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Democratize the “Other” Publishing

WordPress’ Tools for Creating Offline Documents

This post is a longer-form, text-only version of Hugh McGuire (Founder and CEO of Pressbooks) and I’s presentation at WPCampus on September 21st, 2021. This has a little more content, but that has a lot more demos, but the message is basically the same.

While I do mention my own plugin, Print My Blog, the post and presentation are an effort to bring awareness to how WordPress can be used for offline publishing with a wide variety of plugins and tools (not just promote my own solution.)

What is the “Other” Publishing?

A screenshot from WordPress.org, showing the motto “Democratize Publishing”

WordPress’ stated purpose is to “democratize publishing”. One interpretation of that is: anyone should be able to freely write and share their content online–on a webpage.

But creating web pages isn’t what people usually think of as “publishing”. Traditionally, publishing is creating documents like books, newspapers, and magazines. Is WordPress democratizing that more prevalent type of publishing too? Can you publish offline documents besides web pages with WordPress? What tools exist for that, why would we want to, and what challenges does it pose? Those are the questions we want to explore today.

“Publish Offline with Microsoft Word; Online with WordPress”

WordPress is the most common way to write web content; Microsoft Word and Google Docs are the most common way to write offline documents.

You don’t write a book or magazine in WordPress, right? Traditionally, that’s what you use Microsoft Word or Google Docs for—”WordPress is just for blogs and webpages”.

Although WordPress and Word traditionally make different documents, their editors share a lot in common. They both:

  • write formatted text (paragraphs, headings, lists, etc)
  • spellcheck and grammar check (WordPress mainly through the web browser and browser extensions like Grammarly)
  • support rich content (like images and videos)
  • Offer collaboration and commenting tools (eg for WordPress there’s MultiCollab plugin)

You can’t blame your non-techy friends for not really understanding the difference.

WordPress differs from Microsoft Word and Google Docs in some important ways, too.

WordPress:

  • is open source (so potentially fully customizable) and huge plugin ecosystem
  • gives you full access to your data
  • separates content from design (eg, you can easily switch themes)
  • supports dynamic content (eg shortcodes)
  • has richer tools like blocks and site builders
  • supports metadata that can affect display (eg custom fields being used in templates)
  • makes web pages

Microsoft Word and Google Docs:

  • are closed source with smaller selection of extensions
  • allow hidden data collection (especially Google Docs)
  • limited access to data
  • are external service that could be shut down or change policies (like how Google shut down Wave, Checkout, and Hangout)
  • make word documents, PDFs, and other formats

So WordPress actually does pretty well all the same things, arguably better, but it only makes websites, not PDFs, eBooks, or printed documents. Wouldn’t it be great if you could use WordPress for offline publishing too?

“WordPress Is Just For Blogging”!

WordPress is used for a lot more than blogging: business websites, e-commerce, independent social networks, learning management systems and more. Why not use it for offline publishing too?

Many may doubt the wisdom of using blogging software to do the job of a word processor. But there were similar feelings about using WordPress for corporate websites, online stores, social networks, or learning management systems. Now those are the norm with WordPress.

Using WordPress for offline publishing actually isn’t too big of a stretch. There are lots of tools to do it, which I’ll mention in a bit. But first, we should address the biggest enemy of doing “the other” publishing directly from WordPress…

“Can’t I just Copy-and-Paste from WordPress”?

If you have content in WordPress and want to put it in a book, certainly you can copy and paste it into Microsoft Word or Google Docs. That seems easy. But it can become really impractical, especially when you’re dealing with large quantities or non-basic content.

Here are some challenges with copy-and-pasting into Google Docs, for example:

  • copying-and-pasting each post’s content individually can be tedious
  • you may also want to copy-and-paste metadata (author, date, categories, custom fields, etc)
  • you’ll lose formatting (eg galleries become list of pictures)
  • you can’t use shortcodes outside of WordPress (they’ll either just be the raw shortcode if copied from the editor; they’ll be mixed with other injected content on the frontend, like share buttons, advertisement, click-to-tweet widgets and the like)
  • dynamic content will become static (eg a shortcode showing a days until an event will just become a number)
  • you’ll need to update content for the book (eg maybe remove hyperlinks, replace hyperlinks with footnotes or page references)
  • you now have two copies of the content to maintain and edit
  • you will probably have a giant document that takes forever to load, is hard to share, and is troublesome to navigate
  • you are now reliant on proprietary software with all its restrictions
  • the design is embedded in the content of the document, making changing the style hard (eg changing header fonts)
  • your data is now in Microsoft or Google’s hands
  • probably need to paste into InDesign later to prepare for the book (so you’ll encounter all the above problems a second time).

So if copy-and-added-pasting from WordPress to Google Docs is bad, is offline publishing with WordPress hopeless? Is there another way to publish offline and in print with WordPress? Lots.

A Survey of WordPress’ Offline Publishing Plugin and Tools

WordPress actually has lots of plugins and tools for offline publishing, which address many of the pain points of copy-and-pasting. Some have existed for over a decade, and some are newer.

Let’s highlight a few—Pressbooks, Anthologize, MPL Publisher, Print My Blog, and Eight Day Week—looking at the unique features, samples, and use-cases of each.

I provide some samples and example use-cases for each, but realize they’re all quite flexible, and each can certainly be used in many other ways beyond what I mention here.

Pressbooks

Make a website and a book simultaneously

Pressbooks is the most successful and one of the earliest plugins and services for using WordPress to make offline documents. It has a team behind it with a business plan and has been around for over 10 years. It’s both an open-source plugin and a hosted web service (so you can entirely self-host for free, pay Pressbooks’ team to host a private network or pay per site).

Pressbooks utilizes WordPress’ classic editor, theme system, and tons of other features to create a website and a book (in various formats, like PDF and ePub) at the same time. Each book is a site on a multisite WordPress network.

Samples

Example Use-Case

Pressbooks is great for Open Education Resource textbooks. The hosted option is especially easy to set up (no coding or server configuration) and is very affordable. Hosting yourself requires setting up a WordPress multisite network, but lets you use it in combination with other plugins and fully customizing code.

Whereas Pressbooks is for making a book and a website simultaneously, the other plugins are for making books from a selection of the website’s content.

Anthologize

Compile WordPress content into a book for free

Anthologize is another plugin created 10 years ago as a community effort, originally funded by George Mason University. Most recently maintained by BuddyPress/WordPress core committer Boone Gorges. This plugin can be added to an existing site to create multiple projects. They can be divided into parts and can use most post types. No theme/template system, but there are a few display settings, and it is open source so you’re free to modify the code.

After installation, Anthologize requires no setup or registration, and can quickly be used to make offline documents in many formats, such as PDF, ePub, and a self-contained HTML page. There are no paid options (although it could probably use some donations to fund future development and maintenance.)

Samples

Example Use-Cases

Anthologize is great for a collection of class projects, and other times you need a free-and-portable version of web documents, but design isn’t a primary concern.

Formats

  • Print-Ready PDF
  • Digital PDF
  • Pressbooks XML
  • Epub 2
  • Epub 3
  • XHTML
  • HTMLBook
  • OpenDocument
  • WordPress XML

MPL-Publisher

Compile WordPress content into a stylish book

MPL-Publisher is a freemium plugin quite similar to Anthologize. Its developer, Ferran Figueredo, is actively developing it and very helpful. It distinguishes itself with: built-in “book chapters” for project-only posts, a design system (like WordPress themes, but for PDF exports etc), Book Cover Editor, and a very easy user interface.

Samples

Example Use-Cases

MPL Publisher is great for making one or more books from WordPress content that looks (or sounds) great.

Formats

  • ePub 2
  • ePub 3
  • Amazon mobi
  • Microsoft Word (docx)
  • Markdown
  • Plaintext
  • PDF
  • Audiobook (mp3)

Compile content created with WordPress’ block editor and other plugins into PDFs

Print My Blog is my freemium plugin, inspired by Anthologize, focusing on improving integration with other plugins and customizability.

It supports Gutenberg block editor content and other content that requires Javascript and more complex CSS that other plugins might struggle to display.

Other features include: customizing designs with HTML, CSS, and even Javascript; automatic table of contents; automatically replace hyperlinks with footnotes or page references; and much more.

Samples

Example Use-Cases:

Course Catalogue, User Manual, or Book.

Formats

  • Digital PDF
  • Print-Ready PDF

Eight Day Week

Write in WordPress, design in Adobe InDesign

Eight Day Week was created by the well-known WordPress agency 10up especially to serve news agencies creating content for both the web and print editions.

Eight Day Week export posts to an XML format used by Adobe InDesign (the de-facto standard in print design). In this way, writers can use WordPress for both the web and print, while web designers and print designers can have full, separate control of their respective formats.

Eight Day Week also helps with print workflow. It adds “print roles” for users: Print Editors assemble content into “issues”, and Print Producers can read and export existing issues; also adds print statuses for tracking the progress of articles. In this way, it steps out of just being useful for creating the output file, but also helps manage the process.

Example Use-Cases

News Agencies publishing online and print editions who are familiar with InDesign

Formats

  • XML file for import into InDesign

Check out the previous year’s presentation also featuring Eight Day Week.

Other Notable Plugins

But wait, there’s more! Here are some more plugins focused on offline publishing with WordPress:

Other plugins for offline publishing: BookPress, Kailin's PDF Creation Station, Beacon, PubML, Blog to HTML.
Other web services for offline publishing: Designrr, PixxiBook, BlogBooker, blog2print, bloxp

Other Web Services

Outside of WordPress plugins, there are also many web services that can also be used to turn WordPress content into books and other documents.

Advantages of Offline Publishing with WordPress

In case it wasn’t apparent earlier, here are some advantages to breaking the habit of doing all offline publishing in Microsoft Word, and instead using WordPress:

  • no time to convert formats (eg it’s a website and PDF; no hiring someone to convert it and fix formatting)
  • fix typos and revisions once (in WordPress) then next re-export update t o desired formats (eg PDF), instead of updating several different files
  • design decoupled from content, so changing design is as easy as changing a WordPress theme (that doesn’t have feature lock in). For many tools, designs are reusable across different projects (change a design once, it affects all exports using that design)
  • load single posts to edit instead of massive file (multiple people can work on separate posts). And yes you can still do a global search-replace with a plugin like Better Search-Replace or the WP CLI
  • use languages and tools WordPress designers and developers are familiar with (HTML, CSS, PHP, Javascript)
  • realistically, this means content won’t be online-only (because too much work to make offline and print options). That makes content more readily accessible to individuals who prefer to read offline.
The advantages of offline publishing with WordPress: many formats, single source, design vs content, WP ecosystem, repurpose WP dev skills.
The challenges, on the other hand, include: setup WP site, large exports, collaboration, gutenberg and page builders, writing styles.

Challenges of Offline Publishing with WordPress

There are still some challenges to offline publishing in WordPress. The challenges include:

  • you need to setup a WordPress website
  • often cheap hosts struggle with large sites (thousands of posts) and will time out during exports
  • WordPress’ collaboration tools are quite nascent. There are plugins, like Multicollab, and future core work promise to improve this
  • website content often includes interactive elements (hyperlinks, revealed content, block editor content often relies on Javascript to render) which might not translate easily to the destination file formats or printed copy
  • content written for online (which is usually briefer, and uses present tense) might need adjusting before putting into a book

So there certainly are challenges. But with a change in perspective (eg remembering that you’re not just writing for a webpage only, just like how you’re not writing for large screens only) and some support from the plugin developers, these can be overcome, and still be a worthwhile effort.

So, Why Write Docs in WordPress?

Here’s the vision of why doing all publishing, even offline documents, in WordPress is worthwhile:

  • write your content once using the same tool, then have it published online, PDF, eBook, print, and in other formats
  • reduce the cost and time for offline and print publishing
  • repurpose WordPress development skills for offline publishing space

So the next time you open up Microsoft Office or Google Docs, you can stop to think if that thing you’re making might be better made as a WordPress post/page/private custom post type. Because WordPress has the power to democratize online publishing, and the “other” (offline) publishing, too.

What’s Next In Democratizing the “Other” Publishing?

What advantages do you see with using WordPress for “the other” publishing? What challenges would you have in adopting it? Please let us know!

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