In the field of book futurism, Hugh McGuire is both maker and commentator. He runs PressBooks, which offers a digital workflow for ebook creation built on top of WordPress, and LibriVox, a massive collection of free, public domain audiobooks. We spoke with him about the book in the present and the very near future.

Contents: You’ve said “that the distinction between books and the internet will disappear within five years.” What could the book experience be like in five years?

McGuire: The experience of actually reading will be largely the same. There’s about two thousand years of design thinking built into the modern print book, and as far as technology goes, the print book is stable and durable. Ebooks on ereading platforms (tablets, smartphones, and dedicated ereaders) have, a few quibbles aside, done a decent job of adapting the longform reading experience to screens, while also adding extras like linking out, highlighting, and note-taking.

But the real change that I see coming is not so much in how we read, but the context “around” a book we read. If you imagine every book with its own URL, every chapter with its own URL, then you can start to think about the information in books being truly connected in ways it can’t be with print books, or ebooks as we’ve conceived them so far. I think that will change, where will books live natively on the web first, and then have different output formats. With this webbification of books, we’ll see connections being made from book-to-book, passage to passage, layers of commentary, links, the extraction and use of data such as locations, times, and names. All these connections will sit “atop” a book, and be turned on or off depending on the reader’s preference. This layer will not necessarily be generated by the author or publisher (as it is right now in ebooks) but rather by readers and other services that can access the “book data” and link to it, to use it in different ways.

Currently, creating ebooks is a time-consuming and cumbersome process. What technical barriers do we have to overcome to seamlessly create ebooks that embody all the web has to offer? And how do we have to change the way we think about book design?

To the first statement, I disagree completely. To paraphrase William Gibson: the future of easy ebook creation is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. My company, PressBooks, makes a free ebook creation tool that is built on top of WordPress. If you’ve ever used WordPress (and even if you haven’t) then you can make an ebook in minutes with PressBooks. (There are other tools like this out in the world, and more are surely on the way.)

It is true, however, that ebooks are a minefield of different and badly-ignored standards. EPUB is one open standard, but many ereaders render EPUBs differently. In fact, Kindle has a couple of its own proprietary formats. The nasty surprises for someone used to standards-based web development are… legion. And really, really gross.

Still, a tool like PressBooks abstracts these problems away from users: all you have to do is put your content in, and we generate one ebook file optimized to look good on all ereading devices. Once you have a nicely-structured ebook file (like the ones PressBooks generates), you can apply design templates to alter the look of your book (again, with some caveats about varying levels of support for CSS in ereading devices).

Your second question is about creating “ebooks that embody all the web has to offer,” and this is a trickier problem. Ebooks are “just” a collection of HTML files, a CSS file, a few other XML files, all zipped up. But, the EPUB standard is strict and unforgiving, and there are all sorts of things that you expect will work in ebooks, that just don’t. So I think the first part of the answer is: ebooks on ereaders will always have slightly different functionality than the web. The second part of the answer is: all books should be on the web first, as well as in ebook and print form. And each of these formats (web book, ebook, print book) will have different characteristics and constraints.

As to your third question, how do we need to change our thinking about book design: I think the answer is: “it depends.” Each format has its own design constraints and possibilities. And I think the critical thing for publishers (and authors) is to decide how much energy they plan to put into each of the outputs. With ebook (and print) templating systems, a lot of the bespoke design that goes into making a print book these days just won’t happen for many books; for some books it will.

What’s next for PressBooks?

We’re most excited about small publishers using PressBooks as a “publisher in a box.” We’ve just worked on a new little publisher, The Rogue Reader, and it’s the first demo of what I think is PressBooks’ real calling. The Rogue Reader runs on a dedicated PressBooks network, which includes a customizable WordPress website, a public book catalog that is automatically generated by PressBooks, and PressBooks book creation in the backend. (Of course, every book has its own URL.)

We’re in the process of making it a lot easier (and much cheaper) for publishers and authors to get their “own” PressBooks install like the Rogue Reader, and we’d like to power a million new publishing enterprises.