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How Apple iBooks needs to compete with Amazon: Better author tools

Amazon has trailblazed; Apple has followed. Apple's iBooks program currently allows authors to self-publish ebooks. Authors create their own business built around iTunes Connect, just as they do for self-published apps.

So where does Apple have room to improve? What follows is one of several posts about how iBooks can improve to better compete with Amazon. In this post, I discuss how Apple needs to create a better authoring platform to help support their independent authors.

iBooks tools are frustrating. You can publish on Amazon with little more than an account, a doc file and a smile. For iBooks, you need validated ePub files, ISBN identifiers from the Library of Congress and a willingness to run the gauntlet of contracts, paperwork, and the hell that is iTunes Connect.

iTunes Connect

It's not that iTunes Connect is so unusuable from a web page perspective, it's that its servers are often so loaded that each request (such as select a country and set a price level, repeat 30-odd times) may take several minutes to complete for each region. You can lose an entire day of work just moving through paperwork details.

There is a workaround: you can use a hacky, poorly-documented tool called iTunes Producer to update your product metadata and it will save you lots of time. But if iTunes Producer, with its amateur-level support, is all that Apple means to bring to the table, then it must re-address how it works with with the iBooks content-creator base.

Amazon makes it so simple and intuitive to list books that when you have to move over to iTunes, the difference hits you right in the face. Keep in mind that I personally use iTunes to sell both books and apps. It's not that iTunes is so horrible, especially when you set aside any issues of server responsiveness, it's just that it could be so much better.

Getting Started

Recently, Steve Sande and I went through the iBooks process for our "Talking to Siri: Learning the Language of Apple's Intelligent Assistant" ebook. It was quite the learning process, taking several weeks until we could get the book clear for sale.

With Amazon, the book went live within a couple of days after we first posted it. We had to fill out two quick pages of information and hit the Publish button. On iBooks, we had to set up our contracts, taxes, and banking details, produce a properly formatted end-product (Amazon automated that entire process for us and provided a beautiful preview tool), and wait for it to work through review.

Admittedly, you can use a certified aggregator like Smashwords or Lulu to relist your books to most major vending sites including iBooks. They provide the ISBN and take another cut of your profits above Apple's, typically leaving you with about 50-60% of the list price, versus Apple's basic 70% of list price.

They handle all the little details that you normally encounter at iTunes using their own custom interface to help you manage your content metadata, pricing, and marketing materials.

Apple-approved aggregators for North America include: Ingram, INscribe Digital, LibreDigital, Lulu, and Smashwords. European aggregators are Bookwire and Immatériel. Of these, only Smashwords will convert MS Word documents to ePub.

Keep in mind that the strength of these services should focus on providing full book deployment to every available market, not just because you want to sidestep iBooks.

ISBNs

If all you want to do is publish to iBooks, you'd be better off setting yourself up to create an iTunes account and buying your own ISBNs rather than go the aggregator route. If you plan to distribute in iBooks, you'll need those ISBNs to register each book.

Bowker is the exclusive ISBN provider for the Library of Congress. A single ISBN costs $125. You can pick up a ten-pack for $250, a 100-pack for $575 and 1000 for $1000 -- just a dollar per ISBN. It's all economy of scale. If you want to buy more, prices for even higher volumes are negotiable. Contact Bowker directly.

Most new authors will choose the ten-pack option, which provides a way to test the waters for more than one book with a minimal commitment. Bowker's free title registration service allows you to ensure that your book title is unique and won't be duplicated. You can create free barcodes for your books at Bowkers as well.

Because Amazon doesn't require ISBNs to list and sell books, independent authors find it much cheaper and more straight forward to market in the Kindle store, leaving all other issues of simplicity aside. If Apple wants to gain some of that market, they may consider stepping away from traditional publishing ideas to introduce a way to streamline product listings that aren't tied to ISBNs.

Authoring Tools

If you have a copy of MS Word or Open Office, you have all the tools you need to write for the Amazon ebook market. Just create a simple style sheet (Steve and I used just seven styles for our books, including headers, paragraphs, notes, lists, and figures) or use the default, write the book itself (I know, I know, the hard part) and include any images in-line that you want to appear in the book.

Speaking of which, here's an easy pro-tip: Don't resize the images. Include them in full scale in the document and let Amazon's conversion tools handle all resizing for you. Life lesson learned, life lesson shared. Moving on.

For iBooks, we investigated several (for that you can read "OMG, I can't belive how many we actually tried, it was insane") ePub preparation and conversion solutions. In the end, we ended up using Pages as the most reliable way to create ePubs that passed validation.

Although Word can export HTML and Calibre can convert to ePub, it failed our validation tests. We reserved Calibre for editing metadata once the ePub was already created.

We looked seriously at Storyist, which is a terrific authoring tool but one that didn't live as comfortably in the must-convert-between-formats realm with our primary authoring done in Word. The fault lay in our workflow, not in that app in particular. Give it a look see, it's well worth investigating, especially if you're looking for a tool that helps you plan your book as well as write it.

Pages is a fine content creation tool but it's not serious enough or appropriate for what we wanted and needed to do in our ebooks. It feels deeply out of date and in no way lends itself to the content creation, reviewing, and editing tasks we needed for our production. We ended up writing in Word, importing into Pages, and then converting into ePub from there. For a 150+ page ebook, that took much longer than you might think. Add to the import and conversion times, overhead for ePub inspection.

Another pro tip: Make sure you use Pages' section break tools, not Word's. Otherwise, Pages will throw out all pictures past the initial ten images. Another lovely life lesson learned the hard way.

In fact, there's a gaping hole in Apple's product line when it comes to ebook authoring and production. iWork has not been updated for OS X since '09. It's crying out for a smart, current refresh that reflects the modern world of AirPlay, iBooks, Apple TV 2, and other state-of-the-art changes. Too much has happened in three years.

What's more, the ePub specification and Apple's inherent multimedia focus mean that iBooks should be able to move leaps and bounds beyond where ebooks currently are. Do current specs with their end-user-picks-the-font presentations really provide the best reading and presentation experience possible? Shouldn't Apple be looking at smart typesetting that's a little more sophisticated? And where else could they be pushing the envelope?

I believe that Apple should be leading a revolution in embedded live book elements with video, programmable app and web integration, and more (Think "Khan Academy" as books, for example). Why aren't we seeing both the specs and the tools with Apple trailblazing forward? As it is, Apple is taking a back seat to...Word docs. That's just sad.

WWDR for Authors and Publishers

What Apple really needs is an internal initiative that matches (and exceeds, honestly) its World Wide Developer Relations for app development, but on the book publishing side of things. Apple needs a WWDC for publishing, evangelists and road shows, and internal Mac-driven tools that allow authors to expand beyond the current iBooks offerings. As Apple's product line moves more and more towards consumers, its support for independent authors (and developers) needs to evolve as well.

Apple needs to integrate author-to-author resources, like its devforums theoretically should for app programmers (Admittedly those forums have somewhat devolved into Apple personnel ordering people to file "radars", aka bug reports rather than providing the kind of warm human support many developers might hope for, but they're far better than no support at all).

I could easily imagine signing up for a yearly independent authoring program (complete with 2 tech support incidents if the program is paid), access to high-level Apple-supplied creation tools and bypassing the current ISBN-based publishing paradigm.

In the end, if Apple is to make its mark in iBooks, it has to both simplify publishing for independents and set its products apart in terms of expressive possibilty.

Posts in this series:

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