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Apple iBooks Author and textbook store a significant publishing step

An Apple employee demonstrates an interactive feature iBooks 2 for iPad Thursday Jan. 19 2012 New York. IBooks 2 will

An Apple employee demonstrates an interactive feature of iBooks 2 for iPad, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 in New York. IBooks 2 will be able to display books with videos and other interactive features. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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The current generation of students spends far more time looking at screens than at books. And that’s not making them dumber . . . it’s making them smarter.

If most kids are naturally drawn towards screens, isn’t it about time for textbooks to catch up?

That seems to be the main thrust of Apple’s new educational initiative. They’ve expanded the iTunes Store to include a new store for textbooks. They’ve released a new iTunes University app that connects students — or just Curious People — to immense libraries of courseware, and so that teachers can conduct classes to virtual students and enhance their work with their meatware ones.

And then there’s iBooks Author. It’s an ebook-authoring app geared towards a new generation of publications: detailed, tightly-formatted books that include nigh-unlimited range of media and interactive elements.

Textbooks created with iBooks Author require a new edition of the iPad and iPhone iBooks app. But once you’ve updated, the difference between an iBook and a Kindle title is magnificently clear. Kindle books are rarely more attractive or sophisticated than a webpage in 1998: it’s a conventional book, text interrupted by occasional pictures, rendered digitally.

A new-style iBook is more like interactive television. There are bits you read, bits you listen to, bits you watch, and bits that you play with.

The enhancements go beyond simple content projection. Old-school (literally) features of textbooks have been expanded. Students can highlight text, bookmark and make notes. And when it’s exam time, they can review their notes section by section as a series of virtual index cards.

It’s a very big deal and major textbook publishers have already jumped on board. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson will offer courseware through iTunes. Books will cost $15 or less, according to Apple. Schools will be able to purchase in bulk and issue redemption codes to students that they can redeem at no cost to their families.

iBooks Author

iBooks Author is the simplest tool for creating attractive, feature-rich books, by far. I was able to take a short story that had been sitting on my hard drive and build a pretty nice book out of it just an hour or two after launching it for the first time.

Most of the questions I had about the purpose of iBooks Author — a free app, mind you — were solved by the time I finished. This app is clearly geared specifically towards textbook creation. If you’re trying to build something that’s 100-500 pages long that’s based off an outline containing dozens of chapters with dozens of sub-sections . . . it almost seems like an easy job. The app works like a mashup between Apple’s iWork apps (Keynote and Pages, and I’m quite familiar with both). The only problems I encountered came when the app attempted to format my short story as though it were a matrix calculus textbook. In fact, it would have gone faster if I’d written the whole thing within the app itself — the authoring tools are certainly easy and robust — instead of trying to re-tweak the formatting of an existing word-processing file.

It’s a great tool for building textbooks but if you’re hoping to use it to convert your 140,000-word novel from a Microsoft Word file into an ebook with a cover and chapter headings (and from there into a source of retirement income), it’s slightly rougher sledding. None of the iBook Author’s built-in book templates are optimized for such simple books, and building a new template for such a thing will take a little time.

Plus, what will you do with that novel once you’re done building it? If you’re a textbook publisher, the app can spit out files that you can then submit to the iBookstore for inclusion in the textbook store. If you’re a teacher, you can output a .iBooks file or a PDF that you can hand out to your students. Any iPad or iPhone can open and read it in iBooks, but you’ll have to distribute it yourself.

The app’s terms & conditions also merit close scrutiny. Apple’s OK with anybody giving away content that they built with iBooks Author (teacher builds his or her own courseware, gives it out to students and puts it on a website so other teachers can download it). But you can only sell it through iTunes.

First off, they should clarify the agreement to underscore that The Thing They Can’t Sell Elsewhere is the actual file generated by the app and not the content that you created for it. It appears that the license doesn’t prevent the author from using the same material to build an ebook with another app, but that’s not clear.

Secondly . . . yeesh. Given that the publication of a book through the iBookstore is still subject to Apple’s approval, it’s possible that after months of effort a creator might wind up with a book that Apple refuses to sell, and which can’t be sold elsewhere.

Welcome to the iTunes Store, kid. Here’s your rock.

Learning about competition

It certainly explains why Apple can afford to give this tool away for free. It’ll help students and educators by generating free content, and it won’t help Apple’s competitors by producing content for other stores.

If the success of Apple’s new publishing initiative is limited to textbooks, that’s a big enough win. The app is free, and Apple continues to claim that the iTunes Store makes money but isn’t a dramatic source of profit.

As with anything else Apple’s does, the purpose of this undertaking is to sell more hardware, and increase the value of the hardware of existing customers (which in turn completes the sale of Apple’s next piece of hardware).

But it’s easy to see the future for this app: iBooks Author 1.5 will contain additional enhancements for magazine and newspaper publishing. Periodicals present the same sort of e-publishing challenges as textbooks. The artists who lay out pages chafe at the limitations of a single column of unpredictably-reflowing text. The publication contains text, graphics, photos, audio, and video . . . and assembling such a thing on a monthly, weekly, or God-forbid daily basis is an expensive and complicated undertaking.

But iBooks Author looks like it’s just the solution. Surely a future update will feed iBooks Author files into the iBookstore’s Newstand as well as the Textbook Store.

In fact, that leaves only two odd omissions for the app. There seems to be no support for collaboration. It would seem as though the app’s workflow is engineered towards either one person creating everything, or a bunch of creators sending their finished material to a designer who then builds the actual book.

Automation is also missing. So every edition of every title produced with iBooks Publisher has to be put together by hand. Hmm.

The Grail of self-publishing still remains elusive. Independent creators have yet to receive that one app that can create beautiful books that can be read by the majority of people with ebook devices. iBooks Author, the iBooks Textbook Store, and the new iTunes University app will merely help children to learn more and have more fun learning.

Which is still a good thing. I suppose. If you like children.

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