iBooks Author: An ebook publisher looks at Apple's textbook creation app

TUAW's Erica Sadun and I are ebook publishers. Late last year, we started up an ebook publishing company -- Sand Dune Books -- and were fortunate to hit a publishing home run right off the bat with our book "Talking to Siri." Since we're familiar with the tools used to create documents for publishing on both the Amazon Kindle bookstore and iBookstore, we were both curious to see what Apple was going to announce on Thursday. The free creation tool, iBooks Author, wasn't a surprise to us, and now that I've had an opportunity to work with the app I thought I'd pass along my thoughts on how it works and why it may not be the publishing tool for everyone.

Creating a new book

As with Apple's iWork suite, launching iBooks Author initially displays a set of templates that authors and publishers can use right out of the box to create attractively formatted ebooks. That being said, there are only six templates available. Apple's emphasis for iBooks Author is to create a vast library of low-cost textbooks, hence the six templates are all textbook-oriented. For authors who are more interested in publishing other types of fiction or non-fiction books, these six templates can be repurposed. After making changes to a template, the custom template can be saved for future use.

Anyone who is familiar with Pages will have few problems working with iBooks Author. The two apps are similar in many ways, with the addition of layout-specific tools. There are widgets -- familiar to users of Apple's ill-fated iWeb -- that add special functions to ebooks. Those functions include interactive galleries, sound or video media, Keynote presentations, interactive review quizzes, interactive images, 3D rotatable images, and HTML code.

For each template, there is a very complete set of paragraph, character and list styles that can be applied to text with a click. New styles can be generated and added to the template as well. In addition, there are a number of page layouts available. The layouts include Chapters, Sections, copyright, dedication, and forward pages, blank pages, and 1 through 3 column pages. Placeholders appear on each layout, and with a click you can replace the boilerplate with your own text or images.

Like the iWorks apps, iBooks Author has excellent integration with iTunes, iPhoto, and GarageBand for importing media into your project. Text can be wrapped around the images, and frames, masks, and shadows applied to the images to give them depth on a page.

I love the glossary tools that are built into iBooks Author. It's easy to highlight a term, define it as a glossary entry, and then write a definition for the term. The term becomes a link that the reader can click on to see the definition.

iBooks Author lets you toggle between portrait and landscape orientations to see what the end product is going to look like on an iPad. There's also a tethered preview feature that moves the book to your iPad for on-device previewing of text, graphics, and the special features.

Speaking of those special features, the included widgets are all rather handy for textbook authors. The review widget can be used to create useful quizzes. There are four different styles of multiple choice questions, and two where the students need to move a label or image to the appropriate location.

The gallery widget lets authors add galleries of photos pertaining to a subject. In the image below, I've created a gallery showing three of the Apple executives. Users can swipe through the images.

One of the other widgets that could end up being quite useful is the HTML widget. I used this extensively to work around some of iWeb's missing features, and was able to add web forms, online stores, and other items to websites. Can you imagine being able to put an open-book exam into a textbook, allowing students to take the exam through the book with the results going to an online database? Cool.

Authors can also embed fully-functioning Keynote presentations and movies into their books. All of this content can be previewed by opening iBooks 2 on the iPad and then connecting the device to a Mac running iBooks Author. If changes are made to the ebook in iBooks Author, you need to click the preview button in the app one more time to refresh the changes; it doesn't happen automatically.

iBooks Author follows a familiar format for textbooks, with chapters, sections, and pages. It adds commonly used pages like dedications and copyright info, and when these pages are inserted into an iBook using the tool, it automatically adds them to the table of contents.

If I have one complaint about iBooks Author, it's that it doesn't really lend itself too well to collaborations. It would be nice if two authors could both work on a single document at the same time. Instead, the document needs to be "checked out" to the appropriate parties, one at a time.


For publishers who are thinking about putting their ebooks into both the iBookstore and the Amazon Kindle Bookstore, iBooks Author throws a monkey wrench into the works. iBooks Author's book format is specific to iBooks 2; you can't directly republish your book to work in the Kindle Bookstore.

That's not really too different from the way things were before iBooks Author came out. For ebooks that Erica and I have published through Sand Dune Books, we wrote the original books in Microsoft Word. When publishing to the Kindle Bookstore, we simply uploaded the file to Kindle Direct Publishing and the .docx file was converted to work in the Kindle Reader. To publish to the iBookstore, we imported the Word document into Pages, made formatting changes where necessary, and then exported the book as an EPUB. Some additional work was required in Calibre to get the book into shape for the iBookstore.

I won't go through the steps required to get a book published on the Kindle Bookstore, but note that it is much easier than getting a book into the iBookstore. For that, you need to have an iBookstore seller account, have a copy of iTunes Producer to take the iTunes Store package created by iBooks Author and publish it into the iBookstore, and have an active contract. You also need to have a bank account set up to receive proceeds through electronic payment, an ISBN for each title, and a US tax ID.

Apple is now requiring authors to create a sample book that customers can download and view for free. This is a new requirement that's part of the publishing process. If you decide that you don't want to publish your book through the iBookstore, you can export the book in iBooks or PDF format for self-distribution.

As you have probably already heard, Apple surprised authors in the iBooks Author License Agreement. The wording that caught everyone off guard was in section 2 of the agreement:

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

It appears from reading this that if you wish to sell your iBooks Author-created tome through the iBookstore, then you cannot sell it through any other bookstore -- including the Amazon Kindle Bookstore. Quite a few web notables have decried this, but Amazon is also pulling stunts to try to keep publishers from putting their work into other bookstores. A good example of this is the Kindle Select program, in which authors who agree to keep their works specific to the Kindle bookstore can have their books distributed through the Kindle Lending Library program. With this program, Amazon Prime customers can borrow the books at no cost, and the author still gets paid a token amount (in December, 2011, each borrow was worth $1.70).

So what's an author or publisher to do if he or she wants to have distribution in both the Kindle Bookstore and the iBookstore? Easy -- you just don't use iBooks Author to create the book. This means that your iBooks won't be able to have many of the nifty features that iBooks Author allows you to use, but you will be able to distribute your work for a fee in any ebook store.

I think a lot of non-authors and publishers are whining about the iBooks Author License Agreement, when they really don't understand that it's just saying that you can't sell works created with iBooks Author in any bookstore. You can create ebooks using other methods and sell them anywhere.


Let me reiterate one key point: iBooks Author is designed for creating textbooks. If you're thinking about using it for other types of books, you can -- but understand that this app may not necessarily be the tool you're looking for if you want to create and sell books on all ebook platforms.

iBooks Author does a great job at what it's designed for, and I think we'll see a lot of incredibly interactive books hitting the iBookstore in the near future. Is it perfect? No. But for a first release of a new app, it's pretty darned close.