iBooks Author – what’s the fuss about?

So it’s been a couple of days now since Apple did their press event where they announced a new focus on education. A key part of this was the rollout of a new application – iBooks Author – and a new version of iBooks for the iPad and iPhone/iPod. Well, since then there’s been a flurry of outrage on the twitter-sphere.

TL;DR – People see Apple making cool tools, they hating. Apple only added options – maybe not as much as people like, but they didn’t take anything away. Biggest bitch seems to be that people won’t be able to use Apple’s free tool to write stuff for non-Apple platforms, and it’s so much better than the existing tools that people want to do exactly that.

So, what’s the big deal? Let’s start with a brief summary of what an e-book is.

Modern ebooks – Kindle, Nooks, iBooks, ePub, mobi – all use HTML and CSS as their base, just like web pages. When you boil it down, ebooks are essentially packaged websites. The relevant files (HTML, CSS, images, etc) are all grouped together into a compressed archive, and they’re ready to go. The differences between, say, a Kindle ebook and an iBook ebook is mostly around the DRM (built into the compression) than the actual content. It’s relatively trivial to convert most ebooks from one format to another once the DRM is taken care of (or if you use non-DRMed books in the first place) – all you do is unpack and repackage. You don’t even have to change the content – more or less.

The problem is in the formatting. For simple, plain text books, this isn’t a problem. It starts getting to be more of a hassle when you do more complicated formatting. Even though the supported HTML and CSS tags are the same, different devices have different physical designs. More sophisticated layouts need to be tailored to things like screen size and device orientation. With CSS, you do this with media-specific selectors. This means you embed custom layout for a specific device – e.g. if it’s on a Kindle, make the image 90 pixels wide, but if it’s an iPad in landscape mode, make it 250 pixels. To reduce size, this layout will normally be removed when you generate a device-specific version of the book – e.g. a Kindle version or an iPad version. This is all normal and non-controversial.

The first major controversy about iBooks 2.0 and iBooks Author is about these layout differences. The iBooks format is based on the EPUB3 format – it’s not EPUB3, it’s an extension thereof. The extensions (ignoring the packaging) are causing a fuss – they are custom extensions to the CSS tags, using the ‘-ibooks-‘ prefix for custom CSS tags. These tags will not be understood by other e-book readers, but – barring bugs in the code – won’t hurt. They’ll just be ignored.Of course, that means the custom layout provided by those tags gets ignored as well.

Apparently having custom tags and extensions is evil and breaks everything. This turns out not to be the case. Custom extensions to HTML and CSS has been the way HTML5 and CSS3 has been implemented – the browser vendors have made proposals, and backed them up with implementations. Sure enough, Apple has proposals with the IDF covering the areas that they’ve extended.

Custom extensions aren’t an obsolete relic of the browser wars of the ’90s. They’re still being used, and widely – you can go to Facebook or  Google+ right now and see extensions being used. Heck, this very blog, using a standard WordPress-provided template, uses browser extensions for formatting. Over time, layout extensions become standardised – different engines start converging on the common implementations. For example, on this blog one of the CSS rules has four different extensions – ‘-moz-box-shadow’, ‘-webkit-box-shadow’, ‘-o-box-shadow’ and ‘-ms-box-shadow’ – with identical values for each. Clearly the major browser vendors are converging on the meaning of ‘box-shadow’, which is one of the features of CSS3. The same will happen with e-reader software: the layout extensions will converge over time, with or without the cooperation of the IDF.

So the first of the two major controversies is a non-issue – Apple isn’t breaking EPUB or anything like that. Let’s move on.

The second controversy is about a clause – 2B – where Apple says that if you are charging money for your ‘Work’ (defined earlier as the output of the iBooks Author program), you have to distribute the book exclusively through the iBookstore. This means that you are limited to targeting iPads and iPhones/iPods and you have to target iPads and iPhones/iPads exclusively through Apple’s distribution mechanism.

I don’t like this clause – but it’s not evil. First, you don’t have to use iBooks Author to build books to sell through the iBookstore. So you’re not losing anything you had a week ago with this clause. Yes, it would be really neat to use iBooks Author to write books for preparing books for the Kindle, but it’s not the end of the world that you can’t. The pent-up desire to use iBooks Author for non-iOS devices really says more about the quality of authoring tools a week ago than anything else.

Also, Apple isn’t laying ownership to your work. You can take your content – the same content – and use a different tool to prepare an ebook. Which you’d want to do anyway – because you will want to re-layout your book.

Would I prefer it if Apple allowed you to redistribute elsewhere? Yes. But I can see why they don’t. First – making it iOS target only means they can make the tool more powerful. The custom layout options only work on iOS after all. Second – Apple makes money from selling devices. The content revenue – even when they get 30% of the cut (which, BTW, is pretty standard in ebook publishing) – isn’t that much by comparison. Apple is using iBooks – and especially the new textbook drive – as a reason for people to buy iPads. Making the tool useful for publishing books for other devices isn’t in their interests – it’s not against their interests, it’s just that there’s nothing in it for them. Especially because they made the tool free and all.

To sum up: Apple isn’t breaking anything, and they’re not being evil. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it. If you use it, you’re not trapped, and you’re not giving up anything. Don’t think of it as “I’ll have to do more work if I want to sell to non-iPads” – think of it as “I do this work to make an ebook which is okay for everyone, then I do a bit more work with iBooks Author to make it really sparkle!”. And, in time, the industry will converge – for a while, until it spreads apart again. That’s how innovation happens, folks.

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Author: Robert Watkins

My name is Robert Watkins. I am a software developer and have been for over 18 years now. I currently work for people, but my opinions here are in no way endorsed by them (which is cool; their opinions aren’t endorsed by me either). My main professional interests are in Java development, using Agile methods, with a historical focus on building web based applications. I’m also a Mac-fan and love my iPhone, which I’m currently learning how to code for. I live and work in Brisbane, Australia, but I grew up in the Northern Territory, and still find Brisbane too cold (after 16 years here). I’m married, with two children and one cat. My politics are socialist in tendency, my religious affiliation is atheist (aka “none of the above”), my attitude is condescending and my moral standing is lying down.

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