The Time Tinkerers Project Summary

front coverThe Time Machine and Pressbooks

Since 1895, The Time Machine has been influencing writers and dreamers everywhere, becoming one of the most ubiquitous staples of science fiction literature, film, and television. At Time Tinkerer Publications, we project ourselves into the future of book publishing—attempting to extrapolate what the marketplace will look like five, ten, and fifteen years from now. Though, of course, it’s difficult to predict even the next six months of direction in the industry. But, brave souls that we are, we have ventured into the future of digital publishing with Pressbooks and, like the traveller, we have returned from our experiment with a tale to tell; we have negotiated a new world where not everything works or turns out the way we expect, but we hope that this text and project inspires future journeys into new realms of digital publishing.

Happy travels,

—The Time Tinkerers, September 27, 2013

Our Purpose

The purpose of the project is to establish whether or not Pressbooks is a feasible production tool for book publishers, newbies and pros alike. Our project explored the entire production process from a plain text file to the final products of print and digital editions.

For this experiment, we chose to produce H.G. Wells’ classic novel The Time Machine. Throughout our project, we provided careful documentation detailing the ease and the constraints of using Pressbooks. The following notes are the results of our project. Enjoy!

Challenges and Results

Flowing the text into Pressbooks

Initially, we took our plain text file and planted it in Text Wrangler. We added single quotes, fixed line breaks by deleting spaces, and added em dashes. We then tried to import the file to Pressbooks only to see our entire formatting efforts wasted. We realized that there were large line breaks in the text.

Next, we found out that Text Wrangler has codes for fixing line breaks a proper way that translates to other program. This is the code: FIND: \n\t REPLACE: \n\n FIND: \n\n REPLACE: \n.

Our next strategy was to import the file to Pressbooks using the “Paste as Plain Text” function. This fixed the line break issue and the single quote problem. We then using FIND – to change all the hyphens to proper em dashes.

The final problem was creating tabs for each new paragraph with the exception of the first paragraph of each new chapter. Pressbooks has a very simple way to fix this! Follow this pathway: Export > Theme Options > PDF Options. There are a number of great options including one about indenting paragraphs and even skipping lines between paragraphs. This section is also where you determine the size of your book other style choices such as the number of characters allowable for widows and orphans.

Limitations on design and customization

There are fewer limitations on design and customization than we first thought, as it has turned out, the Pressbooks file can be custom edited through the custom CSS template by selecting a template then going into the CSS editor. However, this requires the ability to use CSS. Another way to custom edit for the print version of the book is to export to InDesign (see below).

Multi-site set-up

Setting up Pressbooks on our own WordPress website was not a simple process. It requires a multi-site set-up that is not explained on the Pressbooks website.

John set up a sub-site on his posiel website. He installed the Pressbooks plug-in. Initially, the new posiel website did not work. All we could do is view a Pressbooks-themed blog. We could not create a book. This problem stemmed from the fact that John had not given us “super admin” status on the sub-site.

Once the admin problem was solved, we were able to create a new book.

Multi-site importing

Importing a book from to a WordPress site loaded with the Pressbooks plug-in is fairly straightforward. The network admin must install the WordPress importer plug-in.

This plug-in is simple to find with a Google search, but it cannot be installed by an admin or super admin. Only a network admin can install plug-ins.

 Exporting a book from should be done in WordPress XML format.

 A minor issue is that once the book is imported, the chapters, front matter, and back matter are out of order.

In summary, the multi-site set-up is complicated to do if you are not the network admin of the website. Using a sub-site is useful only if you have access to the network admin account or if you can ask the network admin to give you permissions and install plug-ins.

The Pressbooks sub-site using WordPress multi-site:

Multi-site Export

Exporting the book from the WordPress multi-site was not simple. Unlike that required us simply to push “Export Your Book”, the multi-site version gave us this error message: Fatal error: Class ‘XSLTProcessor’ not found in /home/posielco/public_html/pressbooks/wp-content/plugins/pressbooks/includes/modules/export/class-pb-export.php on line 370.

We did some sleuthing online and found a Google Group that focuses on Pressbooks multi-site issues. We asked how to fix our problem and got back the answer to install a PHP XLS extension. On Ubuntu, it’s called “sudo apt-get install php5-xsl.” Next, we were to restart apache. We were unable to do this on our end, so we had to ask John to do it.

Again, the main problem stemmed from using a sub-site.

Optimizing the digital file

It is straightforward to create an ePub file and export it for use on multiple platforms. What becomes tricky is the tinkering that the different platforms do to the CSS of the file. As we found when comparing the same exported file in multiple applications on the iPad, the same file would look very different depending on whether it was opened in iBooks, Kobo, or Overdrive. Our Pressbooks design was clear and readable in iBooks and Kobo, but Overdrive made a mess of it, the worst of which was removing paragraph indents so that the entire text flushes left, also with no spaces between paragraphs.

 ***we are still working on this


Pressbooks supports exporting the ebook to InDesign to allow for further customization for the print edition of the book that doesn’t involve coding in CSS. While this appears to be a straightforward and convenient feature, in reality it is difficult to implement. Placing the text itself is a challenge and involved removing all file code between the tags <rectangle> </rectangle>, which refers to the cover image, in Text Wrangler before importing to InDesign. This seems to be a bug in the design of Pressbooks.

Once the text is inside InDesign, most of the layout from Pressbooks is not carried over including new paragraph indents unless the Pressbooks file is imported into an existing book template. It does, however, carry over all of the sections of the book in order including front matter and back matter.

Once the content is in InDesign, we can format the headings and insert page breaks using paragraph styles (Window > Styles > Paragraph Styles). We then style the text in font, size, etc. the way we want it. Once the book is formatted, we strip it out of  InDesign and save the blank page as a template file (.indt). With this template, every time the book is flowed in from Pressbooks with changes, it will format to what we want to final print version to look like.

Summary assessment of your workflow

This summary includes discussions of the pros and cons of using Pressbooks with a final conclusion at the end.

Pros of using Pressbooks

The pros of using Pressbooks are clear. If you are familiar with WordPress, Pressbooks is very simple to use. Pressbooks functions like a WordPress website. Like WordPress, you can add custom CSS in a child theme and customize your book any which way you want.

If you are not an expert in WordPress, there are several pre-built available themes to choose from. Once a theme is chosen, the size of fonts, headers, position of chapter numbers, margins, folio are arranged on the page for you. It is very simple.

Adding front matter, back matter, and individual chapters is as easy as creating a new page on WordPress. You can also re-organize these pages by dragging a page up or down on the “Text” page.

Adding images and links is done exactly the way as a WordPress webpage. Metadata is added using the Book Info page. Simply insert all your metadata and Pressbooks formats it for you according to your selected theme.

Like WordPress, Pressbooks allows for easy file management. Each member of the team or publishing house can have their own usernames assigned to a project. It is easy to see who made what changes, and it is even possible to see old versions of the same file.

When it comes to exporting on, you simply go to Export and select which formats you want to export from. It is an easy process.

The cons of using Pressbooks

The cons of using Pressbooks come in if you are not familiar with WordPress or CSS. Pressbooks relies on the users knowing how to use WordPress and understanding the nature of CSS. If you want to do ANY customization, it is done using CSS. As we discovered, it can be a learning curve to using Pressbooks without prior knowledge of WordPress.

If you want to use Pressbooks on your own domain and web host, you need to install a WordPress multi-site. How to do this is not readily available on Pressbooks’ website. Their help section is limited to As we discovered, this can be quite complicated to do starting from the import stage all the way to the export stage.

Pressbooks supports exporting to InDesign in ICML files for greater customization of the print file; however, while the export is easy to do, the import is not. There are a number of steps that must be taken and the export involves going into the CSS. The details of the Pressbooks layout are not maintained in InDesign.

Strangely enough, Pressbooks does not allow users to add a back cover. While this makes sense for digital formats, it does not for print formats. It requires the user to export the ICML file and add a back cover in InDesign. Since the ICML file requires some editing to make it work, it is not a simple process.

Another option for the back cover is to create it in another program then attach it to the PDF file.

In summary:

Pressbooks is a great tool for publishers who are already familiar with the WordPress platform and CSS. If they already host their own WordPress site, most of the issues we encountered would be simple enough to fix.

For publishers who are new to WordPress, we recommend sticking to Producing a basic book is quite simple on Pressbooks own website. If a publisher likes one of the default themes but wants to adjust the headers or change colors, it is easy enough to add some pieces of CSS without creating a whole new theme.

So go ahead, use Pressbooks. We were newbies and we haven’t been scared off yet!

The promotional website for The Time Machine is available here.

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