Home Software An Author Looks at iBooks Author (Updated 2/6/12)

An Author Looks at iBooks Author (Updated 2/6/12)

by alexis

Note—Since Apple released an update addressing the controversial EULA pretty much immediately after their initial release, it seemed fair to reedit this article to account for their responsiveness. However, to avoid an Orwellian rewriting of the past, I’ve struck through the now outdated passages, and made my edits as visibly as possible. Kudos to Apple for listening to the users.

Much as I love color grading, everyone knows I spend just as much time writing about color correction as I spend doing it. Outside of this blog, I either spend a lot of time developing content using various arcane content management systems for the creation of software documentation, or I spend way too much time in Microsoft Word (which I don’t love, but my publisher requires). I’ve contemplated self-publishing, but honestly, for the kinds of technical titles I like to do, it’s good to have a publisher or a corporate benefactor paying the bills and managing sales.

However, when Apple announced iBooks Author yesterday, I immediately downloaded the application and tucked in, experimentally creating a template matching a past project, and importing some content to see how it worked. Perhaps there are a few titles I might consider self-publishing, after all.

I’ve used a lot of text editors in my day, and at this point in my life, I crave a WYSIWYG editor that’s capable of generating whatever multiples of output I need. Yes, yes, I know all about the power of XML and dedicated non-formatted text editors and all of that. I have BBEdit, I have OmniOutliner, I’ve used VI, and have struggled through several dedicated XML editing environments.

However, I am not a database. My interest when I write a technical book is in creating a formatted, highly organized, friendly-looking and digestible salad of information that doesn’t make readers’ eyes cross or heads explode during perusal. I’ve written abstractly using a content management system, and I’ve written according to format using WYSIWYG environments, and honestly I’m happier when I can see the intended formatting while I’m developing the content.

For technical writing, I find that formatting guides and channels my writing process. I’ll structure information differently depending on the styles that are available, because it’s the right thing to do for readers. If I have to use someone else’s format, then I’ll find a way to write that takes advantage of that format. If I’m doing my own thing, I’ll create whatever styles I want, and will write differently.

I’ve long had difficulty understanding why it’s so difficult to create a WYSIWYG book-writing environment, a true single-source multi-output environment, that isn’t a giant pain in the ass to use. For this reason, I was really interested in what iBooks Author would have to offer.

Updated—The answer appears to be, “a nice book-development and creation environment that’s only primarily for putting things in the iBook store.”

Let me first talk about the application itself, which I like. I happen to be a fan of Apple’s Pages. It’s a relatively light, responsive text editing application that has decent formatting and styles control suitable for many of the kinds of documents I create. It’s no InDesign, which I’ve always felt was too bad, but it’s a nice place to write a bunch of stuff, whether it’s technical in nature, or creative (I’m currently writing a novel in Pages, and enjoying it). So you know where I’m coming from, prior to Pages, I did my own work exclusively in Text Edit, because I hated Microsoft Word so passionately, and honestly, I still use Text Edit for lots of things.

That’s all a long prelude to the following opinion: if you like Pages, then you’ll probably like iBooks Author. Author looks and feels like Pages, but with a lot of the page-formatting, desktop-publishing UI that I’ve long wished for built on top of it. It comes with pre-made templates, but obviously it’s more fun to use your own, and more to the point, my clients would want me to use their own unique styles, so I immediately set to creating a custom template.

Two hours later, I was done. It was pretty straight forward, though I did need to peruse Apple’s now-typically brief help from time to time to get a hint on how to proceed. Still, unqualified success. Every element I wanted to create, I could, and I now had a set of page templates with which to develop some content.

Now I was really curious. After all, applications like InDesign are great for layout and typography, but freaking horrible for content development. Fortunately, iBooks Author seems quite nice to work within. Once you’ve set up the styles you need, and have your page templates, editing text and images is a breeze, and it’s very cool to be able to add rich-media widgets to it all, though I wonder how I’ll feel about that when publishers start leaning more aggressively on authors to “make more videos for your book, and make some interactive presentation bits, but turn it in on the same deadline and for the same advance.”

However, writing was fast and responsive, and things generally worked as I’d expected from experience with many other text editing and formatting applications. In this case, no surprises is a good thing.

Some specifics. The available styles default with H1 and H2 headings, and I imagine the missing H3 heading (of which I’m a fan) is easily added. Happily, these headings aren’t just decorative, they’re tagged and produce indexing when used, hooray!

While I’ve not spent enough time with the application to have a strong opinion, the Chapter/Section model with which content is organized in the Book Outline seems to be more analogous to what I’d call Part/Chapter. However, with more use I might revise that opinion.

Updating my iPad to iBooks 2, the Preview function worked really well, allowing me to immediately preview how my content would look and work on my iPad at any point I wanted. So, in terms of developing content specifically for the iPad via the iBook store, this appears to be an elegant solution. I also like the easy way that custom templates can be tailored for landscape vs. portrait viewing, reflowing the content to different layouts. I also liked that you can choose to develop your content in either orientation. While I suspect I’d mainly use the portrait mode for writing, it’s nice to have the option so easily invoked.

So, let me turn to my main technological disappointment. PDF export appears to be a grudging afterthought. Despite the existence of heading metadata for indexing, no auto-generated bookmarks appear in the PDF output from iBooks Author. My response, as it has been in Pages, is really? You’ve got the metadata, and you’re still going to make me go into Acrobat Pro and create new bookmarks by hand? Sigh.

Furthermore, PDF output seems to only happen using a landscape view, or at least I couldn’t figure out how to export a portrait-oriented PDF. Additionally, an annoying watermark (“iBooks Author,” with the Apple logo) appears on every page of all PDFs. I realize Apple’s giving this application away primarily for iBook store authoring, and this might be the tax they extract for making things free, but I’d rather pay cash money for the application in exchange for being able to turn the watermark off. Incidentally, the watermark doesn’t seem to appear on the ePub documents generated for the iBook store.

You can also export your content as plain text, but that only seems to be a safety valve for getting your content out of iBooks Author given the EULA.

Apple’s end user licensing agreement is tragically honest.

Updated—While Apple’s original End User Licence Agreement was surprisingly strident, it was quickly amended in a subsequent update. The current EULA states that files in the .ibooks format may only be sold in the iBooks store. However, it seems clear that PDFs exported from iBooks Author can be sold however you like. On the other hand, one might assume that files exported using the .ibooks format and then otherwise converted to a different, more universally distributable format would also be exempt from the requirement of iBooks store exclusivity, but I’m not a lawyer and I’d love some verification (seriously, if you know for sure one way or the other let me know in the comments).

(Incidentally, it always seemed clear to me that Apple claimed no ownership over your content, merely the container you put it in for sales. However, it’s nice that this distinction is now crystal clear.)

The updated EULA for iBooks Author

Again, it’s their application, they’re giving it away as a favor, and they can stipulate whatever they want to. However, it completely torpedoes this application in terms of being a useful, general-purpose book-creation tool for commercial use or self-publication.

And I mention self-publication because I know how hard it is to develop a book and format it for the end user, complete with screenshots and illustrations. If you’re going to go to all that work, and then have to ignore the Amazon bookstore, the Barnes & Noble bookstore, and god knows how many other eBook storefront opportunities you might have unless you export plain text and completely recreate your book using another application…

Well, why not just create the book in that other application to begin with? The closest analogy I can come up with is a video editing application that stipulates you can only sell your edited output via one particular store. Sure, you could export all the individual clips and reedit your program in another video editor, but why would you do that?

Updated—But, while the new EULA is a vast improvement, it doesn’t change the fact that exported PDFs are restricted to landscape layouts and zealously watermarked, thus limiting their appeal. Furthermore, I don’t really know how convertible .ibooks output is, so practically speaking I’m still not sure how feasible this application is for multi-storefront book development (assuming I was willing to forego embedded rich media).

And I do understand, clearly, that the whole purpose of this application is to create an authoring environment for rich-media-filled eTextbooks to be displayed within iBooks on an iPad. I get it. And I also understand that people are perfectly free to give their content away for free; it’s just a terrible business plan for a technical writer that’s trying to make a living.

Maybe if the iBook application was ported to other environments, this wouldn’t seem so limiting. Amazon has done this, porting their Kindle application to practically everything with a screen. If I knew that the iBook store would also reach PC users, Mac laptop users, Android users, Windows Phone users, and the other various tablet makers out on the market, then I would be a lot more comfortable making the iBook store my single point of presence. But it’s not, and much as I’m a somewhat overenthusiastic consumer of Apple technology, I’m very much aware that it’s a big world out there, with a lot of different people using a lot of different devices. It’d be nice to sell to them, too.

In the short term, it’s a bit disappointing, because the team that created iBooks Author made a really, really nice piece of software. Something that I think is better at what it does then most other applications of its type on the market, for this very small niche of technical and textbook writers. I’d love to use it, and I would have paid good money were it a more general purpose tool.

So I hope Apple realizes what a great piece of software they’ve created, and eventually decides to open it up for more general purpose use. Or perhaps ports the same book-creation goodness into Pages, generalizing it in the process for the single-source creation of books that can be sold in all eBook stores, and not just the iBook store. I would happily pay ten times the price of Pages on the App store (Pages Pro, perhaps?) for this, and for a commitment to continue developing these capabilities, for multiple output types, into the foreseeable future.

By the way, for you single-source document-creation fanatics out there, I’d be very happy to hear what you’re using and why it rocks, down in the comments.

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