Competitors Size up Apple’s iBooks Author

In January, Apple released a new OS X app called iBooks Author. It’s designed to assist authors and publishers with the compilation of books, especially textbooks for Apple’s iBooks 2.0 iOS app. But how does it stack up as an author’s tool? Can it replace other writing tools for authors? TMO asked two developers of major writing tools to size up iBooks Author from a competitive perspective.

Apple’s new app, iBooks Author (iBA) is primarily designed to prepare content for publication in Apple’s iBookstore. Think of it as a design and layout tool. The focus during Apple’s roll out was on textbooks, but one could publish just about any kind of book with it, say, a cookbook or a travel guide.

Therein lies the key word: publish. Content has to be created first. iBooks Author, however, is primarily a publishing tool designed to bring together various components of a modern, interactive digital book after they’ve been created.

During the January 19 presentation, Apple’s Roger Rosner, Apple’s VP of Productivity Software showed off the new tool. While Mr. Rosner pointed out that one could start writing the text of the book within iBA, the focus was on a publisher starting with pre-prepared content: dragging, say, MS Word documents or movies into iBooks Author — and starting with Apple designed templates. The output of the EPUB file is, by the EULA, restricted to Apple’s iBookstore.

Apple VP Roger Rosner

VP Roger Rosner demos iBooks Author (Image credit: Apple)

Not only does dragging pre-prepared content into an app create a crisper presentation, but it also reflects the mentality of the prospective publisher. They have lots of content already, but now it needs to get into the iPad’s iBook app as a textbook.

But Will it Blend?

That process of blending various components into a textbook largely overlooks the often tedious details of preparing the text content of a book in the first place. Authors know well that the art of writing involves many skills: research, references, analysis, compilation, correlating, cutting and pasting, organizing — not to mention the art of writing with an engaging, inspirational style.

A textbook may be factually correct, but its pedagogical and writing style often runs the risk of boring the student to tears. And while that ability on the part of the author is an intangible gift, those who do have the gift know well that a great writing tool is also essential. In fact, precisely because a word processor alone doesn’t provide those writer’s extras, a new breed of app has come along in recent years to assist the writer. For example, Scrivener (Literature & Latte), StoryMill (Mariner Software), Storyist (Storyist Software) and Ulysses (Blue Technology Group), to name just a few.

These specialized apps are adept at helping the writer, especially a novelist, organize his or her thoughts, manage the story’s timeline, collect potential, inspirational clippings of the major characters and so on. They can also be used for research papers that require the collection of references, supporting data and documents, etc. Another key feature is that they have special provisions for exporting the completed work in a desired visual and file format. For example, the author may wish to write, free form, in Lucinda Grande, but the publisher wants the output in a special layout and font. In addition, the file output may need to be in, say, .docx or .epub.

Once the content has been written to the author’s satisfaction, then the issue of getting it published comes up, and that’s where Apple’s iBA can come into play. Accordingly, the distinction between writing and publishing needs to be kept in mind.

The Competition

In order to assess how this new app from Apple fits into the authoring business, I asked two developers to size up iBooks Author in light of what they’re trying to achieve with their own specialized tools for writers.

I asked Michael Wray, the president of Mariner Software and publisher of StoryMill, about all this, and he weighed in:

Honestly, we feel comfortable where we are at right now. StoryMill is a tool to help writers develop a story and, frankly, it is more focused on the writing and story development side, opposed to the publishing aspect. Focusing on the ‘development’ aspect is a model that also fits in with other Mariner products too. That said, there clearly is a trend toward self publishing going on right now. If it makes sense for Mariner and our customers, we’ll definitely be a part of it.

We have been relatively public in our forums and to our customers that EPUB support is expected to be added in an upcoming release. Given Apple’s obvious push into this market, we may end up moving on this sooner rather than later.”

StoryMill4StoryMill 4

Scrivener is another popular writer’s tool, and it has had EPUB2 support for some time now.  I asked Keith Blount with Literature and Latte, how he feels about this new app from Apple.

iBooks Author is an interesting app, and I downloaded it the minute it was revealed at the announcement the other week. I don’t really see it as a competitor to Scrivener, though, as, although both are capable of producing e-books, the two applications do very different things.

Scrivener has always been about generating content — its main tools are focussed on what an author might need to get a first draft into shape: the composition, restructuring and editing phases of getting a book together. Its ‘Compile’ feature is based on the idea that, at some point, the user may want to get his or her work out of Scrivener for many different purposes, and so it allows the user to export or print in completely different formats. To this end, Scrivener does provide e-book export for those who wish to self-publish directly, but this is just one of many potential outputs.

Conversely, iBooks Author is very much a layout and publishing application — it is dedicated to creating a beautiful-looking e-book, and the focus at the moment is on textbooks. Although you could, if you so desired, write a whole book in iBooks Author, I doubt many people would want to do so, any more than they would want to write a book in InDesign, as that is not what it’s for.

Moreover, as its name makes clear, iBooks Author is dedicated to creating only one sort of e-book — one that can be opened in iBooks on the iPad. You cannot generate EPUB or Kindle e-books from iBooks Author* (as you can from Scrivener and several other programs), which is not surprising. Thus, I see iBooks Author as another channel through which an author working in Scrivener might publish his or her book.

To this end, for the next update I’ve added a new export option that allows you to export all of your individual chapters from a book created in Scrivener as separate, numbered .docx files, so that you can drag the chapters into iBooks Author (because iBooks Author uses a private file format, importing individual chapters in .docx format is one of the best ways of taking existing work across to it). An author working in Scrivener therefore has many options available — for instance, he or she can print in standard manuscript format for sending off to an agent or publisher, generate a PDF file suitable for self-publishing via CreateSpace or similar, export to a word processor, generate a .mobi file for selling through Amazon, or export chapters for bringing into iBooks Author for layout.

Regarding EPUB3, that is on my list to look at over the next couple of months. I certainly intend to support it, along with taking advantage of improvements in the Kindle format.”

Scrivener 2.xScrivener 2

The Verdict

It seems fairly clear from the above discussion that iBooks Author is a specialized design and layout tool for publishing developed content into iBooks only — and thereby generating a revenue stream for the author — and Apple. It allows them to quickly get their content onto iPads, and for some major publishers and perhaps even some authors who have existing material, that may be just the ticket. 

And while Apple does have another writer’s tool, Pages, it’s more of an MS Word competitor than a complete writer’s tool with special support for composition and text management. Because Pages can export in standard EPUB2 format and the output is royalty free and can be published anywhere, it will be interesting to see how Apple supports Pages in the future. For example, will it get EPUB3 support? Michael Wray summed it up: “I don’t ever see Apple expanding into a vertical market like novel writing or even screenwriting — there’s just not enough of a return on investment for them. Will Apple ever support EPUB3 in Pages? Your guess is as good as mine.”

In summary, prior to the introduction of iBA, there were and there remains a wealth of writing tools, formats, and publishing outlets. As such, iBA is unlikely to be regarded as a replacement for apps like Scrivener, StoryMill, the others mentioned above and all the other tools that authors have been using all along.


* Mr. Blount later explained: “The .ibooks format seems to be based on .epub, but I’m guessing Apple has added a number of extra cool features that weren’t part of the epub 3.0 spec, especially for use in iBooks (widgets, the use of Keynote presentations, and suchlike). If you change the .ibooks extension of a file created with iBooks Author to .epub, I believe it will open in an EPUB viewer, but the formatting will be messed up and it won’t look how you intended (and trying to create an .epub in this way would probably contravene the EULA). At any rate, Apple has made it so that you can’t export .epub or Kindle files from iBooks Author, which, as I say, isn’t surprising seeing as the program is solely intended for creating books for viewing in iBooks — at least in its current incarnation.