Included in the slew of updates released by Apple at the very end of last month (see “Apple Releases iOS 8.4 with Apple Music” and “Apple Improves Networking in OS X 10.10.4,” both 30 June 2015) were two that slid in under the media radar: an update of iBooks in iOS to version 4.3 and an update of Apple’s free ebook producing software, iBooks Author, to version 2.3.
iBooks on iPhone Goes Multi-Touch -- iBooks, Apple’s ebook reading software included in both iOS and OS X, has gained the capability to display Multi-Touch books, Apple’s proprietary interactive book format, on iPhones running iOS 8.4 or later.
The Multi-Touch book format was introduced by Apple over three years ago (see “Apple Goes Back to School with iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U,” 19 January 2012) with the needs of classroom teachers in mind. Produced by Apple’s own iBooks Author software for the Mac, Multi-Touch books can include special interactive “widgets,” interactive quizzes, and similar features useful for instruction. Multi-Touch books have come to be used for non-instructional purposes as well. Yet, until now, such books could be read only in iBooks on the iPad or Mac.
That changes with iOS 8.4 — the version of iBooks bundled with iOS 8.4 can now display Multi-Touch books on iPhones.
However, just because you can read a Multi-Touch book on your iPhone, doesn’t mean that you’ll have a particularly good experience. Unlike some other ebook formats, such as EPUB and the various Kindle formats, Multi-Touch books employ fixed layouts: you cannot change the typeface or type size used in these books. On an iPhone screen, even the capacious iPhone 6 Plus screen, the pages of most Multi-Touch books look very small indeed — especially those with landscape layouts, which is the layout most commonly used in such books. True, you can pinch in and out to zoom and shrink the pages, but that sort of forced interactivity interferes with an immersive reading experience.
That said, being able to read a Multi-Touch book on a small iPhone screen is better than not being able to read it at all.
iBooks Author Goes EPUB -- Bigger news is the addition of two EPUB templates and a new export capability in iBooks Author. This free app, designed to be simple enough that ordinary folks like schoolteachers can use it, has until now been capable of producing only proprietary Multi-Touch books. But no longer: books created with iBooks Author using one of the two EPUB templates can be delivered directly to Apple’s iBooks Store or exported to the Mac as standard EPUB files (which Apple perversely persists in spelling incorrectly as “ePub”).
The Help for iBooks Author describes what this capability is for:
The ePub templates are designed for novels, mysteries, and other books with a lot of text. You can allow readers to scroll through the book or swipe to turn pages. You can include any objects and media on the book cover and the table of contents header, and for the body pages, you can choose from a set of objects specially selected for ePub books — tables, images, and Gallery, Media, and HTML widgets.
Most self-publishing authors are much more likely to produce EPUBs than they are to want to produce Multi-Touch books. That’s because Multi-Touch books can be read only on Apple devices and can be sold only through the iBooks Store, whereas EPUBs can be read on any non-Kindle reading device and, without too much effort, be converted to the Kindle’s Mobipocket format. Even more important, EPUBs can be sold anywhere, not just in Apple’s somewhat listless iBooks Store. Hence, this update, unassuming as it may seem, is a big deal.
Here’s why: iBooks Author allows authors to work in an environment that roughly mimics an ebook reader app. Using other software, such as Pages (which can also export EPUB format), one must export the book and load it into an EPUB reader to see how it will look. iBooks Author, though it can import text from Pages, Word, and even other EPUBs, has its own writing and editing tools powerful enough to use for writing books. It may not be a perfect WYSIWYG ebook writing tool, but it begins to approach that ideal even if it still lacks, for instance, the change tracking and commenting features that would be necessary for it to make inroads in the publishing industry. One would think Apple could pull that code from Pages relatively easily.
The EPUBs produced by iBooks Author do have certain limitations: according to Apple, “While reading a book created with an ePub template, iBooks users can change the font size and screen brightness, but can’t change the font style or read in night mode (light text on a dark page).” But those are minor restrictions.
With these two seemingly small updates, Apple has shown that it’s staying in the book publishing game, and is even breaking free of the unnecessary and overly restrictive requirements with which it previously hobbled iBooks Author. So while iBooks Author still has miles to go before it could meet the needs of professional publishers, it now better meets the needs of self-publishing authors, both commercial and aspirational. And that’s no small thing.