First look at iBooks Author, Apple’s ebook maker

At Thursday’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 thefree price tag, the app sounded too good to be true. While Appleshowcased iBooks Author as part of its push to get more iPad-friendlytextbooks onto its iBook store, this ebook creator can be used by anypublisher-Apple’s Phil Schiller specifically mentioned cookbooks andtravel books among other publications when touting the app.

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

The iBooks Author templates areall education-themed.

From appearances alone, iBooks Author fits in right alongsidethe company’s iWorksuite-no surprises there, since it was reportedly developedunder thewatchful eye of Roger Rosen, vice president of productivity software atApple. Like most of Apple’s content apps, Author greets you with atemplate 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 simpleto create and save your own styles. Template backgrounds can beunlocked and deleted, new additions made, all with little complication.Designers especially will love the freedom of the WYSIWYG tools: Imagescan be inline, floating, or anchored, and while Apple suggestsyou stick to iBooks-included fonts, it’s easy enough to spruce up thebook in other ways.

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 Pagesonly to have their hopes dashed when discovering features like “breakpage after paragraph” were unsupported will be especially pleased byiBooks Author. Many familiar word processor styles and features areavailable and translate to the iPad, and the process feels far lessfrustrating than pre-Author solutions (such as attempting to tweak CSSfiles).

Re-create pages from a magazine inunder an hour with iBooks Author.

Outside of basic images and text, you can also addinteractivity and media to your book using the Widget tool. You canpick one of seven Widgets: Gallery, Media, Review,Keynote, InteractiveImage, 3D, or HTML. For fun, I dropped in a gallery, which allowed meto pick several images and add a title and caption. Styling the look ofthe gallery was also easy enough for anyone familiar with the iWorkInspector: I just had to tab over to the Graphic section and playaround with colors and frames until I got it to my liking.

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

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

Lack of iPhone support
Of course, this brings up a question: If you have to designthese layouts so heavily, how do they work on other devices, like theiPhone?

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

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

iPad-exclusivity aside, thosewilling to work in iBooks Authorshould be quite pleased. It’s the best WYSIWYG ebook designer I’ve seenon the market so far, and-formatting problems excluded-incredibly easyto work with. If you have iTunes Producer installed, you can even usethe Publish button to send your finished book directly to thepublishing process; you’ll still need an ISBN and an iBookstore salesaccount to proceed, but it’s a nice link to unify the process.

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