While it’s no secret that iBooks hasn’t been a runaway success as Apple had hoped, the company is trying their hand at revolutionizing the book industry once more -but this time they’ve shifted their efforts towards the education market. Along with the new iBooks 2, Apple introduced iBooks Author, their simplistic, yet feature-rich solution for creating textbooks, cookbooks, and just about any other kind of book, for the iPad.
In making the app both user-friendly and free, Apple is clearly striving to make publishing available “for the rest of us”. Although the app is free, many will argue that the price of staying within the Apple ecosystem is too high for the budding author. So do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Read on.
Anyone familiar with the look and feel of the iWork suite of apps should feel right at home in iBooks Author. It shares the same user customizable toolbar, inspector based toolkit, and menu options as iWork, with functions custom tailored to ebook publishing. The standard sidebar seen in iWork is replaced with an outline function which works well as a solution to quickly skim the contents of your book.
Much of the new iBooks Author interface is based on drag and drop functionality: you are able to drag in pages of text, images, videos, Keynote presentations, and even widgets. This approach works seamlessly, especially if you already have parts of your book drafted in another app such as text in Microsoft Word or images in Adobe’s Photoshop. The included rulers and sizing guides are a welcome translation of a stellar iWork feature which allows for precision alignment of all objects on a page. Anyone comfortable working on a Mac should really feel quite at home in iBooks Author; Apple has managed to really simplify the difficult process of ebook publishing, all while adding a selection of killer features.
Writing your Book
Historically, publishing an ebook was no easy task. The ePub format is not for the faint-hearted, and as a result, it turned many people away from ebook publishing. Luckily, iBooks Author changes all that. The app gives you the option to compose your book in two ways, the first being within the app itself and the second is by importing .doc and .pages files directly into your book.
While composition within the app works great, iBooks Author really shines in its ability to import and restyle .doc and .pages files to the look of your book. For many people this feature is indispensable, as they likely have their books already composed in a standalone word processor. The auto-formatting capability is obviously not flawless, but for the most part, it eliminates the hassle of styling your book by hand. Once you’ve imported your files into iBooks Author, you can fool around with the fonts, colors, etc. and edit it as you would any other text.
Other elements such as pictures and widgets can be added to your book with your text dynamically reflowing to accommodate it. This creates a professional style that would be near-impossible to replicate in the ePub format. I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that composing a book in iBooks Author is simply delightful. Its feature set and formatting capabilities make it a best in class solution for authors.
Designing your Book
Apple products are nothing if not for their paramount style, and luckily, iBooks Author is no exception. Admittedly, the built in templates are bland at best, being created almost exclusively for textbooks, but since the program is so flexible, creating a beautiful design should be the easiest part of the publishing process. As with many products, iBooks Author won’t make a beautiful book for you, but Apple has included a plethora of features such as the “Styles” menu which go a long way towards streamlining the formatting process in general.
As mentioned before, the built in templates are really meant just for textbooks, so while you could repurpose them, if you want to make the next great digital cookbook, you’re going to need to invest some time into the design process.
Even though iBooks Author doesn’t have much included in the way of styles, you can still paste in your favorite elements from iWork apps seamlessly. Try mixing and matching to create a style that’s truly unique.
Lastly, iBooks Author has a few nice tricks up its sleeve that should help add a bit of flare to your book such as the ability to add an intro movie and some creative snap tools. If you’ve finished designing your book and you’d like to test it out on an actual iPad, hitting the “Preview” button will do just that. The iPad will need to be connect via USB, but the book will appear almost instantly in its full-featured form.
If iBooks Author was to have a single killer feature, it would most definitely be widgets. These bite-sized bits of content allow you add unprecedented interactivity to your book in seconds. Their functionality spans a wide range, from a simple interactive image to a full-fledged HTML web snippet. In addition to being immensely useful to the reader, they are also extremely easy to implement within iBooks Author.
When inserting a widget you are given the ability to choose between a Gallery, Chapter Review, Interactive Image, HTML Snippet, 3D Object, Keynote presentation, or a more general media player. While some of these options are decidedly simple, the ability to add a Keynote presentation or an HTML snippet can go a large way towards ensuring that your book can really fulfill the full potential of the iPad. Finally, as with all other elements of your book, the widgets can be dragged, dropped, and formed are text, allowing it to flow around the widgetized area, creating a rather professional aesthetic.
Publishing your Book
Sadly, publishing is where the dream of iBooks Author can fall apart. If you plan on charging for the book you have created, the iBooks Author terms of service strictly prohibit you from distributing your work in any way except through Apple. Quite frankly this is a huge drawback to the app as a whole, as it means that you really can’t use it to create books for the Kindle, Nook, or anything else Apple hasn’t ordained. For many, though, this is a null point, as the interactive features in the book would be iPad specific anyway, regardless of Apple’s terms of service.
In any case, if you plan on using iBooks Author to sculpt your next masterpiece, you’ve got to be content to essentially sign away its publishing rights to Apple, but that’s the price you pay for such an amazing app. If you are content to have an iPad specific book, getting it published really isn’t as easy as it could be. While the app begins the process for you, you’ll still have to wait through a long approval process with no guarantee or guidelines for success from Apple. Without a doubt, publishing is iBooks Author’s fatal flaw.
The appeal of creating your book inside of iBooks Author is undeniable. Beautiful animations, customizable widgets, and a powerful feature set are all available free of charge, packaged in an amazingly user-friendly app. In the long run, though, what you get in features might not be worth what you’ll undoubtably lose in freedom as an author. You’ll be unable to publish your book outside of the Apple ecosystem, and there is no guarantee that it will even be approved in the first place. Make no mistake, iBooks Author is a powerful tool, but until Apple loosens their restrictions on your publishing rights, you might want to look elsewhere.
For only $20, Pages for the Mac offers the same user-centric UI, albeit without the multimedia functionality, and the ability to export in standards compliant ePub and PDF, making it much easier to recommend to the budding author. Still, iBooks Author is a compelling experience that could be taken as a serious threat to both the ebook and textbook establishments.