Thursday, January 19, 2012

Apple's grand new vision for textbooks and textbook authoring gets tested with E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth

Despite the hype and excitement of a new Apple event, the roll out of new iBooks products ends today with only eight textbooks available inside iTunes. Because of this, the event will have to be judged as a success or failure weeks, months or years from now when iTunes is filled with new digital textbooks, or else as empty as it is today. (Some publishers, no doubt, will want to reclassify their books as textbooks.)

But while the new iBooks 2 only offers a minimum number of titles inside the Textbooks category, each book is more like an app than books previously found in iBooks. In fact, that really is the point of today's product launches: to promote more native designed books over mere text-only books. (This is why many independent magazine publishers would be thrilled if Apple would create a self-publishing authoring tool for magazines. But let's leave that for another day and just talk about books.)

As of today, McGraw-Hill Education has five textbooks inside the iBooks Textbooks category; Pearson has two. That leaves one other book: E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth. The book is free to download and additional chapters will be made available in the spring, according to the "app description". (DK Publishing also has a series of books that were developed with iBooks Author – those books can be found in other categories other than Textbooks.)
Anyone who has been a reader of TNM will be familiar with what this new textbook looks like in iBooks 2. The "app", if you will, looks like other books that were developed using Xcode: they include embedded video, and have pages specifically designed to be read on an iPad. The assumption is that this, though, was created using Apple's new iBooks Author software.

iBooks Author allows anyone with a minimum amount of computer skills to design and produce their own books. The software, free and available through the Mac App Store, comes with several templates that can be used immediately to produce a book that will be far more interactive than the standard ePub book familiar to Kindle or NOOK owners or those reading previously released books through iBooks.

E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth, though, did not perform very well on my first generation iPad. In fact, the introductory video could be heard but not seen – and it eventually froze my iBooks app completely. The first generation iPad simply doesn't have the juice and memory needed to power this 965 MB sized iBook.

If you saw the presentation today, or followed the live blogs online, you know what this book will look like. In landscape the book resembles a book app, with the video embedded right into the pages (though you can make the videos full screen with a simple tap.) In portrait, the books resembles a standard ePub book, but with the pictures running along the left side of the page, and the video, when tapped, will automatically open in a new window. It is very attractive, and quite intuitive.

So far this book has received overwhelmingly positive reviews inside iTunes, with only one person completely baffled by the requirement that they will have to update iBooks to the new version. That person will be failing their class, for sure.

Left: the book in landscape with its embedded video content; Right, instructions for taking notes and highlighting text.

For those who have seen the rise of mobile and tablet publishing as the promised land for self-publishers, iBooks Author is what many have waited for. Here Apple has given publishers a free tool to create and publish their own books.

For would-be authors, iBooks Author will end any excuses (outside of "I don't own a Mac"). What will be required to get your books into iBooks is a new account (your developer account does not work for iBooks, you must have a new one for book publishing, and don't blame Apple here), but Apple does not charge for the privilege.

The issue of exclusivity is a thorny one: any book produced with iBooks Author can only be sold through the iBookstore. One simple reason is that iBooks Author exports into three formats: iBooks, PDF and Text. There is no ePub export simply because iBooks Author is not using the current ePub standard. Whether iBooks Author is actually ePub 3 or a hybrid, I do not know.

If you plan on giving away your book, you can reformat it and distribute it elsewhere. But if you plan on selling it, well, Apple wants exclusivity.

Many won't like the idea of authoring only for Apple and Apple's exclusivity clause will certainly rub some people the wrong way:
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 will be up to other software developers to create something that will compete with iBooks Author, and will open other digital sales channels for authors. For now, it is Apple if you want to produce an interactive book, and Amazon for an eBook.

I assume that if you were to reformat the book for another device, call it something else, and obtain a new ISBN number then you might be OK. But Apple could, based on the agreement, pull your book for the iBookstore in any case. (If Apple really wants to enforce this provision, look for a legal challenge eventually.)

As a former B2B publisher, iBooks Author would have been a godsend. At both McGraw-Hill and at Reed, I have book titles under my control. But book publishing was a minor part of what we did, mainly because it was a pain.

With an authoring tool, however, a magazine publisher could quickly turn a columnist's work into a book title. Before you know it, you have a book line, and a way to distribute the titles.

All it would take would be for your art directors to learn iBooks Author.

Sadly, far too many publishing firms have decimated their production departments. I know of at least one B2B media company that has made their art directors into independent contractors (the good news is that the company will probably be out of business soon).

For many publishing firms, doing anything that involves production is out-of-the-question. And app development? Fuggeddaboudit.

But savvy publishers will see the opportunity at hand. iBook Author is free – frankly there will be no excuses now.

If you need more inspiration, here is Apple's promotional video: