Wednesday, January 25, 2012

iWriting with iBooks Author

Launching a couple potential ebook projects, I've been playing with Apple's new iBooks Author app, and I'm tentatively impressed. I'm also wary. As usual with 1.0 versions of software, I find myself reflecting on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

The app offers an intuitive workflow: Open a new file from a template of lovely options, add chapters and sections, add content, and you've got an ebook. Copy/paste text and watch it flow across the columns. Drop and drop an image onto a page and iBooks Author places it with WYSIWYG-ease. Change your mind on chapter order? Click and drag. No problemo.

Even better, iBooks Author is easy to use and offers some mighty advanced tools for ebook production. You can integrate widgets for dynamic content (e.g., a live Twitter feed), 3D objects, videos, and interactive graphics. Perhaps most impressively you can integrate Keynote slideshows that provide (with some limitations) remarkably granular control of how you deploy words and images.

The best part? iBooks Author is free.

The Bad

Well, it's sort of free. Actually I had to upgrade my Mac's operating system to the newest version of Lion; that cost me about $30 bucks (a decent price for a fairly substantial improvement over my laptop's older OS). And needless to say, folks who don't drive a Mac are out of luck. There is no Windows version - yet (though there are plenty of open-source alternatives).

Beyond the OS issue, iBooks Author is limited in some important ways. Remember those swell templates? They're undoubtedly professional, featuring integrated fonts, colors, and layouts. But there's only six of them. Surely Apple will add more (and templates are relatively easy to customize in the meantime). Still, the "textbook" focus of iBooks Author's first templates won't appeal to many authors.

The app also includes some weird hangups. Add one of those cool interactive images and you're able to label elements. Great! Want to center the font in one of those labels? You can't. Want to click and drag a video onto one of your pages? Terrific! Want it to work? Better make sure that video is saved in a particular Quicktime format. Other similar goofiness crops up from time to time, some of which will likely be revised in forthcoming versions.

The Ugly

As with most things Apple, iBooks Author does not play well with others. Yes, you can export your project as a PDF document or web-viewable site. But readers must use an iPad to access the most dynamic features of your book. No third party options will work (as of now). And that limitation applies to authors too. You can edit your ebook on a Mac, but you can't see its full functionality unless you hook up an iPad. So there's another half-grand to spend.

More annoyingly, you are stuck using Apple's storefront if you plan to sell your eBook. What's more, while Apple requires you to secure an ISBN code, the company offers little help in that process [I've read elsewhere that you're forced to shell out about $100 bucks for a code through a third-party, even though Apple could purchase them in bulk and sell them much more cheaply]. And most troublingly, even if our friends in Cupertino clear up some vague language about ownership in the end-user license agreement [which they subsequently appear to have done], Apple alone decides whether they'll sell your book.

That's right: You could spend countless hours on your ebook, only to find that Apple won't sell it - and they won't allow you to export it to the more commonly used ePub format. Walled Gardens, indeed!


Ultimately I'm optimistic about the potential for iBooks Author to help transform the textbook publishing industry. I'm optimistic because I imagine myself sharing ideas in a form that is more dynamic, more cost effective, and more easy to update than anything found in today's textbooks. For a 1.0 version, this app is robust and largely free of bugs. Revisions will only bring more improvement.

At the same time I'm unconvinced that Apple's iPad alone is the ideal device for eBook reading - especially for textbooks. In its current iteration, the iPad is expensive and ill-suited for the rough-and-tumble of the average student's backpack. And the costs of repairing and refreshing the iPad may surprise schools who are cheerfully buying them by the truckload.

Still, Apple has proven its ability to produce meaningful improvements in our lives by its willingness to force innovations onto a wary public. iBooks Author and its tightly tethered iPad aren't perfect, but they are impressive. Potentially they're game-changers.

Just ask anyone who works in the music industry.


Andrea said...

Pardon my curiosity---have you looked into Lulu or another form of self-publisher as well? I am trying to figure out the best/easiest way to put out a book of my history cartoon notes this summer, and it is something I am experimenting with. My problem is, in order for this endeavor to be effective for other teachers, I will have to be able to adjust the format for the size and scope of the pages for usefulness to the classroom. Just interested in your thoughts....thanks for your insightful blogs, as always! Enjoy reading them!
:) Andrea

Andrew Wood said...

I appreciate your curiosity, Andrea! I have indeed looked at Lulu. [Heck, I'm actually using Picaboo right now to compose a one-off collection called Roadside Ruins.] Lulu and its cousins are generally solid pieces of software.

Even so, I'm drawn to iBooks Author's inclusion of dynamic and interactive elements: images that can be manipulated, quizzes that provide instant feedback, live web content (like streaming Twitter-feeds). I don't recall seeing that kind of functionality in Lulu.

Of course, Apple's flashy elements can hardly replace the fundamentals: good ideas conveyed clearly and well. No doubt you've got plenty of those, Andrea. So if your book doesn't need a lot of bells and whistles - just a professional design that conveys your message without obscuring your ideas - Lulu could work quite well.

detroit dog said...

Hi Andrew,

Do you know if Apple has any posted criteria for what they'll publish? Or how they decide what will be published?

Very interesting post!


Andrew Wood said...

I'm not sure I've seen a "bright lines" document. But here's an older link that illustrates the wide latitude that Apple enjoys in its selection process:

Bstormys Blogasaurus said...

er, you CANT use the html widget to put in dynamic content like a twitter feed.

The html widget does not seem to be able to grab outside data as of writing. Ive tried RSS feeds too, no go. On the communities discusssion board at apple nobody seems to be able to do this.