Q&A with Pressbooks founder, Hugh McGuire

By   Tom Robinson 4 min read

Hugh McGuire is the founder of Pressbooks.com, a simple tool to make professionally-designed print books and ebooks. He has been building new ways to merge book culture and technology since founding LibriVox.org – the world’s largest library of free public domain audiobooks in 2005. He also is the co-author of “Book: a Futurist’s Manifesto” (with Brian O’Leary) and helped to start the BookCamps in Toronto, Montreal, New York and Melbourne.

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In your opinion as an entrepreneur and founder of Pressbooks, what is the key to success when self-publishing?

That is a big question with a lot of different answers depending on the case.

First, I think it’s important that as a self-publisher you define your objectives (that is: what is success for you?). Then you’ve got to make sure that your objectives make sense. And finally you have to decide how best to meet those objectives. At Pressbooks we work with so many different kinds of authors and (self-)publishers, so the definition of success will look very different from one book to the next.

We help poets publish books that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day. We have many Pressbooks users who are very hard-working (and prolific) romance and other genre self-publishers, making a career of self-publishing. We’ve worked with small publishers in a very targeted (and potentially lucrative) niches, such as legal publishing; university professors publishing academic monographs; management consultants publishing white papers … the list goes on.

In all cases, I think the key to success is understanding where your audience is, and doing everything necessary to make it easy for that audience to find you and your books.

And I would say the most important part of any author’s “success” toolkit — beyond writing great books, of whatever kind — is the email list. In the long run, building up an email list, of people who want to hear from you, is the most important marketing investment any author can make.

What do you think about the success of community sites such as Wattpad and your LibriVox and do you think they threaten traditional publishing?

I’ll answer that in two ways.

First, yes, they absolutely threaten traditional publishing. New platforms, and the Internet in particular, are constantly bringing new ways to provide literary experiences to people — LibriVox and Wattpad are just two examples, but the explosion of self-publishing itself is another. These all come out of impulses which in many ways are incomprehensible to people in traditional publishing (“What do you mean, _anyone_ can publish? That’s madness!”). And every minute and every hour readers spend with these other sources of literary experiences are minutes and hours they are NOT spending reading the latest novel published by a New York or London (or, for that matter, Akron) publishing house. Generally these new literary experiences are easier to find, less expensive to experience, and more open to engagement than what comes from traditional publishing. This makes it easier for readers to spend time experiencing the literary outside the traditional world of publishing.

So absolutely these new platforms threaten traditional publishing. They are competition.

But my second answer is: no, they do not threaten traditional publishing. All these new platforms increase people’s engagement with literary experiences, and so increase the overall cultural engagement with the literary. And this, ultimately, will benefit (some) traditional publishers, even if it means they will have to transform themselves to adapt. Some won’t make the transformation successfully. It’s not going to be easy for everyone. But overall, and over time, traditional publishers will adapt, new publishers will emerge that blend the best of the traditional world with newer approaches enabled by new platforms and technologies, and we will have a richer, wider and deeper literary ecosystem than ever.

What was your inspiration when creating Pressbooks?

Well I guess the inspiration was blogging (which allowed anyone to write an opinion column), then LibriVox (which is a global community that used open source technologies to build a hugely prolific audiobook publishing enterprise), and finally my unwillingness to learn InDesign to typeset books!

The idea behind Pressbooks is: make it easy for anyone to create a professional ebook and print book, with very little technical know-how, and no design experience.

Creating the files you need to publish a professional-looking book is hard. Pressbooks was invented to make it easy.


How did you come up with the idea of LibriVox?

At the time I was thinking a lot about the fascinating movement of open source software — where many volunteers contributed to creating useful things, without getting paid in money. I was interested in how this might be applied to other kinds of non-software endeavours — such as what Wikipedia had done. I’ve always been a big fan of radio, and at the time podcasting was new and exciting, allowing anyone to create and publish audio online. Project Gutenberg had a big collection of free public domain ebooks — it seemed at the time like we needed a project to get people to volunteer to turn that collection into audiobooks.

And so, LibriVox was born.

What have you found has worked and what hasn’t when you’ve been marketing Pressbooks?

I expected the built-in webbiness of Pressbooks books to become more important, and to be a selling point.

But in the end it’s really been successful almost exclusively as book production software: an easy-to-use online platform that creates print book and ebook files, from one place.

Do you believe that writers today have to be entrepreneurs to be successful?

If by successful you mean “to write a great book,” then: no.
If by successful you mean, “to sell lots of books,” then: absolutely.