iBook lessons: Mac clients and built-in updates

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iBook lessons: Mac clients and built-in updates

iBook Lessons is a continuing series about e-book writing and publishing.

Since yesterday's announcement, I've been having a series of conversations -- in email, on the phone, on Twitter -- regarding iBooks, the iBookstore, and why iBooks for Mac remains missing in action.

Many in the book world are well aware that Amazon's Kindle reader runs on nearly every platform you can think of, from iOS to Android, OS X to Windows, and in web browsers as well. In a world guided by DRM, readers can ubiquitously access Kindle purchases.

Apple's iBookstore continues to have a single client: iBooks for iOS. Yes, the iPad is a delightful reading platform. At the same time, there's no denying that Amazon outpaces iBookstore sales for nearly every title I've worked with. Customers like the control Kindle offers them in how and where they read their books. When faced with a buying choice, readers regularly choose Kindle by a wide margin.

There isn't a practical option for a third-party iBooks solution for OS X and Windows. DRM encryption means reverse-engineering Apple's system, an unrealistic basis for establishing a business. Plus, I'm sure Apple has already explored the notion of a desktop client in the run-up to the January 2010 iBooks announcement and since then.

I remain puzzled though as to why Apple is not pushing to release iBooks for Mac. I can't imagine that the technical issues for a desktop-based reader are that insurmountable, so it must be a marketing and business decision, or a failure to staff and push the initiative. A Mac and Windows reader would certainly increase book sales; could it depress iPad sales? I wouldn't think so.

iBooks 3 launched yesterday, bringing with it expanded dictionaries and continuously scrolling titles. This latter is what Mike T. Rose calls "Megillah" mode, referring to a book traditionally presented as a single scroll of text. In addition, the iBookstore will now allow publishers to push book updates, letting books receive new versions the same way apps do.

From an author/publisher's point of view, this provides a mixed bag of blessings and frustrations. For the most part, when a book is done, it's done. Books go through an extended process of reviews and edits that put most apps to shame. Publishers do their best to produce the most polished creations they can, and post errata for any flaws that slip through the cracks.

For top-selling books, errors can be fixed in subsequent printings, but all updates involve a huge investment in production overhead and page layout. The costs have to be worth it.

In the apps world, it's common to push out point releases that offer simple bug fixes. The new iBookstore update feature is where books meet apps, and it's something that offers mixed benefits.

Publishers will welcome the ability to tweak and refine manuscripts. Readers, however, may expect a commitment to relentless perfection that book creators cannot provide.

With updates, e-books -- like apps -- become a project that never ends. Will readers revolt with one-star reviews when authors create enhanced and new editions -- now a common practice -- rather than pushing those updates to existing customers? Book updates, like app updates, don't offer a paid upgrade path and there are, as yet, no in-book purchase programs.

Mistakes happen; they are part of the human experience. As an author and publisher, I'm glad the update mechanism exists. Trying to push an update through Amazon last year was a huge hassle, and Apple's approach looks far friendlier.

But will updates become a big part of my publishing methodology? At this time, I see them as a safety mechanism, not an opportunity for growing a new business.

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