iBooks Author: Multi-Touch Book Creation With a Big Catch

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.

Interface

The iBooks Author interface should be familiar to most Mac users.

The iBooks Author interface should be familiar to most Mac users.

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.

Adding Widgets

Using a widget to conduct a chapter quiz within the book.

Using a widget to conduct a chapter quiz within the book.

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.

Conclusion

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.


Summary

iBooks Author is a great tool to create compelling multimedia books for the iPad. Just be prepared to sign away your publishing rights to Apple by using it.

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  • http://www.halogenic.com Ricky

    It also looks like you need an US IRS number, even non-Americans, not living in the US. But to get that you need a social security number. The thought of messing with tax affairs in yet another country is a strong disincentive.

    • http://alexarena.com Alex Arena

      Apple has made this a really US-centric product for now. I’m sure that will change eventually, but until then, you’re going to have to jump through some serious hoops to get your book published.

      • Jenn

        Its too bad other countries are being looked at as an after thought.

  • Jeffrey

    I thought it’s pretty clear when it’s called “iBooks” Author not “eBooks” Author.

  • http://twitter.com/jessekoepke Jesse Koepke

    At first I was upset like everyone else about Apple’s EULA. It did seem silly that they would only allow the books to be sold in iBooks. But as I’ve been thinking about it, it makes sense for two reasons. First, they never promised an “ebook creator”, nor are they selling iBooks as software for creating ebooks. It is specifically for creating iBooks. It is called iBooks Author, after all, and not eBooks Author.

    Second, it’s not just the software that’s unique, but also the app that reads the book. Note that they released iBooks 2 at the same time, which was updated so that it could read/play multi-touch books. Even if the EULA allowed you to sell the resulting creation elsewhere, there isn’t an app or tablet that could read them as well as the iPad, if at all.

    Is Apple being greedy? Perhaps. But they never promised anything different than what they gave us.

    All in all, iBooks Author looks like a great piece of software. It’s simple, well designed, and looks like a breeze to use. If I wanted to create a multi-touch book for iBooks, this is definitely the software I would use. Thanks for the review, Alex.

    • http://alexarena.com Alex Arena

      All valid points. I wrote the review from the perspective of someone comparing their options for digital publishing. I love the tool and I think multi-touch books are really amazing, but I still think for most people they will be an afterthought, as their main publication will be in a standards-compliant form. Until there is a multi-touch book standard available, I don’t think it will reach critical mass, hence, my only real criticism.

  • Tony Rothwell

    You say that it locks you into the Apple ecosystem, but thats not entirely true. Yes, you can’t sell the iBook you create anywhere else, the content is still entirely yours, and you won’t be discriminated against for having a normal ebook version of your book that is sold on other platforms.
    So if you write up your book using Pages or MS Word, and then import that content into iBooks Author, you can add multitouch features and rich media to the book for iPad users, but still sell the ePub version anywhere you choose.
    Apple’s EULA fortunately doesn’t even try to take ownership of any of your content, and actually expressly states that all content in “Works” created in iBooks Author are owned by whomever owns the copyright, on that content already, and Apple makes no claim on the content.
    Good news really, it’s not as restrictive as some might think, though it is easiest if you write up all your content before opening iBooks Author :)

    • http://alexarena.com Alex Arena

      That’s likely the best path for most -writing the book in Pages and importing into iBooks, that way you can publish anywhere.

    • Gail

      Thank youTony Rothwell you are the first person I’ve found that has given me a response to what I have been searching for I use Mac Versions of InDesign CS6 as a service provider and various other programs including BBEdit if need be to modify the epub file. I also create separate files for those being converted to Kindle format and those for epub since the TOC requirements differer – I can do likewise for Apple however, my concern for my clients is that if they sell via Apple they couldn’t then sell via Barnes and Noble. I don’t use the same files…so again thank you.

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  • Mike Cohen

    The thing that seems to have geeks in a tizzy and is confusing people is the limitation of being “forced” to only distribute your ibook in the Apple ibookstore. Well, obviously. This is like saying you can only sell your app in the app store. Where else would you sell it.

    You are free to sell your content in another form, such as a printed book, ePub, Kindle or PDF – no way Apple can restrict other forms of commerce outside of its company’s sales mechanisms.

    • Gail

      Thank you Mike Cohen – an excellent clarification.

  • Arvind Iyer

    If someone were to make a multitouch iBook using this, would they’re allowed to share it for free if they so wanted to outside of the iBookstore?

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