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iBooks Author Conference Highlights Worries about iBooks Ecosystem

There has been a lot of talk lately about how dedicated Apple is to its professional users, the ones who use Apple hardware and software to make their livings. Apple has recently pushed back against allegations that it doesn’t care about pro users with new iPad Pros, apologies for how it has handled the 2013 Mac Pro alongside the promise of a more modular model (see “Maca Culpa: Apple Admits Mac Pro Missteps and Promises More Transparency,” 4 April 2017), and the announcement of the iMac Pro, due later this year.

However, outside of the ever-demanding world of video production and a few other industries, most Apple professionals have been satisfied with hardware performance for years. It’s software that makes the real difference.

In a conference room tucked away in a library on the campus of Vanderbilt University, I spent a morning surrounded by professional Apple users who earn their living with one piece of Apple software: iBooks Author.

The iBooks Author Conference, now in its third year, is a small gathering of dedicated iBooks Author users, brought together by Bradley Metrock of Score Publishing. (Full disclosure: TidBITS was a media sponsor of the iBooks Author Conference this year.)

This turned out to be the final iBooks Author Conference, but that’s not bad news, as I’ll explain later.

Authors who choose iBooks Author do so because it’s free and it’s flexible, but the other reason I heard repeatedly was that it’s the “best in class.” iBooks Author can do things that no other publishing tool can do, making it easy to create multi-touch, multimedia-intensive experiences. Metrock said he is asked once a week about a Windows equivalent of iBooks Author. “It doesn’t exist,” he says.

Jason LaMar, an Apple Distinguished Educator and author of “Ohio: Pathway to the Presidency” mentioned that Apple hates the name iBooks Author because it undersells what the app can do. It’s the closest thing Apple makes to a modern-day reincarnation of HyperCard, and it even has a built-in publishing conduit to the iBooks Store and a reading app, iBooks, that’s bundled with hundreds of millions of devices running iOS and macOS.

That might sound like a ticket to publishing fortune, but it’s sadly not the case. Denise Clifton of Tandemvines Publishing, who worked on the investigative reporting book “An Air That Still Kills,” said that the iBooks Author version was the best and most advanced, but sold fewer copies than any other.

Even giving an iBooks Author book away for free isn’t enough to guarantee extensive exposure. Despite the fact that Jason LaMar’s book was promoted by Ohio’s Secretary of State, was recommended to every school superintendent in the state, and is the top education book in the iBooks Store, only 3000 copies have been downloaded from the iBooks Store.

It’s no secret that Apple doesn’t pay much attention to iBooks Author. All you have to do is look at Apple’s own page for it, which brags that it “has been beautifully redesigned for OS X Yosemite.” Welcome to 2014! iBooks and the iBooks Store haven’t fared much better.

So iBooks Author falls into a strange hole where it’s a powerful, unique tool, but its creator seems to have no interest in its survival. How did we get here, and why hasn’t Apple just pulled the plug?

The State of iBooks Author — iBooks Author was one of Steve Jobs’s final initiatives, and he had ambitions to conquer the textbook market, as detailed in Walter Isaacson’s biography, “Steve Jobs.”

“The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt. But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money,” Jobs told Isaacson.

It wasn’t until after Jobs’s death that Apple launched iBooks Author (see “Apple Goes Back to School with iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U,” 19 January 2012), but even so, it was a revelation to publishers, seemingly poised to change the industry. Michael Cohen’s “Why iBooks Author is a Big Deal” (21 January 2012) is a perfect encapsulation of that early optimism. Even initial concerns were optimistic because Michael was afraid Apple was about to take over publishing!

But as we now know, that didn’t happen. So what did?

Metrock and many others cite the 2013 antitrust ruling against Apple as the event that killed Apple’s enthusiasm for publishing. It was both expensive and led to years of cumbersome antitrust monitoring. If you want to understand the legalities there, you won’t find a better explanation than Adam Engst’s “Explaining the Apple Ebook Price Fixing Suit” (10 July 2013).

“Most people think it took Apple’s appetite away for innovating in the digital book space,” Metrock said.

Despite all the grumbling about iBooks Author, Metrock was also quick to applaud Apple for keeping it around at all.

“When it came out, it was ahead of its time. Normally when something comes out ahead of its time, it’s discontinued,” Metrock said. This is a well-established phenomenon called the Innovator’s Dilemma, as documented in a 1997 book of the same name.

But Metrock suggests that no one at Apple has the heart to kill it because it’s one of Jobs’s final legacies. “If this weren’t Apple’s, it would have been killed,” Metrock added.

Although Steve Jobs conceived of iBooks Author as a way to create textbooks, it has become much more than that. Here are a few great examples of how people are using iBooks Author:

  • The multi-award winning “How to Say Cheese,” which is an interactive guide to the cheese of the world. It was voted the iBooks Author Conference book of the year.

  • Found in Kitsap,” a collection of photos from cameras found in thrift stores around Kitsap County, Washington.

  • Physics in Motion,” a ground-breaking physics textbook. You can buy the full thing for a paltry $34.99 (cheap for a textbook), or individual chapters for $3.99 each, which lets teachers use it for modular coursework.

  • The Collection” for the Songbirds Guitar Museum, which is the guide used in the museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

  • NASA’s “Destination: Jupiter,” which is NASA’s interactive guide to its Juno mission.

Where Publishing Is Headed — When Apple’s publishing efforts were smacked down by the U.S. government, many worried that it would give Amazon a monopoly. While Amazon remains dominant in ebooks, print sales have been growing steadily while ebook sales are actually falling in some markets.

“Print books are back, and they’re back in a big way. Print sales in every category are up,” Metrock said.

Metrock also pointed to the huge growth in audiobooks, and said that it’s the “fastest growing revenue component of publishing.” He also suggested that’s a potential advantage for iBooks Author since it can integrate audio.

As for the future, Metrock looks to Amazon and its lead in what he calls “voice first” computing with devices like the Amazon Echo. He called Amazon’s screen-equipped Echo Show a “glimpse into the future for iBooks Author publishers,” and encouraged everyone in the room to obtain one immediately. He said that it’s the “final form factor for a lot of stuff iBooks Author represents. If you’re talking to the book and it’s talking back to you, I think that’s where we’re headed.”

Meanwhile, Apple seems content to let the entire iBooks Author ecosystem stagnate. Metrock highlighted how Apple remodeled the iOS App Store for iOS 11 while the iBooks Store remains unchanged, with poor discoverability. “If you’re a small or medium-size publisher counting on revenue, the iBooks Store is not for you, unless you can get on the front page, but good luck with that,” Metrock said.

Another disadvantage of iBooks Author is that it effectively locks you into the Apple ecosystem for distributing interactive content (iBooks Author can export to the industry-standard EPUB, but at the loss of numerous capabilities). Metrock pointed out that Apple Music is available for Android, proving that Apple is capable of undertaking cross-platform development and could build a version of iBooks for Android.

“They can do it if they want, they just decided not to,” Metrock said. “If you could have multitouch books authored in iBooks Author that were cross-platform with Android, well then I could see someone at Apple saying you don’t need to be in the Apple ecosystem, but the reality is you’d be adding value to customers.” He pointed out that the Windows version of iTunes has been a tremendous success for Apple in the long term.

What’s most compelling about small conferences like the iBooks Author Conference is that sessions are more discussions than monologues, and this time there happened to be someone from Apple in the audience to respond to these complaints.

How You Can Improve iBooks — I won’t name names, since this Apple employee in attendance wasn’t officially representing Apple, but they were able to give some insight into how regular people can encourage Apple to improve iBooks Author, iBooks, and the iBooks Store.

The trouble with an Android port is that there is so much fragmentation in the market, with users running all sorts of different Android versions. “We don’t have unlimited resources to devote to any development possible, and Android is an unlimited development thing,” the Apple employee said.

The Apple employee suggested that a redesign of the iBooks Store is more likely, and the best way to vote for that is via the Apple Bug Reporter but emailing Tim Cook directly could also be useful. Metrock also encouraged attendees to tweet at Cook on Twitter.

Along with direct feedback to Apple, I encourage you to check out some of the unique projects I’ve linked to here and let the creators know if you enjoy them. Most authors don’t write for the money, so getting positive feedback from readers will go a long way toward encouraging authors to keep putting iBooks Author to good use.

If you’re interested in attending next year, expect a much larger event, as Score Publishing has acquired the Digital Book World event from F+W Media. The 2018 Digital Book World conference will include everything from the iBooks Author Conference and will be held in Nashville, Tennessee on October 2–4, 2018.

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