Pressbooks: Gamechanger in Open Access Publishing? An Interview with Founder and CEO Hugh McGuire

Pressbooks is a WordPress based platform that allows authors to publish e-books in multiple formats (epub, mobi, html, pdf) from one single source document. This creates maximum platform-independent accessibility so that people with different e-readers (Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.), desktop browsers and mobile devices can use the resource with ease. It also allows for a variety of export options for others to adapt the content, which makes it a great choice for open educational resources and open access textbooks.  Pressbooks offers both institutional plans and individual accounts to self-publish.

I greatly appreciated the platform when producing the OER textbook ‘Local Government in North Carolina’, an interactive textbook that can be used at the K-12 level, by informal learners, and in civic education programs.

Pressbooks is easy to use and highly customizable. Authors like Mike Caulfield (‘Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers‘) and Tony Bates (‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘) are at home here, as well as campuses such as Berkeley and Hawai’i and cross-institutional organizations such as BC Campus.

It is an absolute pleasure to talk with the Pressbooks founder Hugh McGuire.

Pressbooks was founded in 2011. How has the company developed over the past decade?

Pressbooks started out as a general purpose book publishing platform: input your content once in an online platform, and then get an output of: PDF (ready for print), ebook files (EPUB/Mobi), and finally web.

In the early days PB was used mostly by self-publishers, as well as some small presses, and some academic publishers and media companies experimenting with new publishing models.

But it was the embrace of the open education movement, at BCcampus, SUNY and others that really set the trajectory for the company. We started focusing development on edu needs, such as interactive quizzes, integrations with Learning Management Systems etc.

Our development and business focus is now entirely the educational use cases for Pressbooks, with about 90% of our revenues coming from higher ed institutions who make PB available to their faculty to create, adapt, and deliver digital textbooks/resources, usually open and free. 

Pressbooks is open source and based on the CMS WordPress. How do new WordPress developments like Gutenberg influence the trajectory of Pressbooks?

Gutenberg is a bit of a challenge, because the block editing notion is harder for us to grapple with in a multi-format output. And, accessibility – a critical need for our users – is not ideal in the Gutenberg universe. To date we’ve stuck with the Classic editor, and plan to continue to do so.

We benefit from constant evolution and improvements of the WordPress platform, as well as the comfort that our users have in a recognized interface.

In theory, we have interest in migrating eventually to Gutenberg, but it is not yet a priority.

Overall, WordPress seems to be dominating the open source content management market over alternatives such as Drupal, Typo3, Joomla or Zope/Plone. Is that a good thing or should we have a more diversified landscape?

I think the bigger worry is probably the non-open source alternatives, Squarespace, Wixx, Medium etc – but I’d say there is enough competition in the CMS space that each of these platforms pushes the others to get better at certain things. WordPress dominates a certain type of web site delivery– where you want to be doing more complex and customizable things. It’s worked well for that application, and generally I think that’s a good thing. 

Pressbooks is committed to the idea of open access publishing and open educational resources. What are the benefits for learners and instructors for using open educational resources?

Big question. Let’s start with the most interesting piece: instructors. With OER on Pressbooks, instructors get access to an growing catalog of easily adaptable content, so an instructor can take an existing resource, make a few changes to chapter 2 and 7, add a quiz in chapter 9, drop a Youtube video into chapter 10, reorder chapters 11 to 15, and delete chapters 20 to 22. For instance.

An instructor can easily pull together resources into one place in a coherent structured “book” that students can access in multiple ways.

All of this gives much more control to the instructor, they can easily shape and build the materials they deliver to their students.

Some of the most interesting projects we see are the ones where students are invited to create along with the instructors.

As for students, well, they get: free content, always available on the web, on whatever device they want to use, with downloadable content in PDF or other formats.

Wins all around.

Given all the pros, why do universities not use more OER textbooks? What are some of the barriers?

Good question. Barriers include:

  • Inertia (if you’ve been using textbook X for 10 years, it’s easier to continue to do so)
  • Belief that the quality of OER is inferior (every OER study done has shown OER efficacy to be equivalent to commercial texts, with the added benefit of reduction of course dropouts)
  • Belief that OER is more work (which isn’t the case, you can easily just use OER without making any changes)
  • Awareness
  • Homework platforms/ancillaries that come with commercial textbooks that are not always available with OER (though Pressbooks enables building of quizzes etc, and connecting grade output to the LMS) 

What do you see as the biggest opportunities for open pedagogies, open educational resources and open access publishing in the post-pandemic higher education landscape?

Well, I just think that OER makes more sense. Why wouldn’t everyone want easily adaptable/updateable edu content?

I think the biggest opportunity is properly leveraging the community of users of a resource (ie instructors), to build the incentives to help create a vibrant community of contributors to OER.

In 2012 you co-edited a book called ‘Book. A Futurist’s Manifesto’. Ten years later, how much of the current landscape of e-publishing, audiobook production and podcasting did you expect, and what did surprise you?

Amazon dominates ebooks in a way that surprised me – I thought there would be more real competition.

Ebooks plateaued at ~20% of the market, which surprised me also; and I think that limited the amount of innovation beyond Amazon in the market. It also meant that the book industry in general was much less disrupted by digital than I expected.

Educational publishing embraced digital, with again less disruption to the incumbents than I expected, EXCEPT that the change to digital has created a huge drag on revenues. So there’s much more exciting things to happen in this space.

OER is still a tiny sliver of the EDU space, but I think there is a huge opportunity here if we can figure out incentives better.

The academic publishing landscape continues to be insane: for instance, journals get all their content for free, subsidized by universities and governments, and then sell that content back at exorbitant prices in the form of journal subscriptions to academic libraries. How this model still dominates is a mystery.

Podcasting took much longer than I expected to evolve into the vibrant space it is now. Love the format, hope it continues.

Audiobooks grew as I expected, but there are still many books that aren’t available in audio. I guess we’ll start to see more AI-driven text-to-voice audiobooks soon, which should drastically reduce the cost, and increase the supply of content.

What new educational technologies trends are you most excited about?

I’m interested in people creating things. I like it when instructors make new things, new books ect. Even more exciting is when students make things. 

What is next for Pressbooks?

I’m interested in figuring out how we can encourage/incentivize creation of more interactive quizzes etc in the OER ecosystem, and how we can grow communities around OER.  


Hugh has been building web tools and communities that bring books onto the web for over a decade. He is the founder of Pressbooks, the co-founder and Executive Director of the Rebus Foundation, and the founder of and iambik. He is the co-editor of “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto.”  You can find him at @hughmcguire.





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