January 19, 2012

Apple iBooks Author - An Early Review

On Thursday, Apple announced its new textbook model for its iBookstore. In addition to its support for EPUB3, this new iBookstore allows publishers to create textbooks with integrated quizzes, grading, interactivity, and distribution features.

To take advantage of the new textbook publishing platform, Apple has additionally produced an application called iBooks Author for free based on the same interface as Apple's popular iWork applications. Here are some of the highlights and what you need to know as a publisher.

Page Design

Apple has created a distinct difference in use between the portrait and landscape orientations for the iPad. Vertical is intended for people who are interested in reading the main body of the textbook while the figures are minimized to increased readability. Pages are cascaded together into a long document, much like a website.

When the document is landscape, however, the figures become larger and a more graphic-rich experience is presented to the user. Each of these provide different user experiences to the user for different purposes.

Book Structure

Cover Page

A book cover is required for all publications. Much like any other page, you are able to add blocks, elements, text, images can be added to the cover. Note: interactive elements such as video, widgets and HTML widgets cannot be added to the cover.

Intro Media

Intro Media is an optional video or image that can be displayed before being navigated to the table of contents when launching the textbook. This could be for instance an introduction video by a teacher or professor to describe why to take the course, or a simple video a create excitement about a topic.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents is automatically generated based on the structure of the textbook (chapter, section). This way students can easily navigate to the appropriate section they need to read when they launch the textbook.

Glossary

Glossaries are an important element of textbooks. They allow students to look up words that they do not understand. Fortunately, iBooks Author makes it even easier for students to look up terms, but also for content creators to generate a glossary.

In traditional textbooks, one often has to aggregate and create a separate page for glossary terms. Within iBooks Author, content creators can add terms to the glossary very easily by just adding a term. They can even drag related terms to allow students to see what other terms might be associated to a word. These terms can even be added during the editing of a layout using the Glossary Toolbar (go to View > Show Glossary Toolbar).

The glossary is also easy for students to use. They simply have to select the word on the page, and tap glossary to get the textbook term for the selected text. They can even use the built-in dictionary on the iPad if needed.

Chapters, Sections, and Pages

The structure of documents is very clearly hierarchical, similar to your standard textbook. Documents within iBooks are divided into the same sections you will commonly see in a standard textbook:

  • Chapter
  • Section
  • Page

The highest parent in the hierarchy is a Chapter, which can contain many Section children elements. Inside of a section are the pages. Pages are the elements that contain any of the layouts that you would typically see for a print product.

Styles

Paragraph and Character Styles

Much like the features offered in other Apple iWork applications, iBooks Author also contains all of the paragraph, character, and list style and Character Style features. When creating a textbook, there are already pre-defined styles that are generated. These styles, in addition to custom, are able to be used to help standardize the look of content.

Fonts

Much like issues relating to web-based typography, fonts within the application are limited to the ones that are available on the iPad. While over the years the amount of fonts that are available have increased, this could be a limiting factor for some designers.

Interactivity

There would be no purpose of using a digital textbook without the advantage of interactive elements. Fortunately, iBooks Author provides many "widgets" to allow content creators to create interactive elements within their textbooks to support self-learning as well as collaborate and test.

Widgets

Gallery

Gallery allows you to easily create a variety of different related figures displayed in one frame. This figure can have a main caption with a sub-caption describing each image. This may be useful for describing a process like mitosis or giving examples to support a statement You also have options to show thumbnails or even create accessibility descriptions for readers with disabilities.

Interactive Image

Allows for images to be labeled to help easily explain the different elements of a diagram or a photo. When clicking on the label, the image can even be zoomed to give a close up on that section of the image.

Review

Can create a questionaire to ensure that students are catching the right information within the section. Students can interact with these quizzes, going through a series, and get an answer of how many questions they had correct.

Keynote

Apple already makes a really good presentation software called Keynote that, much like PowerPoint, can be used to describe presentations or slides. These slides can be integrated directly into the textbook, allowing the student to cycle through different presentations as needed within a figure on a page.

Dashboard HTML

To extend functionality of iBooks, you can even add HTML5 frames directly into layouts. It is worth noting, however, that these HTML5 elements must be created using Apple's own Dashcode application as it packages it up into a neat package to properly embed.

Notes

All content is able to be annotated with different highlight colors as well as sticky notes. Users are then also able to go and see all of their annotations in one spot.

Search

All text content is searchable. This allows users to easily and quickly find the important subjects that they are looking for within the textbook. When searching, it will even show the context of where it is within text.

Previewing

Previewing content on the iPad is quite easy. It only requires having an iPad with iBooks 2.0 installed. With the iBook app launched, one just needs to simply click the preview button and the textbook will instantly display pn the iPad. It is quite easy.

Export

Content created with iBooks Author is for display on the iPad only. The application was designed to utilize the functionality built into the iOS and distributed using Apple's own iBookstore.

There is one nice feature though: unlike Apple's App Store apps, iBooks do not have to go through the iBookstore to share among friends or colleagues. This means this platform could additionally be used by classroom teachers to formulate lesson plans and curriculums. Any of the textbooks produced are designed for print-only output.

Distribution

Distribution of iBook textbooks is available exclusively in the iBookstore. Publishers can create iTunes Connect accounts from Apple to create their new textbooks. The price of textbooks is $14.99 or less and has many of the major backers including McGraw Hill Education

The Limitations and Issues

  • No workflow support Apple's iBooks Author is designed around one textbook to be designed in one file at a time. Sections cannot be dragged from textbook to textbook, which would prevent any of the benefits from editorial workflow systems like vjoon K4 Publishing System or Woodwing Enterprise.
  • Platform restrictions While the iPad is a wildly popular tablet device, publishers and authors want to publish to multiple channels and devices. This app is thus going to create more work for those publishers to achieve that end.
  • Font Limitations Fonts can be important to the brand recognition of a publisher. The limitations of fonts on iBooks could be a significant design limitation for publishers.
  • Textbooks only While time will tell how the iBook platform may expand, iBooks Author is geared towards developing iBook textbooks only. This would not be suitable for other publication types. In addition, textbooks are limited to high school right now.
  • No back catalog With all the interactivity and changes to the conventions of the book, it requires publishers to rework their textbooks to utilize the benefits of this platform. While this is beneficial, many current textbooks are in Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress and reworking would require significant resources. What's more, it is not clear what the future interoperability of the iBook format would be, requiring publishers to possibly have to redesign completely for different systems.
  • As mentioned on All Things Digital, the cost of the textbooks isn't necessarily cheaper. While the initial textbook cost is cheaper, this is meant for a per-student per-year model. This model may be less suitable for high schools and more suitable for college students.
  • Limited options There are only currently eight textbooks available in the iBookstore today. While this may grow, the limitations highlighted here may put off some larger publishers from backing this platform. However, Apple's target market may be geared more for variety and specialization of textbooks rather than some of the larger ones that are available by larger publishers.

Conclusions

Apple is offering easy creation tools with distribution to allow students to swiftly access textbooks on their iPads. This has been one of the first major digital initiatives that is backed by major publishers that has not been simply a scan of the print version, such as CourseSmart. Some of the interactive features create compelling new expectations for digital publishing. iBooks currently is geared and restricted to textbook creation...for now.

This platform and strategy will go a long way towards Apple gaining a larger influence within the publishing field, however it is important to understand where this are lies for current publishers. Here is a blog by my colleague and DPCI Founder, Joe Bachana, on the some of the business challenges around iBooks Author. Enjoy!

Posted at 07:51 pm by Ben Vanderberg

Thanks, Ben, for your thorough overview. I haven't had the time to review the app myself as yet, but your comments will certainly make that process easier. We're thinking that the app will be useful for our line of picture books, which are generally spread oriented but almost always portrait in layout. This app could be a shortcut for getting content on the iBookstore but obviously won't avoid the need to prepare a separate Fixed Layout format for the Kindle and other platform.

It also seems to be an easier way to integrate multimedia than the code intensive ePub3 format. I also think it could assist with the preparation of academic texts, aside from educational ones, that are graphic intensive, with extensive glossaries.

There has been some discussion about whether it's better to import text files from programs like Word or Pages, or create them from scratch within the app. Any thoughts on that? What about a workflow from InDesign?

Hi David,

Thank you for your comments. It is always helpful to see how some people might be looking to use the application. You are absolutely right that it would require creating separate EPUBs for Kindle. However, depending on how you are planning on making those books for other platforms, there are a few ways you might be able to re-use your code with iBooks Author.

As for whether it is better to import stuff from Word and Pages as opposed to scratch, it really depends how you have your information structured. Word and Pages are able to import Word files and Pages styles, but it is important to utilize paragraph styles in that case and have those matching in your imported documents to save yourself time having to mess with paragraph styles. Word support isn't perfect.

As for InDesign, InDesign supports export of EPUB files that allows you to also embed videos and images.

So, how well do you think Apple will play with others engaged in the write-once-publish-many efforts like http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/tc_home.php?wg_abbrev=dita-learning...? I'm also curious about the concept of a book and its relationship to music albums? It seems that the current generation has little appreciation for purposefully created collections of music and would be surprised if the same would not be true for books.

I think the future will require that regardless of how content is developed, making it discoverable and useable at any level of granularity desired by the end-user and not the publisher will be the order of the day.

Hi Gary,

Thanks for the link and response. Currently I don't see Apple's strategy support the write-once-publish-many. Aside from having interests in promoting their own brand, I believe Apple's perspective on that would be that the standards don't meet the user experience that they would want, so they built their own. They don't have to be interoperable because everything else can run on the iPad (E-PUB, Kindle, etc) so why not take advantage of all of the features the iPad only has to offer instead of waste time on other platforms? I'm not saying this is the right perspective, but it is the perspective they are coming from.

To your point on whether books are going the same way as music, I would say that Apple is entering that market when the market is in a different state. After Napster was released in 1999, the music industry was in trouble because users were beginning to not feel a need to pay for music. Apple was helping reverse course from that when they produced iTunes Store, however much of that damage was done to consumers to not feel a need to pay for content.

When you look at the textbook and book publishing industry on the otherhand, users haven't changed their perception that they have to pay for that content. They have been conditioned with buying Apps so the price is right. As for appreciation of content? People never stopped appreciating music, they stopped associating appreciation with a price tag.

Thanks for your response,

Ben

Hi Ben,

I'll be linking to this from E is for Book, which is a group blog of children's book authors and illustrators. One thing I want to figure out is how to take out the Chapter/Section part of the template and just have a Cover, Intro, and Pages for a picture book. Am assuming it's possible but haven't yet tried it.

I tweaked one of the templates and used non-iPad fonts, which showed up fine in the Proof on my iPad. That wouldn't work in general, though?

One thing I really like is that the faux gutter, pages, and binding are gone when creating a book with iBooks Author. I redesigned one of my out-of-print picture books using the app Book Creator and posted it on the iBookstore last fall and it was a pain to design around that simulated "gutter." Then there's inadequate Search on the iBookstore…the lesson learned is to have your main topic within the iBook title or subtitle. Terms in the book's description will NOT bring it into a search. It's like trying to use a library with no subject index, very not good.

Back to iBooks Author, it's great to be able to add content such as a Keynote prez that the user can go through at his/her own pace. I'm thinking that has a lot of bang for the buck in terms of file size. Those "talking head" videos, not so much. : )

Anyway, thanks!

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