Matt Gemmell

iBooks Author for Authors

3 min read

Apple launched their new education initiative today, with the equally new iBooks Author application for Mac at its core. There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter and on the web already, with much more to come, but one thing I haven’t seen so far is a simple evaluation of the the suitability of iBooks Author and the iBookstore as an authoring and distribution system.

My own interest is from the perspective of an independent author with a view to self-publishing books that aren’t necessarily textbooks. As with any Apple application, there’s a strong desire to explore it and a tendency to try very hard to retrofit my actual needs to allow me to use the shiny new application. Thus, this brief article is as much about tempering my own enthusiasm with reason, as it is as attempt to share my thoughts.

Here, then, are some important points to consider before using iBooks Author for your next project.

  • Your customers need an iPad to read your book. You can’t view them on iPhones, Macs or PCs, or any other tablet devices.
  • Specifically, your customers must use iBooks 2 to read your book. No other software can view the book.
  • If the book isn’t free, you must sell it via the iBookstore. You can repurpose the content and sell it via any other avenue you like, but you can only sell an iBooks Author-created book file on the iBookstore (where Apple will of course take 30%). You can distribute a free iBooks Author-created book file via any means you wish.
  • As with any distribution channel except true self-publishing, Apple naturally reserves the right to refuse to sell your book.
  • The maximum price of your book is $15. It’s not possible to set a higher price.
  • There are no collaborative authoring or editing features. If you have a multi-person publishing workflow, you may find it difficult to adjust.
  • iBooks Author runs only on Macs. It’s not available for PCs, and it does not run on iOS devices themselves.
  • The Author file format (.iba) is nominally a single large file, though it’s actually a zip archive containing media assets, property lists and XML files. Your version control system will probably see the zip archive as a single, opaque file, reducing the benefit of version control.
  • The published file format (.ibooks) is similarly a zip file, this time containing XML etc files that are encrypted (the meta-data property list file is not encrypted). Outside of iBooks 2, the file is of very limited use.
  • Naturally, once your text is in iBooks Author, you’re essentially writing and editing within a page-layout application, rather than a word processor or text editor. As with any publishing workflow, you will want to do the writing and editing first, and then put the book together (as much as possible). iBooks Author is resolutely not a writing environment.

The advantages of Author are clear enough from Apple’s publicity materials, including a rich authoring environment, easy interactivity, a polished final result and a ready path to distribution and sales. Those things aren’t in question, but the above considerations are worth carefully evaluating before committing to a significant project.

If you don’t require the proprietary features of iBooks Author, and/or some of those considerations are deal-breakers, you may wish to consider an alterative e-book generation tool. I can recommend any of these three:

  • Pages. Generates ePub files, with no distribution limitation for sales. Intuitive interface that’s very similar to iBooks Author.
  • Scrivener. Considered one of the pre-eminent long-form book authoring and scriptwriting tools on Mac OS X and Windows. A writer’s writing environment with many useful tools related to the craft and mechanics of writing. It generates ePub amongst other formats.
  • pandoc. A command-line tool available for all computer platforms, which can generate output in a vast array of formats, including ePub. Particularly attractively, it allows you to write in the Markdown format, using as many files as you like, and assemble them on output. It’s thus ideal for collaborative authoring, version control, and maintaining portability. I must admit, it’s my favourite of these options.

Once you have an ePub file, you can of course use KindleGen to create a book suitable for distribution on Amazon’s Kindle store.

I hope you’ve found this brief article useful. I’m extremely interested in self-publishing, and I’m pleased that it’s a topic that’s receiving wide attention. If you’d like to discuss any point I’ve raised here, you can find me on Twitter.