Apple Shines with iBooks Author

iBooks Author is fantastic.


There, I’ve said it.

I know. There’s been all sorts of criticism in the wake of Apple’s iBooks and iTunes U announcements last week: iBooks is not going to revolutionize the textbook industry. Print is not going away any time soon. Most schools can’t afford to get iPads for everyone. Apple is using a proprietary format when it should be supporting an open epub standard. And, of course, there’s that EULA for iBooks Author that says you can’t sell a work created with Author except at Apple’s iBookstore (more on this in a bit).

All of these criticisms have at least some merit. But the positive side of the ledger still wins the day for me. So what if iBooks Author doesn’t spell the end of printed textbooks by next week? Textbooks on iPads and other tablet devices are the future. No doubt. Over the next decade or so, the grim reaper will knock on the door of printed textbooks. With iBooks Author and the revamped iTunes U, Apple has taken a significant step in the right direction. They offer valuable opportunities, ones that did not exist before. This is a good thing overall.

A brief aside…

My first experience with self-publishing a book dates back to 1987. I wrote a strategy guide for the game of Othello, called Othello: Brief & Basic. I did the layout with Ready, Set, Go, a desktop publishing program popular at the time. I created the diagrams with MacPaint. I printed the final result on an Apple LaserWriter. I then took the master copy to a local print shop to have bound copies made.

When I at last picked up the copies, I marveled at the result (I recently made a PDF of the book available; back in 1987 PDFs didn’t exist). With no page layout skills, no typesetting experience and no professional publishing hardware, I had produced a professional-looking book in a matter of weeks. Well, maybe not quite professional-looking, but close. This was one of the big things that totally sold me on the Macintosh. There was no other computer system, not the Apple II and certainly not anything running MS-DOS, that would have allowed me to come close to achieving this result back then.

Othello book PDF image

A sample page from the 1987 version of Othello: Brief & Basic


When I first began playing with iBooks Author, my reaction reminded me of those days back in 1987. As an experiment, I copied the text from Brief & Basic and poured it into iBooks Author. It filled in exactly as promised. I next began copying and pasting the diagrams. All went smoothly. Within a couple of hours, I had a rough layout of the entire book as an Author document.

At its core, iBooks Author is Apple’s Pages app with unique ebook features added. As such, if you are familiar with Pages, the learning curve for Author is like five minutes.

There were a few instances were things could have gone better. I especially would have appreciated a “split” command – something that would allow to divide the text at a selected point and create a new chapter (or section) at the split point. Regardless, if I get so inclined, I could have my book ready to submit to the iBookstore within a week or so. Before doing this, I would want to spruce up the book a bit, such as embedding Keynote slideshows to demonstrate sequences of moves. Again, this is incredibly easy to do and would give the book a clear 2012 feel.

Othello Book iBook

A sample page from the iBooks Author version of Othello; Brief & Basic

Until iBooks Author came out, I would have never considered redoing Brief & Basic — or any other self-published book. There just wasn’t a tool available that made it easy enough for me to want to bother. Now there is. And it’s gotten me to thinking about several possible projects. Other authors have already begun to jump on the bandwagon. That’s the beauty of iBooks Author. It is truly digital textbook creation for “the rest of us.”

…and Downs

Despite my unbridled enthusiasm, I have a few concerns about iBooks Author.

First, if Author winds up as successful as I believe it will be, it will mean an explosion of self-published textbooks. That’s the idea of course. My concern here is about quality. Self-published books typically forgo the essential editing that you get when working with a traditional print publisher. You have a copy editor (a good one can turn a confused tangle of words into a beacon of clarity). You have a technical editor (checking for accuracy and saving you from possible humiliation). And you have a proofreader (checking for typos and grammatical errors). Plus, you have the whole editorial process that (ideally) winnows poor book ideas before they even get off the ground. With self-published books, all of this gets thrown out the window.

It’s still not clear to me what criteria Apple will use to determine what gets accepted into the iBookstore. Will they accept pornography, racist material, books claiming a factual basis for Creationism? Where, if anywhere, will the line be drawn? We don’t know yet. Regardless, it’s almost certain Apple won’t be rejecting books simply because they are poorly edited.

The rejoinder is that this is not much different than the situation with journalism. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can start a blog (sometimes it seems they all have). “Self-published” personal blogs compete for attention with the output from the New York Times and Time magazine. The upside is that we have seen an explosion of talent that we would have never known about if all of our journalism was restricted to print media. The downside is that we have seen an explosion of lack of talent that we would all be better off without. Separating the wheat from the chaff is not always easy to do.

For the most part, these personal blogs completely bypass any editorial/editing process. Many have decried this situation as the death of journalism, yet we somehow manage to survive, even thrive, under these new rules.

I imagine the same will turn out to be true for self-published books. Traditional publishers will offer their edited versions of ebooks. You can stick with them if you want to know that your book purchase has been vetted. Otherwise, out on the frontier, you’ll have other choices. Many more. Some good. Many not so good.

My second concern is the aforementioned EULA, the prohibition against selling your iBooks Author output anywhere other than the iBookstore. It feels wrong to me. In the end, I believe it will turn out wrong for Apple. As John Martellaro said: “Apple is thinking small, not big.” With a less-restrictive EULA, Apple could well wind up making less money from the iBookstore, but compensate for this by selling many more Macs and iPads than they otherwise would. They could emerge as the dominant player in the epublishing market. Now, I’m not so confident.

Beyond that, I remain uncomfortable with a restriction on what an author can do with a PDF file (a format that Apple did not create and is an Export option from Author) simply because it was created using a free tool supplied by Apple. It’s a subtle distinction, but if Apple had designed iBooks Author so that the only thing you could physically do (as opposed to legally do) with the output was submit it to the iBookstore, I’d be okay with that. I’m even okay with Apple saying that you cannot sell the Author format version of the book in other places. But, at least to me, to prohibit sale of a PDF file is a bit like Cuisinart saying the only place you can sell food created with their processors is in Cusinart-approved retail stores. It wouldn’t fly. And it shouldn’t fly for Apple either.

[Update: February 6: Apple recently modified and clarified the iBooks Author EULA. Apple will not restrict distribution or sale of PDFs derived from iBooks Author. Restrictions only apply to files in the .ibooks format.]

I understand that Author is a special-case app (Apple places no similar restrictions on Pages, for example). And I understand that Author is free (although I don’t see how that makes a difference in principle). No matter. I still believe this is a wrong-headed policy. It will be interesting to see what happens if and when authors begin challenging the EULA. Will Apple be forced to back down? Or will they double down and sue?

But these are concerns for the future. For today, my impression of iBooks Author remains glowing. I consider Apple’s announcements last week to be version 1.0 of their move into epublishing. It’s definitely where they should be heading. I welcome it. I can’t wait to see what’s coming in 2.0.