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iBooks Author Lets You Build Astounding Texts

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 13, 2012 5:00 AM PT

iBooks Author Lets You Build Astounding Texts

iBooks Author, an app from Apple, is available for free at the Mac App Store.

iBooks Author
iBooks Author

In my mind, the most important element of any software application is the ability to make users feel empowered, as if they can act on information, make changes, or best yet, create. Apple's new iBooks Author application for Mac OS X lets you create -- so much so that I actually believe that I could write an awesome iBook textbook myself.

The application provides a solid foundation, giving you six templates to choose from, then turns you loose to drag and drop your own words, photos or movies into place. In just a few minutes, you'll go from feeling inquisitive and curious about the tools and how they work to, "Holy macaroni, I could actually create a book!"

That's high praise, certainly, and despite the brouhaha over the Apple iBookstore limitations (which I'll get into), I'll try to give you an idea of how I came to appreciate iBooks Author.

How It Works

iBooks Author looks and feels a lot like Apple's Pages iWork application. I pretty much detest all the superfluous "features" and margins and spacing in Pages when I write. But in iBooks Author, it all comes together in a way that feels open and uncluttered, giving you a chance to grok what you have on the page while you're assembling an iBook.

To get you started, there are six templates to choose from, and they loosely adhere to existing notions of what a certain type of book should look like when associated with a topic: The Basic template has a "Botony" cover; the Contemporary template has an "Astronomy" cover; Modern Type has "Elementary Algebra" followed by Classic, Editorial and Craft, with Art History, Earth Science and Entomology, respectively, as their topics.

Clearly these templates are tuned and geared toward a nonfiction textbook sort of publishing. And no wonder -- you don't need a lot of photos, quizzes or interactive 3D widgets to write a novel, though I don't doubt that some students in Creative Writing classes will turn in some new hybrid stories ... and then publish them, whether or not they're any good.

Regardless of the options, iBooks Author will really shine for anyone who wants to share knowledge or teach a subject. It's easy to envision teachers and professors creating their own textbooks for their own courses ... or entire university departments collaborating to build textbooks for a whole set of classes that all take the same course. In an elementary school, eight fifth-grade classes could all have the same iBook textbook, as built by multiple teachers in a collaborative effort -- or imposed by a state's school board of education.

Whoah! What Just Happened Here?

See, like I said, iBooks Author is one of those rare apps that actually sparks the imagination in regard to not only the type of content you want to create, but also how it can be used. But let's get back to the use of the application itself.

While you can edit text and write content in the template, iBooks Author is an awesome drag-and-drop tool. Want to add a photo? Drag it from your desktop or a folder -- or directly from iPhoto, for that matter -- onto your iBooks Author page. Need to resize it? You can click, hold and scale or move the photos (it's fast and fluid), plus you can edit the mask, too. What's this mean? Imagine having a physical wood photo frame in your hands. As you hold it, you can change the size magically, bigger or smaller. But what about the photo? Imagine holding an 8x10 photo underneath a 5x7 wood photo frame. You can move the photo paper around underneath to reveal what shows up within the photo frame. To make it even more powerful, you can zoom into and out of the photo, too.

What's crazy about this isn't the feature itself; what's crazy is that, paired within the iBooks Author tool, it's so easy to use. Plus, along the creative path, it's easy to see a situation where you believe that a photo will need to be a certain size on a page ... but then later realize it needs to be smaller, larger, or cropped differently. Boom. You can adjust.

Widgets Widgets Everywhere

The easiest way to create a book is to take an existing and relatively static piece of text -- say, a chapter or paper or how-to article -- and drag it on iBooks Author. The application will scan the formatting, then throw it onto pages within the book, retaining the basic look and feel. You can apply formatting styles to it, of course.

Still, the feature Apple calls "widgets" is where the wow factor comes in: You can select and create a landing area for your new drag-and-drop interactive elements. Want a gallery of photos that a reader can flip through? Drop the Gallery widget onto a page and start dragging and dropping photos onto it. You can add titles and descriptions and within a minute or two have a handful of photos bundled into a gallery. And your text? It will flow around your gallery -- which, by the way, you can make really small on the page but allow readers to zoom into in an instant on their iPads.

Other widgets let you drop in Keynote presentations, 3D images that will rotate around for you (as long as you already have a 3D image file to drop in). Or you can create interactive images that let you point out elements of an image that readers can zoom into for more detail, both in the image and with explanatory text. You can also create quizzes and add movies.

Speaking of movies, I was utterly flummoxed for a few minutes when I tried to drag and drop a home movie clip -- that I took with my iPhone -- onto my iBooks Author book. The result? I got a window that told me my media file wasn't added because the file was in an unsupported format. Plus this, "Your book wasn't changed."

Say What?

I was astounded. Not only could I not drag-and-drop a photo that I shot on my iPhone directly into iBooks, but Apple also just gave me a cryptic "you fail" message without any direction on what to do. So I opened the file with QuickTime Player and exported it into an iPad, iPhone and Apple TV format, which happens to have an .M4V extension instead of the .MOV file the iPhone created. So I dragged the .M4V version onto iBooks Author, and boom, it worked perfectly, even letting me quickly and effortlessly resize the movie display field.

Look, I don't know what's going on with the movie file formats, which format is technically superior and what licensing might be associated with the file types -- and which formats can be shared with other smartphones. But I do know that a lot of regular iBooks Author users are going to be scratching their heads here too when their iPhone videos don't appear to work for no good reason.

Moving On

At a certain point, you're going to want to preview your iBook on your iPad. Apple makes this easy. Simply connect your iPad to your Mac, then hit the Preview button. iBooks Author does a bit of thinking and crunching and then transfers the book to your iPad. Once on your iPad ... wow. All the pieces and parts, like galleries and movies, turn into gorgeous, flickable elements on your iPad. Want to view a photo full-screen? Zoom in with a reverse pinch. Watch a video clip? Same move. Plus, the subtle animation of this effect is just as mesmerizing on your iBook as it is in the professional-grade textbooks. It's delightful.

At the end, what do you really get? You have yourself an iBook that can be read in glorious fashion on an iPad. As near as I can tell right now, if you don't have an iPad, you're pretty much out of luck. Sure, you can convert the iBook to a .PDF, which is portable enough, but you lose all the cool interactive features. How about another Mac user? Again, you need an iPad to read the book in all of its glory. What about an iPhone? My iPhone 4 told me my device was not supported and that the document could only be experienced on an iPad.

As for selling the book, you can publish it freely through Apple's iBooks Store (through a couple of hoops I haven't tried to jump through yet) or you can sell it through Apple. On the surface, this seems limiting, but is it? Apple dominates the tablet market, has millions of customers, plus offers writers a direct conduit to Apple's customers' credit cards and payment system. It's a pretty amazing opportunity to reach a large audience.

On the flip side, if you want to sell your book elsewhere, you'll have recreate or build it using some other company's application tool sets. It's not Apple's responsibility to make doing that easy, though you can actually create epub documents using Apple's own Pages.

The whole point, though, of iBooks Author is to give anyone a powerful free app and let them create awesome iBooks. If you have a Mac, you can create them. If you have an iPad, you can enjoy them. It's that simple.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at

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