Pressbooks 2018: The Year in Review, part 1

the numbers 2018 written with sparklers

When others ask me what Pressbooks is, I often say that it’s two things: 1) terrific open-source book publishing software and 2) the people who make, use, and care about that software. If there’s still time and interest, I go on to explain that Pressbooks is a collection of open-source software components, largely built on top of the WordPress Content Management System, that gives authors, teachers, publishers, and educational institutions a powerful and relatively easy-to-use book publishing system. Pressbooks is also the small team of employees that makes and supports Pressbooks software and a larger global community of contributors, users, and backers who collectively give our software life.

In a series of two posts I want to talk about what 2018 meant for Pressbooks, looking at both the software product and the human community that shapes and sustains that product. I’ll talk about the people first, well, because that’s how we try to do things.

The People

2018 was an exciting year for for Pressbooks and brought with it some pretty dramatic changes. Nothing makes this more obvious than a closer look at the people making and supporting Pressbooks. At the beginning of 2018, Pressbooks had two people working on the project full time (our developers Ned & Dac) and another four (Hugh, Liz, Zoe, Apurva) who split their time between Pressbooks and other projects. Throughout 2018, our team grew, matured, and specialized in response to the needs of our user communities.

Departures

In June, the Rebus Foundation (a non-profit organization founded by Pressbooks CEO Hugh McGuire), received a large Mellon Foundation grant to develop a web-based application for digital reading, research, annotations, and collections management. This change in Rebus’s fortunes meant that Zoe Wake Hyde and Apurva Ashok, two colleagues who had been splitting time between Rebus and Pressbooks, left Pressbooks to devote their energies full time to Rebus work. Midway through 2018, Pressbooks bid Zoe and Apurva a fond farewell. All of us working on Pressbooks continue to wish them well as they advance Rebus’s efforts to build a vibrant community of collaborators on open textbook projects; resources, best practices and software to support that community’s open publishing efforts; and a better scholarly reading ecosystem.

A growing Pressbooks team

Early in 2018, Pressbooks added three new team members: JC Guan, our first official product manager; Daniel Fernandes, who spent most of the year improving our existing web themes; and Phil Nelson, who had previously worked with Pressbooks as a contractor but began managing DevOps, systems administration, and infrastructure issues for our SaaS hosting offerings in a more formal capacity.

In 2018, Pressbooks also brought Liz Mays into a full-time role as our director of sales and marketing (she had previously been splitting her time between Rebus and Pressbooks) and welcomed Taylor McGrath to our team, first as an intern and later as a full-time communications and support specialist. Finally, in November, I joined the team as our first educational client manager, with a specific mandate to support our growing base of educational clients using Pressbooks as a platform for open education and open textbook initiatives.

Much of this change in staffing was undertaken in response to our growing base of educational clients and their desire to use Pressbooks networks to develop open educational resources in a variety of modalities and deliver them at no cost to students. While Pressbooks began as and remains an excellent tool for individual authors to self-publish their own books, we’ve been gratified to see our SaaS hosted platform for educational institutions (PressbooksEDU) become a popular choice for colleges and universities around the world who are interested in developing and publishing open educational resources. By the end of 2018, we were thrilled to be hosting standalone PressbooksEDU networks for more than forty colleges and universities in North America and Australia.

PressbooksEDU News

Along with growth in the number of educational institutions using Pressbooks to support their publishing initiatives and a corresponding growth in Pressbooks staff to support them, 2018 also saw invigoration of our PressbooksEDU news blog. Our EDU-focused blog averaged a new post every two weeks in 2018, focusing primarily on an audience of educational users and network managers of hosted EDU networks. Over the past year, Liz and Taylor used the blog to draw attention to educational uses for new Pressbooks features and provide a detailed glimpse into how Pressbooks has been used in OER publishing efforts undertaken by a retired professor, the University of Florida, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Ohio State University, the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Central Florida.

The story from 2018 that we’re most proud of at Pressbooks, though, was the announcement in March that A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students, a collaboratively-built resource edited by our very own Liz Mays, had won the 2018 Open Education Award for Excellence in the Open Textbook category from an international panel of judges at the Open Educational Consortium. A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students was originally published by Rebus Community using Pressbooks in August 2017 under the CC-BY 4.0 license, but continued to attract attention and praise throughout 2018.

We’ve got another series of case studies and feature updates planned for 2019, and are really excited to continue learning from and sharing the successes of our educational users. One of my biggest goals for 2019 will be establishing community resources and venues that meet the needs of network managers and our educational clients. Stay tuned for more news on this in the first half of 2019.

Support

No matter how easy to use its makers think a piece of software is, everyone who’s ever been involved in learning a new program will tell you that end users often need help and support. Pressbooks is no exception. While we work hard to make our software accessible and accompany it with clear technical documentation and helpful user guides, we still get a lot of support requests from our Pressbooks.com and PressbooksEDU offerings. In 2018, for example, Pressbooks staff received and responded to nearly 3,500 support requests. When it came to client support, Taylor, Liz, Apurva, and JC led the way in 2018, each resolving hundreds of support tickets.

In fact, most of the Pressbooks staffing changes in 2018 were made to ensure that we could continue to provide best-in-class support for our clients. To that end, Taylor overhauled and improved our Knowledge Base/FAQ documentation and Pressbooks user guide and published and now maintains a new guide explicitly for network managers. JC, Taylor and I also provided personalized training and support for dozens of network managers at client institutions throughout the year, a responsibility that I’m looking forward to continuing in 2019. In late November, Taylor and I also began offering regularly recorded webinars for our EDU clients highlighting how users can leverage new features to do more with Pressbooks; we held the first webinar in the series to accompany the release of Pressbooks 5.6.0.

Because I joined the team specifically to help educational clients succeed with their OER and other publishing efforts, my top priority for this year is to better understand the needs of our growing educational user base and to provide even more ways for PressbooksEDU network managers to engage with us, our software, and each other. Before making any specific plans, my first order of business is to conduct a thorough ‘listening tour’ of all of our existing educational clients so that I can better understand what their hopes, needs, and ambitions are. Over the next few months we will begin synthesizing responses and formulating new approaches and support tools that meet common needs.

Forum Improvements

Some of these changes are already underway in our open source and developer community. For example, in September 2018, we decided to close our open source Slack channel and focus our open source community efforts on the public Discourse forum, which we’ve been operating since early 2016. We now hold our monthly open source development calls (these are open to all!) in Zoom rather than Slack, and post regular public updates about development and upcoming calls on our open source blog and in the Development category of Discourse.

Our Discourse forum continued to flourish as a place for Pressbooks developers and other users to ask technical questions of each other. 2018 saw the addition of more than 60 new members, 340 new topics and 1,400 new posts, such that the forum now contains over 100 members, nearly 600 topics and almost 2,800 posts.

The most popular posts from 2018 in our community forum included a post Ned made about the developer’s guide to accompany the release of Pressbooks 5.0 and inquiries from Pressbooks users on topics ranging from importing content into Pressbooks, PrinceXML, iFrames and oEmbed customization, book theming, automatic line numbering, and watermarks and DocRaptor exports.

Working on an open source software project means that questions come in all the time on surprising topics and unexpected use cases. Observing and responding to these forum interactions over the last year helped us better understand our own software and its users, catch and fix bugs, and make more useful software. We’re grateful to everyone who engaged with us in 2018, and look forward to another year filled with rich, positive engagement with developers and other contributors.

Whether you’re an old hand or are new to Pressbooks and looking for a way to get involved in contributing to the open source project, we hope that you will feel welcomed and valued in our forum, and that you will treat others with kindness and respect. If you have any feedback for us on how we can make participating easier or more inclusive for you or others who might want to participate, please let us know by sending Ned and/or Steel a private message on the forum or by sending a Twitter DM to @pressbooksdev.

GitHub Ideas Forum

In March, our development team created a dedicated Ideas forum and connected Ideas board on GitHub for users to submit development ideas and suggestions for the Pressbooks team. Since then, we’ve received more than 150 unique ideas from almost 20 contributors (including the author of this post). We’ve already added several of these suggestions to our core product, with plans to address many more in 2019.

If you’ve got an idea for something that you think would make Pressbooks better in 2019, we encourage you to share it with us in this Ideas forum, which features a basic template asking you to provide a feature description, use case, and any other notes that might help us in evaluating or implementing your idea. If you’re new to GitHub, we recommend starting with this guide to submitting contributions to open source software projects or this guide to GitHub issues.

GitHub Snippets

A the same time we established the GitHub ideas forum, our dev team also created a GitHub repository to house useful code snippets for others working on/with Pressbooks. It’s currently a little-known and under-used resource, but we hope that by highlighting it here, interested community members might add useful snippets of their own more frequently in 2019.

At this point, I’m beginning to verge into product territory, so it’s probably a good stopping point for now. Keep an eye out for part two of our Pressbooks 2018: Year in Review, which will review highlights from our development work on Pressbooks software, in the near future.

Featured image by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Author: Steel Wagstaff

Steel is the Educational Client Manager at Pressbooks.