Dec 20, 2012 · 3 minutes

PressBooks founder Hugh McGuire refers to his company as “the indie rock band of ebooks startups,” which is why, unless you’ve been watching PandoDaily really closely, you wouldn’t have seen much of it in the media.

Today, just like an indie band that relies on its fan base for its survival, two-year-old PressBooks has announced that it is making its free book publishing software open source. McGuire, a Montreal-based entrepreneur who also founded crowdsourced audiobooks publisher Librivox, hopes that third-party developers can help PressBooks expand the meaning and utility of ebooks.

PressBooks is one of the startups riding a new wave of micropublishing, a movement towards tools that make longform publishing accessible, cheap, and lightweight. Its fellow travelers include Vook, 29th Street Publishing (used by The Awl for its Weekend Companion magazine), ebook sales and marketing tool Ganxy, and new arrival The Periodical, which will soon launch a cross-platform publishing tool inspired by writer-designer Craig Mod’s essay on “subcompact publishing.”

By the end of January, PressBooks will be available as a WordPress plugin under the open source GPL license, allowing developers to build on the platform and enhance the product. McGuire sees potential for making ebooks published using PressBooks fully semantic, meaning their data could be structured in such a way to be universally readable, and therefore more usable, by Web services. For instance, a service might be built to identify all locations mentioned in an ebook and to link them to a database that lists books by places. Essentially, such a book would have an API.

McGuire is also interested in letting people add notes to books, and read those notes, across devices and platforms, independent of, say, the Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem.

McGuire decided to make PressBooks open source after realizing that the product was stuck between two worlds, serving traditional publishers on one hand and self-publishers on the other. Traditional publishers aren’t great at embracing new ways of doing things, he says, while for self-publishing to succeed, it really needs large scale, something PressBooks hasn't yet achieved. McGuire is more interested, however, in people and organizations that fit somewhere in between and are willing to experiment.

“What’s really interesting to me is that middle space where there are new kinds of publishers emerging who want to be exploring new business models around publishing,” he says.

Another factor that held McGuire back from making PressBooks open source in the first place is that he was treating it more like an enterprise than a passion project. “It’s not that I don’t see it as a business,” he explains, “but I think that I was trying to think of it as business first and passion second, and that wasn’t working very well.”

He says PressBooks will become a freemium product, with its basic tools offered free, but with special book designs and themes available to those willing to pay. Eventually, it will also add ecommerce features, making it easier for authors to sell their work. That will put it squarely into competition with Ganxy.

McGuire’s long-term vision for the future of books is that they will become Web-native products, with ebooks and print books as corollaries to what exists on the open Web. With the power of the open Web at their disposal, perhaps books can move beyond the closed-garden limitations – lack of sharing, no annotations, linear layouts – that have been carried over from the era of the hardback, as my editor Adam Penenberg discussed in a recent article.

Today, the world got a glimpse of what a Web-based ebook might look like, with the New York Times publishing a feature about avalanches that displays the story in a single column of text, but with HTML5 native video, motion graphics, and something similar to parallax scrolling providing a rich and lightweight experience. The feature was the first of six chapters that the Times is publishing in instalments.

What both the New York Times and PressBooks are showing is that our understanding of what constitutes an ebook is only in its infancy. If an open-source approach can, Firefox-like, push innovation in publishing further, our current conception of what an ebook is could fast become outdated.

[Original image courtesy indiamos]