Five improvements iBooks Author needs to make

I build books for a living. My primary job here at Macworld is editing how-to ebooks written by editors on staff, our frequent contributors, and even myself. It’s also, on occasion, one of the most infuriating tasks I’ve ever taken on. Not the editing or the writing—no, my troubles come from the process of making the books.

Apple’s iBooks Author software tries to deal with some of my issues with ebook-making, removing the need to know HTML/CSS and letting you build books that look the same on your iPad as they do in the app.

But though I was excited by iBooks Author’s release, I struggle to use it in our ebooks business. You’d think it would be a no-brainer: Mac software that creates beautiful books for the iPad. What’s not to love? Unfortunately, the answer is “a lot”—now that the honeymoon’s over, I know iBooks Author’s flaws all too well. And, unfortunately, these flaws aren’t ones you can just brush under the carpet.

Ebooks? Hold the iPhone!

I’ve griped often about the pain of building ebooks for multiple platforms, and I’m not expecting iBooks Author to suddenly allow me to build a beautiful multitouch book for the Kindle. It’s Apple’s program, and it makes sense that the resulting books would work only on Apple’s devices. Yet, Apple limits you even beyond that: You can read an an ebook created in iBooks Author only on the iPad—not on the iPhone or the iPod touch.

Apple had valid reasons for doing this when iBooks Author first launched: In landscape mode, books from the program have fixed text, which means that you can’t increase the font size on your device. (In that way, it’s similar to reading a PDF document.) Fixed text and the iPhone don’t mesh very well, as anyone who’s tried to read a PDF or fixed-format comic book on an iPhone knows.

iBooks Author offers a reflowable portrait view—but not for the iPhone.

But iBooks Author already has a “reflowable” (resizable text) mode: portrait mode. Tilt a landscape book 90 degrees, and you can make the text on your device as large as you’d like. In this mode, you do lose many of your layout options, but it still churns out a nice-looking book. Though this mode would almost certainly look fine on a smaller screen, Apple has still chosen to limit books made with the program to the iPad.

That’s a major reason why Macworld uses iBooks Author only rarely. It doesn’t make financial or logical sense for us to deliver a book to just one of Apple’s many devices. We write plenty of iOS-specific coverage, and would be willing to limit our sellable audience for such topics, but only if we could sell to iPhone and iPod touch users, too. (And then there are Mac users, who don’t even have an ebook reader—but that’s another kettle of fish.)

Instead, we'll continue building plain old ePubs in another program. It takes longer and it’s certainly not as nice an experience, but it does allow anyone on any device—Mac, PC, iOS, Android, Kindle, you name it—to read our book.

Template troubles

iBooks Author looks a lot like Pages and Keynote, which can be exciting to folks who know the company’s iWork suite pretty well. You can tinker around with the iBooks Author layout in a lot of ways to suit your liking, but configuring those templates involves a bunch of little checkboxes, settings, and best practices that aren’t clearly outlined in the program’s help document.

Want your text field in your master template to work on a normal page? Check this box!

My favorite of these obscure checkboxes hides in the Layout Inspector: “Editable on pages using this layout.” Add a new text field to your Master Layout and forget to check this box, and you may find yourself screaming new and delightful obscenities when you can’t change text or an image.

iBooks Author isn’t exactly forthcoming about what many of these options and settings do. Finding the right option for your task can sometimes feel impossible, even after resorting to Google searches.

Working with live-updating elements—chapter numbers, section titles, book titles—is similarly annoying. Those elements appear in some of iBooks Author’s default layouts, but they aren’t available as options to add to a new layout. So unless you copy and paste a live-updating “Chapter Title” option from a different layout, you’ll have to resort to manually typing in this information—which kind of defeats the whole purpose of a template.

These four options are the only live-updating text options you can insert.

And the table of contents (or TOC) that iBooks Author provides is barely customizable: Not only are you stuck with textbook-like numbering for your section titles, but displaying different images for different chapters can be a horrible hassle. The TOC automatically tries to pull images for each chapter based on the “placeholder” image at the beginning of that chapter. Delete that placeholder, and you may find yourself with nine chapters in the TOC, all of which look the same. (This discussion thread has some helpful ways to troubleshoot that problem.)

A lot of these issues could be fixed with better support documents and menu clarification. But, as hopeful as I am that Apple will get around to making improvements, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote all have similar template problems, none of which have been addressed over the past few years.

Tethered to the ground

I love the fact that iBooks Author offers a way to instantly preview your book on the iPad. I hate that it requires you to plug your iPad into your Mac first. In this age of AirPlay and Dropbox, it feels positively primitive to have to physically connect two devices to share a file. It’s not as big a nitpick as my other issues with the program, but it sure would be nice to see a wireless option in iBooks Author 3.0.

Pinch to what?

Though the first version of iBooks Author boasted 3D interactive touch elements, swipe-through galleries, and video, its static elements were all fixed to the page. You couldn’t zoom in on text or images without enabling iOS’s built-in triple-tap-to-zoom Accessibility feature. In version 2.0, Apple tried to fix this issue by adding a “Make full-screen on tap” checkbox—but it still doesn’t quite work.

Full-screen on tap doesn’t entirely work the way you think it might.

You can make any element (except body text) full-screen with a tap, but the tap only brings that element to its maximum vertical size. Try to zoom in further, and the image will snap back into place inside the layout. That’s because the company currently uses two-finger pinch gestures to open and close pages inside an iBooks Author publication, and that seems to conflict with the zooming behavior we’ve all come to expect.

You can sort of get around this by not lifting your fingers while you’re zooming in, but that’s a clumsy workaround that makes for a subpar experience for readers.

The pain of updating in place

One of the bigger features Apple touted for iBooks Author 2.0 was improved in-app publishing support and versioning for iBooks Author-created titles. In theory, this is a huge boon for publishers like Macworld: Our how-to books are often current only for a year or so before newer software and hardware comes along, and being able to update the books—rather than making a new one from scratch—is a fantastic option for both us and our readers.

But, as we discovered firsthand during our overhaul of 12 Things Every iPad & iPhone User Should Know, the process isn’t exactly the kind of simple, elegant workflow that we’ve come to expect from Apple products.

If you’re just one person writing and editing, you probably don’t need to take your text out of iBooks Author. But if you work with others—such as contributors and copy editors—you won’t want to pass around a 100MB iBooks Author file that has no versioning control or commenting options.

iBooks Author does let you export to plain text, but not to a Word or Pages document. For that reason, we were forced to manually copy and paste the sections that we’d identified as out of date, send them off to a contributor for updating, then paste the new text back into the iBooks Author file and style them appropriately. Having a copy editor mark up the text with queries was even more difficult.

The initial publishing process is nice and simple.

Once you get through the edit, it’s time to send your book to iTunes Producer. iBooks Author has a Publish button that’s supposed to do the hard work for you—you sign into your account, choose the book you’re updating and its version number, and the program exports your title to iTunes Producer for uploading.

But weirdly, once you get into iTunes Producer, you can’t see any of your previously entered metadata. All the fields—save for the ISBN, book title, and page length—are mysteriously blank. Don’t expect to see your categories, authors, audience targeting, related products, or rights and pricing either.

iBooks Author doesn’t tell iTunes Producer to pull up your metadata, instead giving you an unhelpfully blank entry.

If I look up the same ISBN in iTunes Producer, the metadata returns—but I’ve lost my newly-exported iBooks Author book and the version number associated with it. It’s a sloppy bug, and one that Apple has had months to fix—but it hasn’t. (Another fun fact about iTunes Producer: You can’t ever update your metadata or screenshots without an email to the iBookstore team. So if you are looking to update your description or to add a new screenshot to go along with your overhauled ebook, you have to do it separately.)

In the future, I would love not having to interact with iTunes Producer at all; if there’s going to be a Publish button in iBooks Author, I want it to actually publish the book, not kick you out to another piece of software. But in the meantime, I’d settle for having my metadata appear—and for being able to edit that metadata when submitting a major version upgrade.

The road ahead

As much as they frustrate me sometimes, I love working on ebooks, and I’m always excited to see new and improved tools appear. Despite the thrust of this article, iBooks Author is a nifty piece of software, and to some it’s already become a valuable production resource. I’d love to be able to use it on more of our books in the future—provided it gets to a point where it feels more like a tool for real publishers and not one just for people who want to try publishing a book.

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