Thoughts on Books

Apple had an event yesterday at a school. You may have heard.

If you are not working in education tech the news probably seemed underwhelming. Don’t worry, Apple will have more events and some of them will have great news for you.

I am not going to discuss the entire event. I don’t currently do much work in education IT and when I do it is for Macs, so I don’t feel very qualified to address most of what was shown yesterday.

However, there was one topic on which I was hoping for news: iBooks. However, as it is often the case with Apple, it was neither the news I was expecting nor hoping for.

In case you didn’t know: I am interested in iBooks because I have published two books written with iBooks Author.

iBooks was introduced with the iPad in 2010 and the Mac version followed in 2013 (with Mavericks). Along the way Apple also introduced iBooks Author in 2012 which allows building rich media, interactive digital books tailored for the iPad. (Though they also work on Mac and iPhone.)

Since then the iBooks app, iBooks Store and iBooks Author have received a few updates. Overall, Apple’s attention to the books part of their software and services can only be described as ‘lacking.’

There were some signs in the recent iOS beta releases that Apple seems to be preparing to change the iBooks app’s name to simply ‘Books’, and iBooks Author has found its niche in education, so this education focused event seemed like a place for an announcement. The hopes were up!

Pages 7 vs iBooks Author

As I said, the announcement on the book publishing front is underwhelming. The new Pages (version 7.0) has improved ePub3 fixed layout support and some new templates.

This is not a new feature. Pages has had ePub export for a long time. So far it has focussed on free-flowing layout. Last year, Pages 6.3 gained the ability to create and export fixed-layout ePub formats. Back then I was really interested to have a solution other than iBooks Author. However, the feature set of Pages for fixed layout is quite rudimentary compared to iBooks Author. I have not had time to really test the latest version of Pages yet, but I can already confirm that some really important features are still missing.

iBooks Author forces you to structure your book with chapters and sections, but also builds an interactive table of contents automatically. iBooks Author provides interactive widgets for images, movies, and even Keynote presentations that go fullscreen on tap. Also scrollable sidebars which I use in my books for scripts and source text that is longer than fits on a screen. I can also create links in text to other parts and objects in the book.

None of these features are present in Pages.

In iBooks Author you can send a preview to iBooks on a connected device. In Pages I have to export as ePub and find some way to get it to the target device.

But the most damning thing is, there is no way to import an iBooks Author document or template into Pages. I’d have to start over and rebuild the book in a new layout.

Future of iBooks Author

However, the situation is not all bad. Apple has also stated that iBooks Author is not going anywhere. For now I would presume we are in a transition phase, where the ‘old software’ is kept around for compatibility and certain features until the replacement can live up to expectations. Apple has done that before with iMovie, QuickTime and even AppleWorks.

I’d rather have a brand new iBooks Author or a feature complete Pages sooner than later, but as long as iBook Author keeps working, well, I guess I can wait.

So, what am I going to do with my books? You might have guessed from my analysis: I am sticking with iBooks Author for the existing books.

I have about 500 pages in several books in various stages of completion. As long as there is no easy way to export them out of iBooks Author, they are staying in there.

iBooks Publishing Frustrations

However, there are some limitations of iBooks Author that I am quite aware of and that I have been looking for solutions to.

Since the topics of the books are very Mac specific, I felt that restricting myself to the iBooks Store and Apple platforms for publishing wouldn’t be much of a limitation. (Though I am still surprised that I repeatedly have to tell people iBooks exists on the Mac and you don’t need an iPad to buy and read iBooks.)

However, self-publishing in the iBooks store is not available in every region. Even some countries where an iBooks store is available don’t allow me to publish to them.

It is not easy or even possible for everyone to get a US Apple ID to purchase items in the US store. So far I have only gotten a handful of requests from readers with this problem, but I do feel sorry for every one of them (and am aware that there will be many more who just gave up without asking).

I’d also like to be able to write not just on a Mac but on an iPad or even the iPhone, whenever the inspiration (or boredom) strikes me. Right now I solve that by typing (and sometimes even dictating) my ideas into Notes and then copying them into iBooks Author later. However, this workflow does not allow me to review or rewrite parts of a book on the road.

Finally, as an admin and coder, I have gotten used to git and some sensible form of version control for the writing process would be nice, too.

The Leanpub Alternative?

So, to address these problems I have been looking for an alternative means of publication. Last week I was recommended Leanpub (thanks, Rob!). I believe their approach to publishing is well suited for technical books.

However, their workflow is entirely based on a markdown variant and builds free-flow ePub books. That means they are more flexible and can support many more reader platforms. On the other hand, the options for rich media and interaction are much more limited (if non-existent). I am not even sure if videos can work reliably in this format (though I plan to try).

On the other hand Leanpub provides better rates for publishers/authors and have a ‘publish early and often’ mentality. They actually allow (and encourage) publishing and selling an ‘incomplete’ book and pushing updates to customers. They even integrate git into the publishing workflow.

As far as I can tell they also sell to anywhere in the world.

Plans

So to summarize here are my specific (mid-term) plans:

  • I will keep ‘Packaging’ and ‘PR3’ in iBooks Author format and the iBooks Store for the forseeable future. Right now converting them to another format would take too much work and time that I’d rather spend on other projects. I will keep updating these books with fixes and new topics.
  • There is a third book that is more than half complete which I plan to keep in iBooks Author format for the same reason (this one has quite a number of screen capture videos, which would be a pain to convert to something else). I hope to get to a point where I can talk more about this project soon.
  • Finally, I have (yet) another project, which I believe is well suited for Leanpub. Last summer, I posted a series of ‘Terminal Primer’ articles and have kept working on that series with a ‘Terminal for Apple Adminstrators’ book in mind. I will (re-)build and publish this in Leanpub as an experiment. For now there is only a ‘stub’ page available, but you can sign up for updates on this project. Of course, I will publish updates on this project here and on Twitter as well.

Let me know what you think!

One thought on “Thoughts on Books”

  1. Thanks for this on the spot article. I may add that I think iBooks Author allows for great enhanced books but Apple does basically nothing to push the iBook Store.

    MacUser I know are often not even aware of the iBooks App or that there is an iBook Store. It would help if Apple was more engaged to tell their customers that an iBook Store exists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.