Apple’s announcement last week of iBooks 2 and the iBooks multi-touch textbooks, which are created in the free iBooks Author app on the Mac, has generated admiration and applause simultaneous with consternation and criticism. That has been true even within our ranks.
Glenn Fleishman wrote in which he points out that technology initiatives in education have largely fallen flat over time and that iBooks textbooks don’t seem to offer much that’s new. Steve McCabe, a New Zealand physics teacher and occasional TidBITS contributor weighs in on Glenn’s side, arguing that iBooks Author merely warms up twenty-year-old ideas in “ ” (22 January 2012). On the other side, Michael Cohen, who has worked in both educational software development and interactive multimedia production, believes that having good instructional resources is always better than not having them (see “ ,” 21 January 2012).
I’d like to look at a different aspect of the entire scenario — what these announcements mean for publishing in general — and to do so from the perspective of a publisher who would dearly love to have better publishing and reading tools.
The main problem with iBooks Author is its license agreement, though it may take some work to find it. When you export something you’ve created in iBooks Author to the iBooks format, you’re greeted with a dialog that tells you “Books can only be sold through the iBookstore. To publish your book on the iBookstore choose File > Publish.” Ignoring the poor placement of the word “only,” which should follow “sold” to make the sentence mean what Apple wants it to mean, the dialog also includes a link that explains more about publishing to the iBookstore. That explanation page in iBooks Author’s help says:
Even if you don’t submit your book to the iBookstore, you can still export a book that you can distribute yourself.
Important: If you choose to distribute your book yourself, be sure to review the guidelines in the iBooks Author software license agreement. To see the agreement, choose iBooks Author > About iBooks Author, and click License Agreement.
And when you finally get to the PDF-based license agreement, you’ll find this preamble and explanatory clause.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.
2B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows: (i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means; (ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.
Apple will not be responsible for any costs, expenses, damages, losses (including without limitation lost business opportunities or lost profits) or other liabilities you may incur as a result of your use of this Apple Software, including without limitation the fact that your Work may not be selected for distribution by Apple.
I wanted to include the full path to getting the agreement, and all the license text in question, to eliminate any concern that my summary here is in any way inaccurate. In essence, Apple is saying, “You can distribute anything you create with iBooks Author for free in any way you want; if you want to sell what you create (or include it as part of a subscription service), you may sell it only through Apple, and even then only if Apple approves it.”
Realizing this immediately raised my publisher hackles. “But, but, but,” I spluttered, “there’s no way in hell I’m going to publish something that I can sell only in the iBookstore, and even then only if Apple approves it. There aren’t even any guidelines outlining what Apple will and will not approve!”
And you know, for the most part, I haven’t changed my mind. I think this license agreement is attempting to do something that’s very seldom, if ever, been done with consumer-level software before (apparently, some software development kits have similar clauses), and based on my experience with selling through the iBookstore, I would strongly discourage any non-textbook publisher from basing a significant business decision on iBooks textbooks. Although it’s likely that some early titles will sell well because of the novelty value, the iBookstore doesn’t yet have a sufficiently large customer base, and it would be nuts for such a publisher to bet the farm on a single retailer, especially one that reserves the right to reject your books. (For the record, although the trend is moving upward, the iBookstore made up roughly 4 percent of Take Control sales in 2011 — certainly welcome, but not a number we could use to justify a major change in business model.)
I don’t want to get further into criticism of the iBooks Author license agreement, not because I think it is a good thing, but because Dan Wineman has done so well in a pair of posts: “” and “ .” I also don’t want to criticize the iBooks Author license agreement further because I’ve realized that we’re missing Apple’s point. (We may not agree with it once we see it, but it’s important to acknowledge it first.)
The trick is to remember that Apple seldom explains any of the rationale behind its decisions. The famous public letters from Steve Jobs were the main exceptions, and those came only when a sufficient fuss was made that Apple decided to drop the curtain. So all we can do is read into the tea leaves of Apple’s actions and public statements. What we cannot do is read anything into Apple’s inaction or silence on a particular topic — and that’s just what we’ve been doing.
The fact of the matter is that last week’s event was explicitly targeted at education, and to be more clear, at the education market, which is separate from the concept of educating people in general. While we consider our Take Control ebooks to be educational — they certainly attempt to impart knowledge and teach skills — we are by no means part of the education market. The mistake we — and so many others — have made is to assume that iBooks Author is aimed at anyone other than textbook publishers and teachers. It just isn’t.
Although I’m not an expert in the textbook publishing world, I do know that it’s quite different from the technical book publishing world. In particular, where we sell copies of our books to individuals, one at a time, textbook publishers in K-12 markets in the United States sell in bulk to schools, or even entire school districts, and textbooks need to be approved to qualify for state financial assistance, so that a school can purchase them with state-provided funds. (I suspect college textbooks are more on a class-by-class basis.)
So in a situation where every student already needs an iPad to read an iBooks textbook, textbook publishers aren’t going to be at all bothered by the restriction of selling only through Apple (and it will be done through anyway). It’s possible that having Apple involved in these volume buys might be a benefit to the textbook publishers, since they won’t have to fuss with the technical details of counting seats and the like.
Another aspect of the textbook publishing world that’s quite different from many other types of publishing is that textbooks, while not entirely evergreen, tend not to need constant updates. That’s due in large part to the fact that what’s taught in 7th grade science, for instance, isn’t going to change much based on new discoveries, and to the extent that other subjects might, teachers are accustomed to supplementing textbooks with other resources. Textbooks have to last at least a few years in paper, so the content has to be stable. So textbook publishers can devote more time and energy to creating multimedia and interactive resources that would be hard to justify in a field where the book might have only a 6- to 24-month lifespan before becoming painfully out of date.
In fact, textbook publishers may not have to create much new content. Many paper textbooks already have Web-based adjuncts, and I would assume (since it’s what I would do if I were in charge) that textbook publishers will be repurposing that online content when possible rather than incurring new development costs. For publishers in markets like ours, the multimedia and interactivity development costs would be entirely new and could be quite high, making the business proposition of a $14.99 book (less Apple’s 30 percent) rather tenuous. Especially for books with short shelf lives.
What about individuals? Teachers are a dedicated lot, and I believe we’ll see teachers — and other people, to be fair — creating quite a number of iBooks textbooks to give away for free, just because they want to share their knowledge and think that iBooks Author is a cool tool to play with. This isn’t new — when I was a Cornell undergraduate, I was on the receiving end of a textbook (in Greek Composition, nonetheless!) written by Matt Neuburg for a class of two students, simply because none of the existing books explained the subject the way he felt it should be explained. This is a good thing, and exactly why Michael Cohen thinks iBooks Author will be a big deal.
But I don’t see the iBooks platform becoming a significant self-publishing tool for commercial books as it stands right now. It’s not so much that the iBookstore is too limiting as a single sales venue — self-published authors aren’t likely to be as concerned about multiple sales outlets as an established publishing house would be — but that the iBookstore isn’t easy enough for an individual author with just a title or two. Despite how iBooks Author points people to publishing through the iBookstore, it’s highly non-trivial to work with the iBookstore, and internally, the iBookstore itself points those intimidated by the technical and business requirements to Apple-approved aggregators such as Ingram, , , , and  in North America, and  and  in Europe.
There’s one other key thing to keep in mind about how Apple is focusing all this on the education market, and that’s that iBooks textbooks can be viewed only on the iPad. As technical limitations go, this one is a bit weak — the files are only slightly customized EPUBs inside a different wrapper — but the fact remains that E-Ink-based Kindles could never imagine displaying these files, and while Android-based tablets (including the Kindle Fire) might have the display and processing chops to do so in theory, there’s no software that can show them right now. Macs and Windows-based PCs are also right out at the moment.
This all makes huge sense from Apple’s perspective — you create a scenario where content can be created only on a Mac, purchased only from the iBookstore, and viewed only on an iPad. What’s not to like? If you’re not a textbook publisher, though, you might not want to create your content on a Mac, you definitely don’t want to sell only through the iBookstore, and you don’t want to restrict your audience to iPad owners. That’s what’s not to like, and the people I know at Apple undoubtedly realize that — they’re not stupid. But again, refocus the entire initiative on the education market, and those criticisms largely fall away. Even better, the textbook market is dominated by a few large companies that Apple can negotiate with directly — Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Note that I’m not saying that I like things the way Apple has set them up. What I would like to see instead is Apple competing entirely on quality instead of platform lock-in: the quality of iBooks Author and the Mac for creating content, the quality of the iBookstore as a retail experience, the quality of the iPad as the hardware platform, and the quality of iBooks for reading. All that’s necessary for Apple to make that change is to switch to standard EPUB 3.0 for the iBooks Author output format and drop the iBooks Author license agreement. Apple has proven that it can compete well on quality — look at the iPod and the iTunes Music Store, and at the iPhone and iPad and the App Store. So when I see Apple taking a different tack and competing based on platform lock-in, I start wondering if Apple lacks confidence in the quality of the products in question.
(For what it’s worth, I don’t buy the argument that the output of iBooks Author is akin to an app — there’s a big difference between iOS-specific code and slightly mangled EPUB when it comes to platform lock-in. With iOS apps, Apple’s lock-in is largely technical; with iBooks, it’s largely contractual.)
In a world where iBooks is an open publishing platform, publishers still face the hurdle of creating rich content that can’t be viewed on anything other than an iPad (the Kindle can’t display EPUB now, and I don’t see that changing), but they can do so without fear of being rejected from or locked into the iBookstore.
We can hold out some hope that Apple is thinking about publishers outside the education market who want to create iBooks that aren’t textbooks and won’t be sold in bulk to school districts. Apple has on occasion changed license agreement terms, most notably for iOS apps. And some of the text surrounding iBooks Author goes beyond the education market. First, on the  page on Apple’s site, there’s this description (emphasis mine):
Available free on the Mac App store, iBooks Author is an amazing new app that allows anyone to create beautiful Multi-Touch textbooks — and just about any other kind of book — for iPad.
And in the Mac App Store description of iBooks Author, there are a number of statements that make the app sound like a publishing tool for the rest of us:
Now anyone can create stunning iBooks textbooks, cookbooks, history books, picture books, and more for iPad. All you need is an idea and a Mac. Start with one of the Apple-designed templates that feature a wide variety of page layouts. Add your own text and images with drag-and-drop ease. Use Multi-Touch widgets to include interactive photo galleries, movies, Keynote presentations, 3D objects, and more. Preview your book on your iPad at any time. Then submit your finished work to the iBookstore with a few simple steps. And before you know it, you’re a published author.
It’s entirely possible this is just marketing fluffery, since the final bit about submitting to the iBookstore with a few simple steps is pure hogwash (all File > Publish in iBooks Author does is copy your book and its cover graphic into a new document in iTunes Producer, one of Apple’s most misbegotten programs ever). But it is a ray of hope that Apple plans to move beyond this current laser-like focus on the education market to open up the entire iBooks platform to the publishing world at large.
And that, I think, would be a good thing for everyone, including Apple.