Using iBooks Author

I’ve had my head down recently, preparing a series of enhanced ebooks using Apple’s iBooks Author. So, what’s it like?

The key point is that it is very, very easy to use.

‘Very easy’ as in, non-techy publishing people (especially anyone who’s ever done any layout) should be able to pick it up in an afternoon, without any training.

This, ultimately, is both a good and bad thing.

In terms of stability and options, the criticisms that I’m about to make seem harsh in light of this being version 1.0 of a piece of free software. But that said, a few issues are worth mentioning. When a preview sent to the iPad crashes, it does so by closing down in a way that Apple finds elegant – blinking off without any error messages. This leaves you with no clue about where the problem is and no choice but to roll back to an earlier, working saved version and start over.

The software is also designed for reference works – and it shows. Other templates are becoming available, but in general if you’re trying to use it for a non-textbook work (such as the video-heavy pre-school picture books I was making) then you’ve got a fight on your hands. Fortunately though, while the standard widgets can be inflexible, you are free to code your own in Javascript.

This lack of flexibility takes some getting used to. Having planned to spend a day experimenting with different video codecs in order to make the final video as good as possible, it was a shock to discover that there are no options *at all* – there is one export setting in Quicktime that you simply have to use. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on how well you like the performance you are given. The video was actually really good, but some standard image compression (on the tablet itself) was more of a problem – it didn’t suit our style of animation, and there was basically nothing that could be done about it.

Still, all in all it’s a solid piece of software that gives you a temptingly easy and cheap route through production to market. So what’s the problem? It’s more of an idealogical one. The ideal scenario, in which enhanced ebooks need to be developed only once (in the universal epub3 standard) and sold on multiple platforms is getting further and further away. Apple and Amazon are focused on drawing you in to their walled gardens, and iBooks Author is a clear part of that. And ultimately, in the long run, proprietary systems suck big logs.

But what’s the alternative? The standards for making enhanced ebooks are not in question – epub3 is essentially a book-specific wrapping of HTML5, and so coding interactive motion graphics in HTML5 should prove a future-proof way forward. There’s a few HTML5 authoring tools emerging, but the one that I’ve been looking at is Adobe Edge. It’s still in development but I like it a lot. It’s hard, though. It takes some mastering. I speak as someone who uses a lot of Adobe’s CS suite (Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop and Encore in particular) so I’m familiar with their layout and how they like to do things. I’m also someone with *some* knowledge of HTML, CSS and Javascript. Nevertheless, I’m finding mastering something like Edge to be an effort.

It’s worth having a look at a demo video now, in order to get a sense of the thing.

It’s quite an eye-opener to go from that to the simplicity of iBooks Author, which ignores HTML5 animation and simply assumes that you wouldn’t want to do anything that fiddly. You can see how, from Apple’s point of view, iBooks Author is a great piece of software. As it makes creating enhanced books so much easier – leaving you with much cheaper development costs – it becomes increasingly tempting to crawl into that walled garden. No matter how less interesting the final results may be, or much you might kick yourself for doing so.