An Open, Webby, Book-Publishing Platform

WordPress as Book Publishing Platform

This short article outlines some ideas about an open source, online platform for making books, based on WordPress. My thoughts here come out of our experience building Book Oven (a thus-far closed, proprietary system envisaged to be just this); and subsequent conversations with John Maxwell, of Simon Fraser University’s Masters of Publishing Program, and Kirk Biglione of Oxford Media Works.

I am happy to report this is more than just thinking: this past term (January to April 2010), John Maxwell and his MPub students built a prototype of this WordPress-based publishing system, and tested the prototype by creating, and publishing the Book of Mpub, available in print-on-demand ready PDF, epub, and html.

Background: Book Oven

At the end of 2008, my co-founder Stephanie Troeth and I started Book Oven, an ambitious venture to work towards transforming the book publishing process into a webby, connected process. The key insights behind Book Oven were the following:

  • publishing a book is (almost always) a collaborative enterprise
  • online tools (should) make collaboration on making books easy(er)
  • if you build a “book” in the cloud, using structured mark-up, then expression of that book in various forms (print, epub, pdf, mobipocket, html, etc), on various devices (including paper & print) becomes arbitrary, and should be nearly trivial
  • further, if the “book” exists in the cloud, then the range of things that can be done with this “book” multiplies significantly
  • if a system built on these ideals is implemented well, it will be transformative, both for professional publishing workflows, and for the emergence of a new grassroots of indie publishing.

I am still deeply committed to this vision.

But I have shifted towards a belief that the above-described platform should be open source. Or at least, an open source version of such should exist.

The Big Revelation: WordPress

We’ve done some good things with Book Oven, but around November 2009, we shifted focus to the bit of our platform that was (according to our analytics) the most engaging to our users: Bite-Size Edits. That shift occurred in parallel with a revelation:

We were trying to recreate so much in Book Oven that was already handled well by another class of software, namely blogging software, and specifically WordPress.

My thoughts about WordPress were crystalized in October 2009, during a conversation with Shana Kimball of the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library. I was pitching Book Oven as a good tool (in progress) for academic presses to use in their production workflows. Shana had various hesitations — open source vs proprietary being a big one — but during our conversation, Shana said something like: “It would be great to have a tool that’s as easy to use as WordPress. I love WordPress.”


So, I started having some conversations with some people I knew who were already doing some work in this direction, in particular: John Maxwell, at Simon Fraser University, who was experimenting with prototypes for html-first book publishing systems, and was exploring different candidates, including WordPress; and Kirk Biglione who had independently started poking at WordPress as a book-publishing tool.

I also floated the idea to a few others who are doing some of the most interesting things right now in publishing/tech, especially Liza Daly and James Bridle, and two of the best WordPress hackers I know, Steph Daury (who works for Automattic) and Jeremy Clark.

The idea, everyone agreed, had some legs.

WordPress, it seems, is an ideal candidate as a platform on which to build an open source, online, webby, book-publishing system. There may be other likely candidates, but WordPress has the following characteristic which suggest to me that it is an excellent place to start:

  • it is a familiar and comfortable tool to most writers and
    publishers who are at all engaged online
  • it is a stable platform that can handle just about any scale of
    traffic you can throw at it (the New York
    , New York Times Blogs, for instance, run on a heavily-hacked version of WordPress)
  • it is open source
  • through its plugin architecture, it is infinitely extensible
  • through
    its template architecture, it is infinitely stylable
  • through WordPress Mu, it is
    infinitely scalable
  • it has a huge, world-wide community of committed developers
  • existing plugins and plugin suites already achieve much of what would be
    wanted in a WordPress-based book publishing system.

[NOTE: I’ve since discovered, built by Ruboss, which is already going along this path].

The Outline

I’ve described above some of the reasons why WordPress is, I believe, a good candidate as the basis for an online book-publishing platform. Here is a proposal for some very rough product specs:

  • Authors/editors can add text
  • Editors can edit text
  • The editing/publishing process can be public or private, with easy assignment of various permissions (none, read-only, read/edit, read/edit/admin)
  • Formatting creates structured html
  • Finished text can be generated in the following formats:
    • plain text
    • epub
    • html
    • InDesign-compliant markup – to generate a professional print output from In-Design
    • automatic print-ready pdf – using something like a web-based LaTeX system
    • etc.

WordPress can do much of this already, but not all of it, and certainly not everything you would want it to do. The finished platform should have (among others) the following plugins/characteristics:

  1. robust version control
  2. (based on the old commentpress)- to allow para by para commenting for editors, and later, if desired, for readers
  3. wordpress –> epub conversion
  4. wordpress –> ~LaTeX –> print-ready pdf conversion (or similar)
  5. wordpress –> InDesign-compliant mark-up conversion
  6. book-friendly front-end template(s) (including Table of Contents, Title page etc)
  7. generation of a download/(sales?) page that lists available formats (epub, html, pdf etc)
  8. table of contents generator
  9. a book metadata generation/management tool (ONIX, OPDS compliant?)
  10. …etc.

This list of plugins can continue, subject to the interest of developers, and the needs of users of such a system.

SFU and the MPub Prototype

All this would be just a lot of writing and good intentions and conversations, except for John Maxwell and his team of talented students at Simon Fraser University, including: Vanessa Chan, Cari Ferguson, Kathleen Fraser, Cynara Geissler, Ann-Marie Metten, and Suzette Smith.

In the span of four months in 2010, the SFU MPub team did two extraordinary things:

  1. they built a prototype of this WordPress-based book publishing system (tied in with InDesign for the print book)
  2. they published a book using the system – suitably, it was student-essays about the future of publishing: the Book of MPub

I had the pleasure of seeing John and some of his students present the results at BookCamp Toronto this past week, to a crowd of publishers, writers, designers, and technologists.

The Reaction

I was curious to see the reaction to John’s presentation at BookCamp Toronto, with a wide range of people in the room. Particularly encouraging was Ingrid Paulson’s take on it: Ingrid is one of Canada’s best-known book designers, and was excited by the idea of streamlining and formalizing the process of text/mark-up delivery from publishers. She seemed entirely open to a better toolset to make that happen. Others in the room were equally intrigued.

For myself, I was amazed at what the SFU students delivered in such a short time, and was reignited with excitement for this project. I have no doubt that a streamlined online publishing system, using structured mark-up, will transform the publishing industry. And my bet is on WordPress as a great starting platform to do just this.

Whether or not it could be the long-term winner, I know not, but something will be, and WordPress has a whole lot to recommend it.

And how about you? What do you think?

Bio: Hugh McGuire builds webby things, and writes about media, publishing, mass collaboration, and technology. He is the founder of, the volunteer-run makers of free public domain audiobooks; and Book Oven, which makes Bite-Size Edits, an online editing game/tool. He is a co-founder of BookCampToronto. His personal site is and you can find him on twitter at @hughmcguire.

[Pic of Hugh McGuire by Ron Grimes – Flickr / Twitter]

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