, the market’s moved a little bit, and the product’s a bit better,” says McGuire, who previously founded audiobooks company Librivox. “We’re now on the cusp of really making a difference in the world.”

The big thing that has changed is that Montreal-based PressBooks has transformed itself into an open-source publishing platform. Today, it releases the plug-in that makes the platform’s code available to the public so programmers can tinker with it, and hopefully build on it, at will. McGuire hopes that the open-source era of PressBooks will drive it into a new era of significance, presenting an opportunity to realize his vision of an “API for books,” which would help develop new and different kinds of interfaces for digital books as well as make them living, breathing creatures of the Internet.

Another thing that is different about the startup is that today it is unveiling a partnership with Prince XML that allows PressBooks to reach beyond e-books and into the realm of print. Now, PressBooks users will be able to use the WordPress-like platform to create an ebook and a printed book from the same place, without having to perform any special tricks or customizations. PressBooks is even working on partnerships with small-run publishers, so you won’t have to leave the comfort of the CMS to get your book printed and delivered with just a few clicks.

The hook-up, says McGuire, puts book production fully into the Web. “All that cost and time and complexity that was there previously is going away,” he says. Instead of being tied to a psychology of books being print-first, we can now think about them as being a product, and resident, of the Web, with various outputs, including print versions. In effect, the cost of back-end book production has come down to zero. “It brings the book production world into the modern design approach we have on the Web and that’s an exciting thing,” says McGuire.

PressBooks’ partner for its print endeavor is no lightweight. Prince XML’s founder is Håkon Wium Lie, the Norwegian who first proposed cascading style sheets (CSS) and is now CTO of Opera Software. While HTML-to-PDF outputs have been offered since at least 2005, it has always been difficult to provide a user-friendly interface to the production line, and getting the output formats to display correctly on all devices requires a lot of testing, Wium Lie explains by email. “PressBooks lowers the threshold for people to use these technologies and it allows people to support many output formats from a single source,” he says.

“PressBooks will increase the productivity and lower the cost of almost any publisher,” says Wium Lie. “And it enables self-publishers access to a tool that takes care of the nitty-gritty output generation.”

PressBooks, which is built on WordPress, is free to users who just want its basic version, which comes with a handful of design themes. But McGuire is particularly interested in new kinds of small publishers who want to produce their own books, electronic and printed. Paying customers get a tailored version of the PressBooks back-end with their own “skin” on top of it, as well as access to premium design themes and customization options. Such customers include the Rogue Reader and Ask Men.

A year ago, McGuire might have been ready to pack it all in, but these days he’s sounding chipper. As we move into an era of micropublishing and reading on tablets – an easy portal to the Web – PressBooks’ timing is starting to look pretty good, making it more competitive against established self-publishing platforms such as Amazon’s CreateSpace, Lulu, and Blurb. But then, “most open” doesn’t always mean “most successful.” In fact, as Apple has proved, the opposite can be true. PressBooks might be busting books and the publishing process out of the walled gardens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll thrive in the wild.

[Photo by Flickr user "Peter"]