Getting started in writing an open textbook

March 3, 2014 Tony Bates

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.

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