Is iBooks Author the Right Tool for Publishing Your Ebook?

Answer: It depends.

iBooks Author IconI’ve been working a lot with iBooks Author lately. Not only did I write and publish a 242-page book about it within 2 weeks of the software’s release, but I’m now deep in the process of converting that book into an iBooks Author file. The result will be a special iBooks 2 interactive edition that includes all the bells and whistles I can cram into it: images, interactive images, galleries, videos, tables, sounds, links — you name it. If I could figure out a way to use the 3D image widget to show something meaningful in the book, I would.

The Limitations of iBooks Author-Generated EBooks

Lots of folks wondered why I didn’t just create the original edition of my iBooks Author book with iBooks Author. Indeed, one reviewer on Apple’s iBookstore had the nerve to [unfairly] bash the book because it wasn’t created in that format. (As if I should write my Excel books with Excel or my Mac OS books with TextEdit. But I digress.)

Some people might think the reason is Apple’s “evil” EULA, which prohibits sale of an iBooks Author-generated ebook in any outlet other than the iBookstore. That’s not the reason at all. After all, if I wanted to sell to iBooks 2 users, where else would I sell it?

The reason I didn’t create the original edition of the book in iBooks Author is flexibility.

You see, if I created and published a book about iBooks Author using iBooks Author as my creation and publishing tool, the resulting ebook could only be read by people who meet the following criteria:

  • Have an Apple iTunes account.
  • Are willing to buy from the Apple iBookstore.
  • Have an iPad.
  • Are running iBooks 2 on their iPad.

What percentage of the population do you really think that is?

It’s All about Reaching the Biggest Audience

While I’ll be the first to admit that my book’s target audience is likely to be made up primarily of people who meet this criteria — after all, who wants to develop for a device when they can’t even test it on that device? — by publishing for just that audience, I automatically exclude all the people who want to read it on a Kindle or NOOK or the Kindle/NOOK apps that work on their desktop and laptop computers or other mobile devices.

I see the sales numbers. For this title, about 1/3 of all sales are being made to Kindle and NOOK readers. Do you really think I’d want to cut my sales by 1/3?

In addition, by using iBooks Author to create and publish, I’d exclude the people who might want to read it the old fashioned way: in print. The print edition is available on,, and at a wide variety of other online booksellers. Because I use a print-on-demand printer that handles all sales and fulfillment for me, I make money on every single copy sold. No, I don’t expect to sell 10,000 copies in print, but heck, even 100 copies is money in the bank. (And yes, I am doing this for money; I earn my living as a writer.)

I reasoned all this out before I began writing. And then I wrote the way I usually do: in InDesign CS5.5, creating a printer-ready document that could also be exported in a matter of minutes to formats for publication in the iBookstore, Kindle store, and NOOK store.

And Speed

Remember, my goal was to get this book done quickly and make sure it was available to readers as soon as possible. That means before my competition did the same.

I’ve learned over more than 20 years of experience as a computer how-to book author that the first book out on a new software product has a competitive edge that sells books. After all, if someone wants a book to teach them how to use software and there’s only one book available, what book do you think they’ll buy?

How do you think my first Mac OS Visual QuickStart Guide sold out at Macworld Expo and reached sales rank of #11 (for a short time) on back in 1997? I had a three month jump on the competition.

And I think that’s what bothered me most about the idiotic reviewer on the iBookstore. His comment said something like “why not take a few extra minutes to do it in iBooks Author?” A few extra minutes? This guy has obviously never actually worked with iBooks Author and is a victim of the Apple’s video magic in showing off software features.

The truth of the matter is that iBooks Author is not a quick way to publish a book. Sure, you can throw some text in there and get it out to the public without a lot of effort. But that’s not what iBooks Author is for.

What iBooks Author is Really For

iBooks Author is a tool for creating interactive, multi-media books. Using it for anything less is just plain silly.

Think about it. If you wanted to share just text and images with other readers, why would you use iBooks Author and limit your book’s audience?

Yes, you can argue that the layout features of iBooks Author make it a great tool for fixed-layout designs that can make design-centric books so amazing to browse. But are most books so focused on design that they must have a fixed layout? And aren’t such fixed layouts possible with other electronic book formats that can be read on all platforms? Like maybe PDF?

iBooks Author includes tools for creating interactive elements that can change the meaning of the phrase reading experience. Reading isn’t the important word anymore. Experience is.

Page 4
Page 14
Two pages from my iBooks Author “special edition” ebook in progress. The top page shows an interactive image; the bottom shows an embedded video clip.

iBooks Author’s tools help you communicate your message in ways that are simply not possible with other ebook publishing tools. I’m talking about interactive graphics that zoom and pan when the user touches a label. I’m talking about video and audio that can show how a task is done or provide additional information that no text on a page can convey. I’m talking about photo galleries that save space on the book’s page but can be zoomed out and enjoyed on command in a full-screen view at the reader’s own pace.

And these are just the tools I use in my work. If you’re writing about science or architecture, why not include some 3D views? If you’re an educator, why not include some fully-illustrated review questions? If you’re a corporate communicator, why not include your latest Keynote presentation?

This is what iBooks Author is for: creating multimedia, interactive electronic publications. It isn’t for distributing text and a handful of pictures in a pretty format that only a small percentage of readers can access.

And believe me, it’s not a matter of “taking a few minutes” to whip one of these ebooks up.

You Need Content

Apple’s videos make it look so easy. Sure — all you need to do is drag and drop a 3D image on a widget, set a few options, and publish so the reader can manipulate it with multi-touch gestures. Very cool. But what Apple fails to mention is that someone has to actually create that 3D image in the right format for use in iBooks Author. And that takes more than “a few minutes.”

Right now, I’m faced with the daunting task of creating approximately 75 screencast videos for my book. I spent several hours just setting up and testing my computer and recording software/microphone. Then another hour or two figuring out how I’d edit and save the files. Then it was time to script the videos and record them. And edit them.

Sure, once all that is done, it takes less than a minute to insert each video in an iBooks Author media widget and place it on a page. But it takes a good 30 minutes to create, edit, and save each video.

But the content has to be created before it can be inserted.

(By the way, I’d be recording videos right now if it wasn’t for the fact that my neighbor hired a work crew to remove most of the trees in his yard. Do you think my readers would enjoy listening to chainsaws in the background audio of the videos in my book? No, I don’t think so either. So I’ll be up tonight doing the work I should have been able to do today.)

I Love iBooks Author

Don’t get me wrong. I love iBooks Author. I love the power it gives me to communicate. I love the fact that it makes it easy for me — a words person who couldn’t design her way out of a paper bag — to create beautiful looking publications.

But I haven’t swallowed the Apple Kool-Aid on this one. iBooks Author isn’t the best solution for my publishing needs. After all, I need to earn a living. I need my work to reach the most potential buyers possible. And that means publishing with a tool that enables me to create for the most reader platforms.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t use iBooks Author to create “special editions” of my books — when I have the content to share that makes it worth the effort.

The Ebook (R)evolution

I summarize how I see the growth of ebook publishing — and what it means to me.

I’ve been writing traditional print books since 1990 — that’s just over 20 years. In that 20 years, I’ve seen massive growth and changes in the publishing industry. But none of the changes I’ve witnessed were as dramatic as those I’ve seen in the past four years.

My History in Publishing

I got in on the ground floor of the computer how-to book field in 1990. When I started, it soon became obvious that if I wanted to make a living as a writer, I’d have to write a lot of books. (You see, contrary to popular belief, most authors do not make a lot of money writing.) So I buckled down and started churning them out as fast as I got contracts. For years, I wrote or revised an average of two to six books annually. I clearly remember the day I received six book contracts at once; soon after that, I put out ten titles in one year.

Mac OS 8 VIsual QuickStart Guide
My first bestseller, published in 1997.

It was the advance money that paid the bills. In the beginning, I supplemented that with consulting and classroom training income from hourly or per diem contract work. In 1997, I wrote my first bestseller and, amazingly, in 1998, I wrote another. Revisions on those two books — as well as the new and other revised titles I churned out — earned me a good income and a secure position as a computer how-to book author.

But just as my career took off, so did the Internet. By around 2005, the Internet was offering a lot of free — although often not very complete or well-written — information about how to use computers. Just the the kind of content I was writing — although I like to think I was doing a better job of it. Quality didn’t matter on the Internet; convenience did. If you were working with Excel and needed to perform a task you didn’t know how to do, would you drop everything, run out to a bookstore, and buy a book? Or just do an online search for the information and hope for the best? And why pay for a huge hunk of information when you can get just the information you need for free?

As more and more computer-related content came online, the demand for my books — and I can only assume the books of other authors like me — began to decline. Titles that I’d been revising with every new version of software released were allowed to die, unrevised. The last version of Word I wrote about was 2004; the last version of Excel was 2007. The surviving titles earned out their advance, but often just barely. And with publishers putting out fewer and fewer titles, it was no longer possible to fill in the revenue gap by simply writing more books. There weren’t enough new titles to go around.

The Rise of Ebooks…and their Shortcomings

Of course, while all this was happening, ebooks began to emerge as a real challenger to traditional print publishing. Although ebook readers had been around for a while, it was the Kindle and iPad that put ebooks on the map. But even before this, people had begun reading books in PDF and even HTML format on their computers.

I saw this trend and wanted to jump on board. Maybe it’s because I was simply enthralled by the technology and the idea of being able to travel so easily with books. Or maybe I’d seen the writing on the wall, a sort of foreshadowing of the death of print publishing.

I think it was in January 2008 that I traveled to Macworld Expo in San Francisco and met with my publisher. It was a lunch meeting with two editors and the person in charge of their ebook distribution method. At the time, their ebook publishing consisted of taking specially formatted PDF versions of books and making them available as heavily DRM (digital rights management) protected PDFs and online-accessible files. Their solution introduced several problems:

  • The Adobe DRM they used put too many restrictions on an ebook file. I was actually contacted directly by a reader who had bought one of my books and was frustrated by her inability to read it on her PDF reader of choice or transfer it to a different computer.
  • The online solution required an active — and relatively fast — connection to the Internet. If you didn’t have an Internet connection, you couldn’t read the book. I don’t know about you, but when I buy a book, I want to be able to read it anywhere.
  • The ebooks were not formatted for onscreen viewing. Because the ebooks were basically PDF versions of existing books in their normal (portrait view) layout, viewing the books on a computer’s (landscape view) display — especially a small display, like a laptop’s — made it difficult to see an entire page at a time with print large enough to read. This meant the reader had to combine scrolling and paging to get through a page of text and images. (Remember, tablet computers and, for the most part, compatible ebook readers did not exist yet.)
  • All images were in black and white. Why? Because that’s how they appeared in the print book. Instead of reformatting for ebook production, they simply generated a PDF from the files they had. (I should mention here that if the print book was in color, the ebook would also be in color; the vast majority of my books were not in color.)
  • Ebooks were priced the same — or nearly the same — as their print book counterparts. So not only were readers expected to accept a completely unsatisfactory reading experience, but they were expected to pay about the same as they would for a paper book.
  • Ebooks, once published, were widely available on pirate Web sites. The irony of this did not escape me. People who had paid for the book had trouble reading it, but people who tracked down an illegally distributed copy of the book had no problems at all.

Needless to say, the ebook versions of my books — and the books of all the other authors I’d spoken to — were selling very poorly. I felt that a change needed to be made. I felt that my publisher — a company that had been started by a man with a vision — was bogged down by old technology, old ideas, and fear. They were trying to use print concepts to publish electronically and were paranoid about piracy.

So at that lunch meeting, I introduced my solution. It had several components:

  • Break down the content of a book into modular pieces, each of which would contain several related chapters from the book. I took my current Mac OS title, which was selling like crazy, and broke it into five or six topic-based books and presented them with an outline.
  • Format each book for the best onscreen reading experience — which, in those days, was landscape view, like a computer monitor’s screen.
  • Take advantage of ebook features, like hypertext links to other content in the book or on the Web.
  • Include color images for all books — not just the color ones. After all, why not? It doesn’t cost more.
  • Do away with DRM. The reader should have a positive experience and be able to read the book wherever he or she wanted to, on any compatible device, with any PDF reader software.
  • Price the book low. I suggested $5 tops. The idea was that people weren’t buying the whole book, they were buying the modular components they needed. If they bought all five or six ebooks that made up my entire printed book they’d wind up paying nearly the same as the printed book anyway.
  • Stop worrying about piracy. Honest people will pay a reasonable amount for an ebook. Pirates are not the kind of people who would buy books anyway.

To help make my point, I actually prepared a chapter of my existing book as a PDF in the format I imagined. I showed it to my lunch companions on my MacBook Pro. There was no need to scroll; every page was complete and filled the screen. Every word was perfectly legible onscreen. The screenshots looked great. And clickable links led to cross-referenced content. Best of all, I was able to create this version of the book in a few hours of layout work in InDesign, once I’d come up with a good template.

Sounds like I should have sold them on it, right?

Wrong. Although the once small and innovative company had been started by a man with a vision, it was now part of a huge, slow-moving (think plant-eating dinosaur) publishing conglomerate. They weren’t interested in new ideas or new ways of doing things. All they apparently wanted was to cling to the same old print publishing standards and ideas that they’d been using for decades.

In my mind, it was like continuing to rely on monks as scribes after the introduction of moveable type.

Maybe, in the back of management’s minds, they were hoping their failure to make ebooks palatable to readers would cause the whole ebook concept to fail. After all, people had been talking about ebooks for years and there were more than a few failed ebook devices. Maybe this new trend would go the way of the others and they could sink back into the oblivion on their old ways without another thought about this newfangled ebook idea.

They apparently didn’t foresee the Kindle, NOOK, or iPad.

Ebook Readers that People Want

First Generation KindleFirst Generation Kindle

The Amazon Kindle was first released in November 2007. It wasn’t a very impressive device. Small, awkward, and only able to display 16 shades of gray, I found it completely unappealing. Just another entry into the ebook device market.

Fortunately for Amazon, there were plenty of people more impressed than I was and they sold enough of them to keep developing newer, more impressive models. Today’s Kindle Fire is almost a tablet computer, making it a huge leap forward from that original clunky device.

But what Amazon really got right — and what I think supercharged the ebook publishing movement — is that it:

  • Embraced a standard (almost) ebook format, MOBI. Amazon bought MobiPocket in 2005 and uses a version of its ebook format for Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). This format adjusts page layout so scrolling is never necessary — and enables readers to customize (with limitations) the font and font size.
  • Released Kindle reader apps for desktop and mobile computing devices. These apps allow readers to keep a copy of a book on up to five devices and automatically synchronizes last point read, highlights, and notes. Yes, you can start reading a book on your laptop and easily pick up where you left off on your cellphone, while waiting in line for Chinese takeout.
  • Made it extremely easy for anyone to publish a book of any length with virtually any content. Now the wannabe novelist can be a published novelist, all without getting a publisher or agent involved. This brings more books to the market, giving readers more choices. Best of all, with these new publishers determining prices and being able to keep 35% or 70% of the retail price (vs. 8% to 20% of the wholesale price), they’re pricing books low (or even free) to move more copies. That benefits readers, who can now afford to buy more books.

So Amazon set the stage with Kindle books. Kindle owners and ebook enthusiasts — people like me interested in the portability of ebook format — stepped up to purchase Kindle books. When it looked as if ebooks might actually thrive this time around, other organizations took notice. In addition to a new crop of ebook readers by personal electronics makers, Barnes & Noble released the NOOK and Apple developed the iPad’s ebook reader platform, iBooks.

Fast-Forward to Today

On May 19, 2011,, the biggest bookseller in the world, announced that it was now selling more ebooks than print books.

To the dinosaurs of print publishing, this must have looked a bit like a meteor coming out of the sky.

While the statistics seem pretty solid and do exclude free ebooks (as they should), they likely do include the huge number of extremely cheap ebooks — those selling for 99¢ or even less. This is throwaway money — the kind of money some people spend without thinking about. I think this lessens the impact of the announcement. After all, “real” publishers aren’t going to sell anything for 99¢. Indeed, it’s difficult to get them to release a book at Amazon’s preferred price point of $9.99.

But what does the announcement tell us about ebook publishing? It tells me that ebooks have a large, viable market. And as technology moves forward, that market will grow. (After all, how many books are being hand-copied by scribes these days?)

Sadly it doesn’t seem as if my print publishers are interested in making the most of this development in ebook publishing. They continue to sell my books in a variety of PDF-based formats — including that online format they were using years ago. While some titles are available in the Kindle (Amazon) and iBooks (Apple iTunes) stores, the series I write doesn’t translate well to those formats. The resulting reading experience is disappointing, to say the least. Books are selling better, but certainly not good enough to have much hope for the future with existing author/publisher relationships.

Embracing the Revolution

Yet as a writer, I’m embracing the ebook revolution.

Like other writers, I see ebooks as a way to get my original content out to readers quickly and easily — without being at the mercy of decision-makers within huge publishing organizations.

But unlike most other writers, I have the benefit of experience at not only writing and editing, but publishing. For years, I’ve been writing and laying out my own books — books that, for the most part, are very lightly edited or revised by my publishers before they appear in print. I know how to write cover copy, how to assign ISBNs, how to register copyright. I know how to market my work. I can publish professionally produced content because — let’s face it — I’m a professional writer.

Making Movies book coverThe first book in the new Maria’s Guides series.

So I’ve begun publishing my own series of books computer how-to books, Maria’s Guides, which utilizes ebook publishing formats as well as print on demand for people who still want books in print. The first title, Making Movies: A Guide for Serious Amateurs, was published in October 2011 and the second title (to be announced) will be available shortly.

The design and execution of this series is based, in part, on my proposal to my print publisher years ago:

  • Short books. Each title will be 50 to 200 printed pages in length.
  • Low price. Ebooks will be 99¢ to $4.99; printed books will be $7.99 to $11.99. Length and topic determine pricing.
  • Good format. Book design works well both in print and onscreen. Ebook formats utilize hyperlinks for clickable cross-references.

I see this as a way of supporting existing readers of my work by updating the content found in books my publishers have elected not to revise. I also see it as a way of attracting new readers interested in learning the the things they need to know without spending a lot of time digging through online resources that may or may not address their questions.

You can learn more about Maria’s Guides on the Maria’s Guides website. Right now, this site provides support for all of my books, but I’m likely to move support for my other titles to another website later this year.

What Do You Think?

I’d love to know what you think about the ebook (r)evolution and the opportunities it presents to writers. Share your comments on this post. Let’s get a discussion going.

Shoppers, Do Your Homework!

Slick product packaging and marketing ≠ best products

mophie juicepackThis morning, while on Google+, I read an update by one of the people in my circles. He was recommending a product called mophie juice pack powerstation. This is a portable battery device that you can use to charge cell phones and tablet computers when you’re on the go and a regular charging source is not available.

Lenmar PowerPortI’m interested in devices like these. In fact, the other day, I’d added the Lenmar PowerPort Wave 6600 to my Wish list. At first glance, this product seems to do the same thing.

There is, however, a $30 difference in price, with the Lenmar being the cheaper of the two alternatives.

Making an Objective Comparison

I looked briefly at the two devices. The mophie was 4000 mAh; the Lenmar was 6600 mAh. I thought higher was better. So I queried the person who’d recommended the mophie. His response was that if based solely on power, the Lenmar looked better. He then talked about portability and battery quality, suggesting that the cheaper unit might not be as good quality as the other.

Of course, I had to dive in and find out. So I looked up the specs on both of them — the above links will take you there. What I found was that Lenmar’s rather plain vanilla site provided specifications that included battery type, voltage, capacity, unit size, and unit weight:

Lenmar Specs

The specifications info on mophie’s site, which was slick looking and modern with lots of trendy lowercase product names and headings, didn’t provide any details about the battery at all, although it did provide unit dimensions (it was a bit smaller) and shipping weight (which I suppose could be helpful if I wanted to carry it around in its original packaging):

mophie specs

To be fair, mophie’s features page did mention that its battery was 4000 mAh and it could output up to 2 amps.

I downloaded the user guides for both, looking for more information. Lenmar’s was a 3-page black and white guide with two of the pages in languages other than English. It provided lots of details on what the device could do and how to use it. mophie’s was a slick-looking 2-page color flyer with a first page that read like a marketing press release. (How else could you describe a heading that read “Here’s a rundown of why this is the perfect device”?) Nowhere did it say what kind of battery the device had or how much the device weighed.

Then I started looking at actual features. The Lenmar device had two power out ports: one at 1.0A max and the other at 2.1A max. They could be used together for a total of 3.1A max output. That means I could (theoretically) power an iPhone and an iPad at the same time. Or an iPhone and a GoPro. Or two GoPros. The mophie, by comparison, had just one power out port rated at 2.1A max. (This, by the way, contradicts what the website said — 2A — but it’s close enough.) That meant I could only power one device, like a single iPhone, iPad, or GoPro, at a time.

So here’s what I saw:

  • Lenmar had a basic Web site and ugly manual pushing a product that had a 6600 mAh battery and two ports capable of charging two devices at once. Price: $44 on
  • mophie had a slick looking Web site and manual pushing a product that had a 4000 mAh battery and one port capable of charging one device at a time. Price: $80 on

Which one do you think I picked?

Questioning Motivations

I started bring up these points on Google+ in comments to the original post about the mophie unit. I was very surprised that the person who posted the recommendation about the mophie didn’t seem the least bit interested in seeing whether the Lenmar unit was a better value for the money. Instead, he claimed he was familiar with mophie and that he knew their products were worth what they charged.


Then I noticed that the same person had made several other product recommendations recently and I began to wonder whether he had some motivation to push certain products — beyond his own experiences with them. And that’s when I realized that I was wasting my time trying to have an informed discussion about the two alternatives.

The Point

Yes, this blog post does have a point. A few of them, in fact:

  • Don’t take social networking product recommendations at face value. You can never be sure about the motivations of the people who push products.
  • Don’t make a purchase decision without examining alternatives.
  • Don’t let slick or trendy looking product design, websites, or marketing documents blind you to a product’s true feature set.
  • Don’t think that the highest priced product is always the best quality alternative. These days, price is not always an indicator of quality.
  • Do choose products that meet your needs at a price you’re willing to pay.

Is the Lenmar product better? I don’t know. It certainly seems to have a better feature set for nearly half the price. That’s enough to get me to try it.