Hands on with iBooks Author

Serenity Caldwell
20 January, 2012
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At today’s education event, Apple put glee into the heart of every ebook publisher when it unveiled iBooks Author, the company’s new ebook authoring tool. Between the WYSIWYG editing, Pages and Word import, and the free price tag, the app sounded too good to be true. While Apple showcased iBooks Author as part of its push to get more iPad-friendly textbooks onto its iBookstore, this ebook creator can be used by any publisher – Apple’s Phil Schiller specifically mentioned cookbooks and travel books among other publications when touting the app.

Naturally, after all my griping and wishes over such a tool, I had to take it for a spin: Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Choose a template: The iBooks Author templates are all education-themed, though easily customisable.

From appearances alone, iBooks Author fits in right alongside the company’s iWork suite – no surprises there, since it was reportedly developed under the watchful eye of Roger Rosen, Vice President of productivity software at Apple. Like most of Apple’s content apps, Author greets you with a template chooser; you can choose one of six styles (Basic, Contemporary, Modern Type, Classic, Editorial, or Craft).

Templates are easily fiddled with – as with iWork, it’s simple to create and save your own styles. Template backgrounds can be unlocked and deleted, new additions made, all with little complication. Designers especially will love the freedom of the WYSIWYG tools: Images can be inline, floating, or anchored, and while Apple suggests you stick to iBooks-included fonts, it’s easy enough to spruce up the book in other ways.

Design heaven: I was able to recreate a feature spread from the upcoming  February issue of Macworld in iBooks Author in less than an hour.

Importing files from Pages and Word seems to work as well as any import tool might: Your styling isn’t always retained, and images may shift, but the text ends up more or less laid out as it should be. A good thing, too, since iBooks Author has no versioning or change-tracking to speak of. I imported a Pages document containing one of our iPhone 4S Superguide chapters; while iBooks Author didn’t keep every bold and italic reference, it included links, page breaks and images, all where they should have been.

Unfortunately, like most other ePub solutions out there, iBooks Author continues the export game – you can’t edit an ePub you’ve already created. You can only design new ones using the app’s proprietary .iba format.

Those who have previously attempted to design ePubs in Pages only to have their hopes dashed when discovering features like ‘break page after paragraph’ were unsupported will be especially pleased by iBooks Author. Many familiar word processor styles and features are available and translate to the iPad, and the process feels far less frustrating than pre-Author solutions (such as attempting to tweak CSS files).

Outside of basic images and text, you can also add interactivity and media to your book using the Widget tool. You can pick one of seven Widgets: Gallery, Media, Review, Keynote, Interactive Image, 3D, or HTML. For fun, I dropped in a gallery, which allowed me to pick several images and add a title and caption. Styling the look of the gallery was also easy enough for anyone familiar with the iWork Inspector: I just had to tab over to the Graphic section and play around with colours and frames until I got it to my liking.

Other widgets will let you add videos, put in end-of-section quizzes, drop in Keynote animations, add images with interactive captions or 3D models, or insert HTML snippets built using Dashcode (Apple’s old Dashboard widget creator).

Tether to me: You can look at your book on the iPad through the app’s Preview function.

When doing any sort of intricate design in iBooks Author, the portrait/landscape buttons are your friends: Images and styles you create in landscape mode may not necessarily carry over, so you’ll need to check your orientations on a fairly regular basis. (You can also check a box to force the book to stay in portrait orientation.) You can also tether your iPad to send live previews of your books directly to your device, to ensure everything’s working properly.

Of course, this brings up a question: If you have to design these layouts so heavily, how do they work on other devices, like the iPhone?

Limited formats: iBooks Author can only export to the iPad-exclusive .ibooks, PDF, and .txt.

Answer: They don’t. In fact, the lack of iPhone support may be my biggest complaint with the software after this brief hands-on. The app exports in three formats: .ibooks, which is a wrapped .epub designed specifically for iPads; PDF; and plain text. Out of curiosity, I tried converting the .ibooks file into an .epub by renaming it and running it through Calibre, but the end result was not pretty. To create a book in the iBooks Author for the iPad and iPhone, you would need to build the book in the app, export it, convert it with Calibre, and then reformat what didn’t translate in Sigil. (The process for making Kindle and Nook versions is similarly elaborate.)

While I understand that this first iteration is designed with textbook publishers in mind – and those big books don’t exactly scale well onto the iPhone’s small screen – for others, this tool becomes yet another ‘extra’ way to build ebooks, rather than a definitive solution. With any luck, subsequent iterations will open up these tools to iPhone books; until then, I’ll continue building ePubs in multiple programs.

iPad-exclusivity aside, those willing to work in iBooks Author should be quite pleased. It’s the best WYSIWYG ebook designer I’ve seen on the market so far, and – formatting problems excluded – incredibly easy to work with. If you have iTunes Producer installed, you can even use the Publish button to send your finished book directly to the publishing process; you’ll still need an ISBN and an iBookstore sales account to proceed, but it’s a nice link to unify the process.

We’ll have a full review of iBooks Author soon, so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you have any questions, be sure to sound off in the comments: I’m happy to continue poking around to try and answer them.

10 Comments

10 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Lang says:

    I gave iBooks Author a test run and was quite impressed, except for the way it handles audio. First off, it relies entirely on the funky default audio player—why don’t they give us the option of using good-looking play/pause buttons?

    But even worse is that there is a bug related to audio embedding. If you embed more than one audio file on a page and then click back-and-forth between the two players, you will soon notice that the player you’ve clicked suddenly disappears from view. What’s up with that? I’m surprised they didn’t catch that bug, but then again video is the clearly favorite child and audio gets nowhere near the same attention from the programmers and developers.

  2. Jess says:

    I found the app to be overall very impressive, except for the performance on iPad 1. iPad 2 did great but the first gen was quite buggy. Im amazed they’re giving away such a nice application for FREE!

    Although there are two items I wish were different.

    1. I wish people could sell the iBooks wherever they pleased (instead of only via apple) I would have event paid 40 quid to have that option.

    2. There aren’t very many templates available that look “good” The naked men and default templates leave much to be desired. I found this site http://www.ibooksauthortemplates.com/ via google, but wish apple had done a more “apple” job with the templates

  3. nom says:

    With so few of my students owning an iPad, it is hard to see how useful this will be. It looks so much better than anything else I’ve seen and, when combined with iTunes U app, makes course creation awesome. Sadly, unless and until our university makes iPad compulsory, we’ll be stuck with BlackBoard (the electronic equivalent of its namesake, but not as useful, flexible or likeable).

  4. Chris says:

    I’ve been in it too. I’d like to include a song (i own rights) as a soundtrack to the book. I put in in a media widget on the first page, when I open it on my iPad, it plays fine, but as soon as i turn the page, the music stops. How do i set it to keep playing no matter where I am in the book?? Thanks a ton! Not enough support for this app at launch. If you type “soundtrack” or “Music” and even “audio” into the search function in Author you get no results which is absurd.

  5. leeroy says:

    Would love to know about Chris’ Question too.

    How o we gett he music to keep playing if we shift pages?

  6. Alex says:

    Yeah, how do we get the music to keep playing? I have a set of audio books and would love to embed them into the texts so when my children read the book, they have an option of hearing it at the same time.

    Another interesting question is, how do you make each page turn using your finger, instead of scrolling up and down like a website?

    Thanks

  7. Ari says:

    puzzled by auto-loop or repeat b/g music/audio like Chris and leeroy above: must it be a widget?! In a simple picturebook, why can’t I get a click anywhere on a text box to trigger a soundfile, etc.?

  8. melissa says:

    i think there’s no way of keeping the music playing through all the pages, i’ve tried everything; if anyones figures it out please post it! :D

  9. Byron says:

    Apple’s continued silence (i.e., lack of real support or general concern) for such an obviously important question — how can I get iBooks Author to allow continuous play of a music/soundtrack/narration audio file? So far, NOTHING from Apple Support Communities either. This is the missing piece for me, as far as my needs. True continuous sound immersion while reading and tapping and scrolling and viewing. Sigh.

  10. Geoff Thornton says:

    Hello, fellow seekers…of such basic information from the Apple Development Community! I stand, as many of you apparently, with ready-to-go children’s ibooks which require only the final addition of narration and musical background. I will be actively looking, since I’m a new arrival at this point in two ibooks projects for children. I did ask at multiple ‘genius’ bars in person last week in the Chicago area and downtown, but no one with even vague familiarity of iBooks Author basics. Please continue to share signposts on your quests…
    Thanks!

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