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.

What would a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ mean for mainstream publishers?

Rumours abound this morning that Apple will announce a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ at their media event on Thursday. These are, of course, just rumours, but they have a certain, inevitable ring to them so let’s run with them for a moment.

Such an announcement seems likely to be couched in terms of the academic textbook market, if only to avoid worrying mainstream publishers who are in dire need of pills for their nerves as it is. “First they came for the academic publishers, but I did not speak out because I’m not an academic publisher…”, etc.  But a simple way for anyone to make epub3 rich-content books? How exactly would that impact on mainstream publishing?

To get some perspective on that, think about this:  Are book apps viewed more as ‘apps’ than ‘books’?

Not so long ago, the Kindle was dismissed as a non-starter because physical books had some qualitative aspect that readers needed – the smell of the paper, the sound of the spine cracking on first opening, the visual impact on a bookshelf and so forth. People simply didn’t want e-readers, it was argued, in much the same way that vinyl was inherently special and so would never be replaced by CD or download.

Sony eBook ReaderBut that was then. Now readers buy more ebooks than physical books (from Amazon, at least). It turns out that readers didn’t love books because of their physical properties, but because of what they contained. And with their entire library now smaller and lighter than a paperback, and with books suddenly cheaper, readers suddenly began to love their Kindles in the same way they had previously loved physical books (something I can readily understand – there is a slight pearlescent sheen to the Sony ereader screen that I find most pleasing.) Serious readers now do much, if not most, of their reading on e-ink devices.

But not on the iPad. It’s not as good for reading as the Kindle. The main argument is that reading a computer screen for long periods will hurt your eyes (I held this view for a while, until I realised that I did actually read a computer screen all day, I just hadn’t noticed.) It is also too heavy and it keeps blacking the screen (both due to battery matters), and it’s hard to read in sunlight. Then there is the constant mental nag to check Twitter or some other distraction while you are reading, and the fact that you can never find the damn thing because your kids have been at it. And why put up with that when the Kindle is so good?

So despite (or maybe because of?) the extra things you can do with a backlit LED or LCD screen, a divide has opened up. E-ink readers are the hardware of choice for lengthy reading and tablets and smartphones are more associated with web browsing and apps. Those book apps that do appear, usually confusingly in the app store rather than iBooks, are either enhanced versions of established classics or short form fiction predominantly aimed at children. Book apps are more ‘apps’ than ‘books’. And by and large publishers seem pretty comfortable about this.

But will mainstream fiction remain apart from the social and visual tricks that epub3 offers? Consider, for example, the iPad version of The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman (disclaimer: this is published by the same imprint that published by Tim Leary biography). (Other disclaimer: it is also extremely short, at 14,000 words, which slightly ruins my argument a little… But ignore the length and lets focus on it as a piece of new contemporary fiction, okay?)

The book itself is fabulous. Here’s a promo vid:

The iBooks version and the Kindle version are the same price, but unlike most contemporary fiction the iBooks version actually makes use of the iPad’s screen. It doesn’t do much. But it does something. And that something is just enough to make the iBooks version a better buy than the Kindle version.

You can see what it does if you download the free sample. There’s an animated title page and animated reveals of the first letter of each chapter. And… well that’s it. As I say, it’s not much, but it is nice and it does give the impression that someone has made an effort, that the book is a little bit special. A little visual flourish between chapters works well because it doesn’t interfere with reading but instead acts as a little reward and gives you a sense of progress, much like a cut-scene in a game. And of course, it’s not hard to do – the lovely line drawings were done for the physical edition, and it doesn’t take that much more effort to play about with them in After Effects.

Here, then, is a simple, effective little addition that makes a piece of contemporary fiction more appealing on a backlit screen than an e-ink screen. If more modern novels do this and do it well, then we would see a shift from the novel being viewed as a static string of text, like a .pdf, into something that takes advantage of epub3 or HTML5. The book app could become more ‘book’ than ‘app’.

But we aren’t seeing that – yet. The Tiny Wife aside, traditional publishers are showing little interest in digital beyond kindle ebooks. The companies that are making book apps, meanwhile, behave and think far more like app companies than book companies, both in their culture (they are far more open than publishers) and their products (which are focused on short experiences).

Yet with a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ available, and assuming Apple are reasonable about distribution (a long shot, I know), it’s easy to imagine epub3 versions of contemporary fiction becoming established on the iPad and Kindle Fire (and normal Kindles, if e-ink develops in the way predicted.)

The question is, then, will these enhanced novels come from the regular publishers, or from elsewhere? That, I think, is a question that only publishers can answer.

Pricing, iBooks and Chaos: The Enhanced Edition

I’m currently reading the ‘enhanced edition’ of James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of a New Science.  This is version of the popular science classic that, basically, has had some videos stuck in it.  This is the first, which serves as an introduction:

As you can see, it’s very nicely done.  I’ll talk about it properly once I’ve finished reading it, but for now I’ll just say that its a great book and one that lends itself well to added video content.

But if the product is sound, how commercially successful has it been? Chaos: The Enhanced Edition is only available through Apple’s iBookstore (as opposed to the App Store, where most books mentioned on this blog come from). It was released back in March, and I can remember a lot of coverage on blogs like Boing Boing at the time, so it was promoted reasonably well. I do not have access to any sales figures, but looking at the iBooks it still hasn’t been rated by anyone, let alone reviewed, which doesn’t imply the sort of success that it deserves. The non-enhanced version – the regular ebook – does have a review, and there are many, many reviews of the (non-enhanced) Kindle version over at Amazon.

Gaining any non-agenda data about iBookstore sales is a bit of challenge. There is the suspicion, though, that a sizeable proportion of those who read on iPads read Kindle books rather than buy iBooks. The reading experience of iBooks is good, but ultimately the smaller range and higher prices of the iBookstore has sent people to Kindle – along with, I suspect, a sense that Kindle books are more future proof and will remain accessible from more devices. Apple are ultimately more of a “you must do it our way” company than Amazon. It may well be that there is – and there will remain – noticeable less ‘footfall’ in the iBookstore than the App store.

That said, there is a noticeable pricing issue here.  The enhanced version, with the video, is £11.99.  Next to it in the iBookstore is the non-enhanced version at £6.99. Meanwhile, Amazon will sell it to you in Kindle format for £6.50 and in paperback for £6.84. The video enhancements, then, nearly double the cost.

So The Enhanced Edition has been priced – relative to the non-enhanced version – as a premium product. Looking at the high prices of audiobooks implies that there is an audience of book-lovers who will pay premium prices – the audiobook for the last Harry Potter, for example, cost 75 quid. But tablet books are not a nicely-packaged physical product. They are digital. And all implications are that there is a psychological issue about paying premium prices for digital content. It may well be that the price of Chaos: The Enhanced Edition is a real problem.

The thing is though, £12.99 isn’t that much for a book. Most readers will have spent that for a physical book, and thought nothing of it. For a good book that gives 40+ hours of pleasure, it’s a bargain.

But if £12.99 does prove too much for a tablet book, or if iBooks-only availabilty does prove to be limiting, then the budget for producing them is going to be a real issue.