Using Two Cool Tools

In my last post, I mentioned some cool tools for school. Here's how I used two of them.

September 15, 2015

Following up on a post from earlier this month, I thought I’d report in a little more detail what it has been like to use a couple of the cool tools I profiled. I should note up front that all of the technical glitches I encountered were user error, mostly because of my preference to learn by messing around rather than reading the manual.

Timeline.js is super-simple to use and looks wonderful on the page. Basically, you download a Google spreadsheet template and fill it in with your own info and media links. The template prompts you to include credits and a link to the original source, which is great when working with students. (Why do they so often assume it’s okay to reuse every image they find online without thinking about rights or providing attribution? Probably because we let them get away with it, when we wouldn’t with textual sources.) Then you publish your sheet, plug the resulting URL into the Timeline.js site, and grab the embed code to use in your website. I worked my way through some problems. For example, if your timeline ends short, it may be because you can't leave any empty rows in your spreadsheet. Oops. It finally looked good, but when I put the embed code into a webpage, I couldn’t get it to show up, either in my low-tech html editor or on the web. The folks at Knight Lab did what they could (and responded by email twice during the labor day weekend!) but I finally figured out what was wrong myself: I had to adjust the settings on a browser add-on I use, Privacy Badger. (Something about the site doesn’t meet its privacy standards. Neither does my campus website.) It’s an easy fix to whitelist the Knight Lab's URL.

PressBooks is also wonderfully easy for those of us who don’t have the time or inclination to build our own book generator. Based on Wordpress, it lets you import blog posts or other writing, rearrange and revise the chapters and sections, add front matter and book metadata, choose from a number of attractive template, and then – really, it feels like magic – with the push of a button make it all into a beautiful book. There are four formats you can generate with that single button, a PDF that’s ready to use with a print-on-demand service, ebook files for both epub and mobi formats, and an html version. It’s free to play around with and export files with PressBooks watermarks, or (if you have more skills than I have) use the code that has been made open source to set up your own installation.

As with Knight Lab, I got amazing technical support from PressBooks. Twice, I ran into problems because I forgot the check some boxes that were right in front of me. I got an explanation of what I'd missed within 24 hours (including on a weekend). I also wondered about having links show up in a PDF and got a nice explanation from High McGuire, founder and chief code-monkey of PressBooks. The live links are there, if you mouse over them, but the PDF is largely for print, and you don’t want lots of underlining or strange colors in a book that can’t be clicked on. He also gave me a bit of CSS code to change the style if I wanted, but since there is a nifty html version, I’m not going to bother. I did have to decide what to do about links if I decide to make a print version – create footnotes? Ugh, I hate creating footnotes, even with Zotero, and there’s the problem of link rot. I decided to be nice to myself and less nice to readers and simply refer them to the web version. This seems particularly wise since I don’t anticipate having many readers.  

For a reasonable fee, you can export files without the PressBooks branding. I’m more than happy to pay a bit to sustain such a great project, but I admit that I’m thrifty enough that I kept an eye out for specials and was able to get nearly half off on the usual $99 cost cost for all four export formats. If you only want to create html and ebook files, the fee is under $20. Or if you're expecting to publish books regularly, there are accounts available for academic institutions and publishers.

If you are selling a book, there’s lots more work to do, including setting up an account with a company like Amazon or Ingram Spark to make print and/or e-versions available through sales channels. (Amazon is well known; Ingram is a huge book distributor used by bookstores and libraries, but also distributing through Amazon and other channels.) You may also want to get an ISBN, which costs $150 for a single book; there are discounts if you buy more. Then, of course, there’s plenty of marketing to do, because a lot of books are published every day and it’s hard for readers to find yours.

I’m too lazy to do all that, so I played around with PressBooks to pull together research I did while on sabbatical as well as a bunch of blog posts from Library Babel Fish (because, hey, I had a nice discount! Why waste it on something small? Lucky for me, Inside Higher Ed is much more generous than most publications when it comes to copyright; all they ask for is first publication right. Thanks, IHE!)

If you want to see what PressBooks kicks out or what a Timeline.js timeline looks like, I’ve posted two examples one one page: a  timeline of online reading communities and a Creative-Commons-licensed copy of my freshly-pressed book, Babel Fish Bouillabaisse. Bon appétit.




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