Apple targets textbooks, education

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Holding out for an ePub hero

Against my better judgment, I let myself get swept up by the wave of e-publishing rumors in the days leading up to Apple’s education-themed announcement. Apple could do it, I thought to myself. The company had both the resources to build a great tool, and the reasons to do so.

The application Apple did release, iBooks Author, is impressive in some ways. It’s free. Textbook publishers, teachers, comic artists, and others seeking an easy way to make rich, fixed-format iPad books should be thrilled. As Macworld editorial director Jason Snell points out, it will save a lot of people from having to create a dedicated app just to serve beautiful versions of their content.

But there are perhaps just as many caveats and concerns with Apple’s new application. The iBooks Author end user licensing agreement is vague and worrisome. Like every program that came before iBooks Author, you can’t edit ePubs directly; unlike programs such as Scrivener, Pages, and InDesign, however, this app’s only purpose is to make books. And to top it all off, it won’t even export the open ePub format Apple has long championed; instead, it makes proprietary .ibooks files.

Sure, iBooks Author is only version 1.0—and seeing as how I’ve defended Apple in the past for features missing from its 1.0 software, I probably should withhold my judgement for the time being. But I can’t help but be disappointed.

The ePub format, a package of XHTML and CSS, has been available for almost five years, now. It’s supported by numerous apps and devices, including Apple’s iBooks, Google Books, and the Nook. Proprietary formats, like Amazon’s KF8 and MOBI, use the same basic structure, but provide a better way to wrap the file in DRM (digital rights management). Between the Kindle Store, iBookstore, and Google Bookstore, the ebooks market has exploded.

And yet, our tools to build these books are as primitive as those for early 1990s HTML. There is exactly one program that can edit ePub files directly—Sigil—and while I applaud what the app strives to do, it’s being worked on by just one developer and ported to multiple operating systems. As a result, it’s unpolished, unoptimized for the Mac, slow, and bug-ridden.

Even so, Sigil is the best WYSIWYG editor on the market right now for the ePub format. If you don’t want to use Sigil, you have only a few options: You can export your ePub from any number of other programs and hope it’ll still look relatively the same as your original layout (not likely); hire a company who hand-builds custom ePubs (too expensive for most people); or attempt to code the entire thing yourself by hand—which, while admirable, is a pain-and-a-half if you’re making a long book, or incorporating more than a few images.

It's crazy that we have so few options after five years: The ebooks market is clearly making money. If Apple’s release of an authoring tool has shown anything, it’s that the demand is certainly out there. The publishing industry needs a Dreamweaver or Hype-type ePub application—one that won’t be limited by EULAs, or insistent on proprietary formats.

I’ve already written a wish-list for my perfect app; had I the talent, the skills, and the time to build it, I'd be half-tempted to try coding it myself. Silly, of course, but when it comes down to it, I just want to be able to make awesome ebooks. It shouldn’t take two weeks and six programs to create a book with images and interactive content.

I want our designers to be able to lay out a book by sight rather than by code. I want to be able to export my book in any format I choose, to be distributed on any and every platform. And, more than anything else, I want others to start making awesome ebooks, too. I want people to be able to focus on the content they’re putting together, rather than the laborious process of turning it into an ePub.

iBooks Author exists because Apple wanted this for educators and publishers. The company took the first step—now it’s time for developers to carry it forward to the rest of the ebooks world.

[Macworld staff editor Serenity Caldwell swears that this is the last piece she’ll write on this subject. For now.]

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