Apple's iBooks Author for the Illustrator

Last week Apple updated their e-reading software to include a new (well really just extended) format for multimedia e-books aimed at the textbook market. As part of that push, they also introduced a new tool called iBooks Author which lets you . . . you know, author iBooks. Apple is promoting the program chiefly as a tool for making textbook like rich media books, but after watching their presentation I immediately thought that it would be a great way to make all sorts of illustrated book content like comics, story books, illustrated noves, and especially a convenient portfolio tool. Apparently I'm not the only one. The fabulously talented Dani Jones has a post up about her experiences trying iBooks Author making a comic.

The Best part is that Apple is giving iBooks Author away FOR FREE, which puts a few other $500 products I can think of *cough* InDesign *cough* to shame. After watching the apple speech I was all giddy and excited and whatnot, so I immediately downloaded Author and decided to give it a try. Here's how things went.

The Project - Flywheel:

A few years ago I made an illustrated short story for a class project called Flywheel. It's written in the style of a series of journal entries accompanied by simple watercolor illustrations. It's about 20 or so pages depending on how it's paginated and since I already had the text and illustrations in my computer for the print I made for class I thought it would make the perfect candidate for my first e-book.

You can download a copy of my finished book here:

Flywheel, Matthew Cook.

Getting Started with iBooks Author:

If you've used one of Apple's iWork programs like Keynote or Pages then I suspect that Author will look pretty familiar to you. It's been quite a while since I've used either, but I found things to be pretty intuitive, and thankfully the help file in the program is well written and handy.

When you start you're presented with a few templates you can work from. I played around in each of them but I ended up using the "Basic" because it had the least formatting for me to remove.

The first thing that gave me some pause was the structure that Author imposes on your book. At the top of your list of pages are 4 sections that are part of every book. The first is a cover which you can populate with your title and whatever images you're interested in.

The next is an "Intro Movie" which plays the first time you open the book. For an example of this see the E. O. Wilson Biology textbook that Apple uses in all it's demos; think "flashy to look at once in a demo, but ultimately really annoying". You can't delete this heading in Author, but if you leave it blank then it just doesn't appear in your export, so no biggie.

Next is a Table of Contents. This is generated for you automatically as you build your book. There are some settings to adjust what appears here but as far as I can tell there is no removing it and at the very least it will contain each of your chapter or section pages (more on that later). The formatting is also a bit fixed. You can add images and text to decorate it but basically you get a static for each chapter or section with a series of thumbnails of that chapter's internal pages along the bottom, each of which is a link to that page in the book. For a visual book it's much prettier than a list of chapter titles. I think perhaps very handy for a portfolio book too.

The last fixed item is a glossary that lets you add terms and link them to pages in your text. This is more for the textbook side of things so I didn't play with it much but now that I think about it I wonder if it could be used for something handy like a keyword index. If you don't fill it out it's omitted from the final export just like the intro movie.

Under the fixed items is the list of your pages. So on to the guts!

Making Pages:

There were a few things about this that were very confusing to me at first, so let me explain and maybe save you from the same headache. The problem came down to the way Apple wants you to structure your book so that it works nicely with things like the table of contents and scalable text and all the other e-book features. Once you get the idea it makes sense, but if you're like me and don't read the instructions it can be confusing.

An iBook is made up of either a series of "Section" or a series of "Chapters" (or a nested mixture of each) so that each section or chapter's heading can show up in the table of contents and link you to each part of the book. This means that you can't just add pages to your book, you have to add a section or a chapter first, and then add pages to that section or chapter. That took me about an hour to figure out.

In turn, each section or chapter has a single block of text that snakes through linked text boxes on however many pages are necessary to show all of it. This is so that when a reader adjusts the font or text size the text of the book can redistribute itself properly. When you add an image or a floating text box Author also makes a little anchor indicator that lets you associate that item with a location in the text so they stay in sync.

When you make a new page you choose one of several templates, basically a blank page or one with 1, 2, or 3 columns of connected text boxes. It took me a while to realize that the connected text boxes and the floating ones were not interchangeable. If you want things to work correctly you have to keep your body text in the big linked boxes.

My story is laid out as journal entries, each about a page long, and each headed by a date (so 25th of January for example), so at first I decided to work with chapters. I think this would be fine if my story were longer, but because each chapter is only about a page long this arrangement turned out to be a problem when I previewed things on my iPad for the first time. Instead, I made a single chapter and designed it's intro page to look like a title page for my book. The I filled the chapter with all 20 or so pages of my book. This worked really well.

Once you get going things are pretty smooth. I cut my text from the original textfile I had handy and pasted it into text boxes, and then dragged and dropped the illustrations into place. The formatting and styling tools are all very intuitive and adjusting the images and flowing text around them is very easy.

Preview, Where Dreams are Crushed by the Realities of eBooks:

Ok, that's a little harsh. Things weren't that bad, but there were a few things I discovered when I made my frist preview that were a bit disappointing.

First, and most upsetting, were the fonts. As I said I had laid out my book previously for a printed assignment, and at the time I spent considerable effort finding nice script fonts for the date headings and a legible but interesting body font. On my computer everything looked fine, but apparently fonts are not exported with your book. The iPad only supports about 2 dozen common fonts so all my stylized text was replaced with a crummy substitute font. Rather than take what the system gave me I went back to my computer and restyled the text with something more appropriate.

Another harsh reality on the iPad is the issue of portrait vs landscape views. When you work on your project in Author the view defaults to a landscape format, which feels about like a 2 page spread on a paperback. You can also click a button and edit the way things will be laid out in portrait orientation, but for some reason Apple decided that in portrait view all images should appear as small thumbnails in the margins. Again, very textbook like.

I played around with the portrait orientation for a while trying to find something I liked, but usually when I made something work in portrait it looked ugly in landscape or vice versa, and there is just enough connection between the two versions that I couldn't get something that worked well in both. I almost wish you could make two completely different versions of the book and just swap them out when someone rotates their iPad. You do have the option of disabling portrait orientation all together and that's what I finally ended up doing.

Another annoyance I came across has to do with those linked text boxes. I formatted my book as two facing pages, sometimes with an image on one side or the other, but occasionally with a large picture spanning across both. I used the 2 column page template which gives you two equal text boxes and a grey dividing line down the middle of the page. You can see it poking out on this screenshot at the top and bottom.

Well I can't for the life of me figure out how to get rid of that blasted grey dividing line. At first I thought maybe it was just for visual reference and it would disappear when I exported the book, but not so. You can select the line but there doesn't seem to be any way to delete it or even edit it's appearance. You can also edit the template files directly but the same story there. SO FRUSTRATING! I finally had to make thin white boxes on every page just to cover it up.

After the first preview I had some adjustments to make, but for the most part things went fine.

Export, ISBN's, and the iBookstore:

Exporting your book is very easy and when you're done you are left with a .ibooks file that you can then distribute yourself for others to install on their iPads through iTunes.

If, however, you want to sell you books (or give them away for free) in the iBookstore, then you have to go through a process of applying to Apple to become a seller which requires some contract signing, and then submit your book for review and approval. I applied for a seller account on the day iBooks Author was released but I haven't heard back from them yet. I suspect they are a bit inundated with applications at the moment.

Reading about the process however I discovered that one of the submission requirements for a book, even one you intend to sell for free on the store, is a registered ISBN number. If you are lucky enough to live in a country where the government runs the national ISBN database you can likely get an ISBN for your book for free. I however live in the USA where our government  thought it would be wise to grant a monopoly on ISBN numbers to a private corporation that charges around $125 each. Large companies can buy ISBN's in blocks at substantial discounts, so there are a number of small self publishing websites that offer numbers for less or even free, but with varying caveats. ISBN numbers not only identify your book but the publishing house to which that number block was assigned, which can mean that if you publish under a free or low cost ISBN associated with a publisher it can present legal hurdles if you ever decide to sell your book under another publisher later. My over all impression at the moment is that getting and ISBN is more trouble than it's worth.

Anyway, you can always distribute your exported book yourself as a download. Well, sort of, you see . . .

License Controversy:

Since iBook Author was launched there has been some controversy on the internet about some of the provisions in the EULA pertaining to what you can do with the books you make with the software. The offending section is this one:

2. Permitted License Uses and Restrictions. ... 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

The gist of this is that you are not allowed to sell the books you make with iBooks Author anywhere but in the iBookstore. Some people jumped to the conclusion that this ment that you would not be able to sell your book anywhere but with Apple, but the important distinction is this: You can still sell the content of your book anywhere, you simply can't make a formatted version of your book with the iBooks Author software and then sell that formatted version anywhere other than the iBookstore.

I think this provision is pretty scummy, both as a potential author and as a consumer, but it doesn't mean my work is locked up, just that I have to do a lot more to reformat with a different tool it if I want to use it somewhere else. Because of this provision I would think twice before using iBooks Author to make something I intend to sell.

Conclusions:

I didn't get a chance to play with many of the fancy eye-candy type features of Author but for the simple sort of layout I was after I was pretty happy with the experience. I'm also excited to try it at a few other sorts of projects. For a few years now I've been compiling my portfolio in InDesign and exporting it as a PDF to be printed (at considerable expense) or sent to clients and and studios as an e-mail attachment along with a resume.

I think this would be a great way to make a portfolio I could take with me to a meeting or a job interview. You can also export your books as static PDF's so I can imagine filling out the portfolio in Author and then using the same files to send out as I take with me.