I am making a couple of iBooks. I’ve already produced three of them, but you can’t see them because they were experimental and they have been mercifully deleted. I found three or four problems (mainly with my own design and understanding) that I’ll tell you a little about below. There are things to consider when you make an iBook that I’ve discovered that I can tell you about here as well. Having said that, this post is not meant to be a comprehensive guide or a detailed review; this is just a few notes and comments that some of you might find interesting.

Notice that I’ve used the word “make” instead of “write” above. An iBook can be a product that has almost no writing in it at all, or it can be a way of producing a written work that has mostly words and stuff. I have not yet decided if there is a downside to producing an iBook instead of an eBook for a mostly text-based product, but I do want to suggest that if you are going to “write” an iBook you either have some amazing graphic material to use (such as in this wonderful example that to me justified the existence of the iPad and iBook Author) or that you have some writing that some people will like to read to put between and around the various iBook widgets!

What is an iBook?

An iBook is a special kind of electronic book that is read specifically by the Mac-based application iBook. You can’t read an iBook on any devices other than an iPad or similar machine. Apple gives you the iBook reader for free, and then you buy (or download for free…many are free) iBooks from Apple’s iBook store thingie. You can also keep iBooks in your iTunes collection and access them with an iPad that you attach to your computer to download the iBook from. (I’m not sure if Mountain Lion’s cloudy interactivity puts that stuff on your iPad automatically or not.) That would be one way to distribute an iBook to friends and relatives (you email the iBook to them, then they download it on their laptop or desktop and attach it to iTunes somehow…I’ve not done that yet.) Having said that, emailing someone a 20 megabyte iBook is not guaranteed to work. I’ve seen it fail more often than succeed, and I’m not sure yet why.

What makes an iBook different from other electronic books (known generally as eBooks) is that iBook has a niftier more graphic oriented layout than other eBooks, which are mostly really bad at handling graphics, and access to the contents of an iBook is tactile. They are sometimes called “touch” books because of this. If you read an iBook you need to know that there are things you will only make good use of if you know the “gestures” that apply to iBooks, which are all typical iPad gestures, but if you are not an iPad user or only use the iPad for limited applications, you may not know about them. Also, there is a difference in how an iBook looks and works, and even in what you can see, in landscape vs. portrait orientation. You should assume that the iBook’s author designed the product to be read in landscape, and that portrait mode is a special way of viewing the book that might have some advantages but that leaves out things.

So iBooks are different because of the tactile interaction and navigation through the book, but also because they can include a handful of nifty widgets that allow the display of graphics and stuff. Again, I point you to this example for an amazing multimedia version of a bird book.

Why write an iBook?: Or is it just a bad idea?

I have decided that iBooks are good and that I will produce some. But, there is an interesting back-story here that, by my own interpretation (that may be somewhat wrong) is a great example of how a corporation may have made a mistake when interfacing with the most dangerous people on earth: writers.

The following story is entirely based on my own experience and may be different from others, or in some way inaccurate, but I know I’m not the only person who experienced this and we’ve compared notes, so I’ve probably got this right.

Apple released iBook Author in Janurary 2012. Within a few weeks of that release, I went to a conference with over 400 people most of whom were writers of some kind, including many full time professional writers in the sciences. One of the writers, David Dobbs had produced an eBook using Atavist software called “My Mother’s Lover.” Dobbs gave a talk about this book and eBooks generally at this conference, but owing to other commitments I had to be somewhere else so I only know of his talk second hand, so what I tell you about it will be made up by me rather than what he said. (I’m being lazy here. I know David and I’m sure I could call him up and interview him about this talk, but instead I’ll just send him a link and see if he wants to correct me in the comments.) Let’s put it this way. After David’s talk, and after some other information flowed around the place from Internet sources and other people’s experience, the following three things seemed to become “known:”

1) iBooks Author is easy to use. It and other platforms such as Atavist are accessible to people who are otherwise not trained up in the production side of things.

2) An eBook generally, and in some ways, and iBook especially, is a way of writing something different than a magazine article, book, or blog post, so it is potentially a way of re-purposing other material or, even more interesting to a writer, of using material you have at hand but might otherwise not be able to use.

3) The EULA for apple’s iBook Author was written in a way that indicated that once you published something as an iBook, that material could never be used anywhere else ever, which is a bad thing to say to a writer.

I remember sitting in the coffee break lounge at this conference with two colleagues, an artist and a writer, and mulling this stuff over. We decided to consider an iBook project despite number 3. We would just be very careful about what we put in the iBook so we did not step on the toes of our other projects. That was going to be annoying but we wanted to give it a try because a) producing an iBook looked like fun and b) we thought we might be able to reach a new audience with this technology and distribution system.

Now that some time has gone by, I can rewrite the above origin story more correctly, adjusting what I said above about items 1, 2, and 3 in important ways.

1) (iBook Author is easy to use.) Maybe, maybe not. Do you use In Design or have you used Pagemaker or similar software? iBooks Author is kinda similar to that software but since it is designed to make one specific product, it is way scaled down and thus way easier. In some ways, iBook is as Grandma Ready as this kind of software can ever get, but that does not mean it is 100% intuitive and trivially simple. But yes, it is easy. That does not mean, however, that producing an iBook is easy. That depends on the materials you have to work with and all sorts of other factors. You can produce an iBook in three or four mouse clicks from beginning to end if all you want to see is a “blank” template that comes with the app turned into a book with nothing in it but Latin gibberish and placeholder graphics. Adding the text and graphics is easy, and producing the text and graphics is as hard as that job happens to be for you. iBook author has limitations and quirks and potentials and shortcut just like any other software. But yeah, it’s fairly easy.

2) (Re-purposing and reuse.) Yes, I think this is true. Non-graphic (text only) books may be silly in iBook format. A richly illustrated piece you might put in a magazine or on a blog will work better as an iBook than as an eBook. But the idea of re-purposing and novel use of material is entirely based on your own creative interest and what material you have. iBooks are shortish, easily distributed (though I don’t think they sell particularly well at the moment) and can handle a variety of graphic materials. Personally, I think iBooks in particular and eBooks in general absolutely do give you an outlet that is structurally different in enough ways that it might allow you to use materials that otherwise might not fit elsewhere.

2) (Evil EULA.) This turns out to have been either a mis-step or a mis-speak on the part of Apple. The EULA has been “clarified.” The only thing they restrict is that an iBook (a thing in that particular file format) can only be sold on their platform. You can give an iBook to anyone any way you want if it was always free, and the contents can be produced as a PDF file, in print, or any electronic form and that is no business of Apple’s. In other words, the Apple iBook Author EULA is not evil. It is too bad that the wrong message got out in the beginning because a number of books about iBook Author spend considerable effort excoriating Apple for an evil EULA. Well, maybe Apple was asking for it by being unclear. Or maybe they were up to something and had to back down. Whatever. The point is, Apple does not absorb your content into the Borg.

Missing iBook Author Manual Topics

There is a lot of information missing from the available Apple documentation. I wonder if this was meant to drive aftermarket production of Missing Manual type books. Intentional or not, is has. Several books have come out both for the Kindle (irony points!) and in iBook format that tell you how to make an iBook.

There are a few items that I noticed are weak in the documentation and not necessarily addressed by many of the available aftermarket books I’ve looked at.

– Text flow and text boxes are strange and frustrating if the first thing you do is what I did; delete all the elements in the required templates and try to start your iBook from scratch. You will need to understand right away that there are two kinds of places to put text. One is the magic texty spaces that come with pages that are created spontaneously by the Template Gods. The other is the text boxe you as a mere mortal can place on a page. The former are like the old Page Maker text flow boxes and that is where you want your “book” to be. The latter are boxes that do not flow to other boxes and are for putting patches of small amounts of text and stuff here and there in your iBook, as pullouts or sidebars.

– Layout and layouts. The layout of an iBook is not the same as a regular book, and you need to understand that you reader needs to be an iBook reader, and not just a book reader, to make use of it. Both the producers and the readers of iBooks need to learn and understand a new syntax of layout. You can’t produce a traditional book syntax in an iBook unless you make the entire book one chapter and use headings to divide you your “chapters.” iBook chapters have special features that are assumed in the production of the book. Learn it and love it or do something other than write/read iBooks. It is not onerous. Just different.

– Layouts. Imma not going to try to explain this here, and the concept is only barely documented. But if you want to be a professional iBook producer, the concept of layouts is the difference between low and high levels of productivity.

– Grapic size and limitations. I have yet to see a single word written by Apple or in any aftermarket book about the relationship between the graphics you put in the book and how big the book is or how well it performs. I am pretty sure iBook Author does zero or near zero optimization of graphics. I’m pretty sure that if you put whopping big files in the spaces for graphics, your iBook now has whopping big files inside it. So, you might want to make those graphics smaller before you use them, through resizing or compression. But, if you do that how will your book look on the increasingly high resolution iPads? I have no advice to offer at this time, but it is an issue you will want to grapple with. Let me know if you find anything out.

That’s all for now. I’ll continue later with some suggestion about aftermarket resources, and tools other than iBook Author you might find handy and not too expensive.


  1. #1 Dean
    August 12, 2012

    Is there any facility to include Latex or other markup generated mathematics? If not, is there any means to include math that looks decent?

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    August 12, 2012

    Maybe. You can insert things made in Keynote pretty easily. If “iWorks” which includes Numbers and Keynote somehow work to produce math layout stuff, then this may be the way to go.

  3. #3 dean
    August 12, 2012

    Perhaps the Latexit app would do the trick – it can be used to put Latex formatted stuff into Keynote. Thanks.

  4. #4 Jonathan Andrews
    BC, Canada
    February 2, 2013

    Thanks, Greg for your comment about creating a “traditional book”. The brick wall was beginning to hurt!