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iBook Lessons: Can an iBooks-only strategy work?

iBook Lessons is a continuing series about ebook writing and publishing.

One question I keep encountering is this: "If iBooks Author is so great, can I make enough money selling only through Apple and only to iPad owners to stay in business?"

The answer to that is that results will vary. Can you add enough value in an iBooks Author presentation to justify leaving out a large segment of the ebook market?

Using proprietary formats, the iBooks Author app allows you to lay out your books and add custom elements in ways that go well beyond the EPUB standard. Your books look exactly as you intend them to; you can build interactive widgets that leverage the power of HTML and Javascript for new kinds of interaction.

This extended standard means that iBooks Author excludes Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook platforms, and it also cuts away anyone who might purchase and read your ebook on an iPhone or iPod touch. iBooks Author in its current state is Apple only and iPad only.

[Note that you're free to repurpose your text, images and other content for those other platforms if you want to build Kindle/Nook-friendly editions. The iBooks Author licensing agreement says you can't sell the output from iBooks Author anywhere but the Apple iBookstore, but your content is yours and you can use other tools to build for other ebook platforms. –Ed.]

That's not the entire picture, however. For some authors, specifically those creating highly-interactive titles, their choice hasn't really been about Amazon-or-iBooks, since standard EPUB represents a fairly static output technology. Their decision is more about choosing between an iBooks Author ebook versus a custom, standalone iPad app. I have encountered book creators who have gone in both directions.

iOS development house Tapity chose to go iBooks. Founder Jeremy Olson told me, "To build an interactive digital book, our choice of platforms was really straightforward. Kindle doesn't yet allow the kind of rich interaction that we were looking to build so it was really between building an app versus building an iBook. When iBooks Author was announced in January, the choice was a no-brainer: It's pretty simple: cost to build, time to build, price you can charge, and less competition."

Tapity's first entry to this field was Cleaning Mona Lisa. An interactive iBook, it introduced readers to painting techniques and the need for restoration. Host Lee Sandstead offers a series of enthusiastic lectures about the topic through embedded videos. Interactive widgets guide readers through virtual "cleaning" exercises, revealing the hidden colors and details hidden by the debris of time.

"As a team of creatives, building Cleaning Mona Lisa with iBooks Author cost us next to nothing but our time," Olson said. "Just a few thousand dollars. I expect building an app with the same kind of user experience could have cost us close to a hundred thousand dollars to contract out the programming. This makes building iBooks far less risky than building apps."

He pointed out how effective this choice was. "Programming a project generally consumes half or more of the development time. With iBooks Author, we design it and it's done (apart from just a few small HTML 5 widgets we had to program). This also cuts out the process of designing something in Photoshop and exporting it for use in an app."

Going iBooks also helped sustain the book's bottom line for sales. "With apps, $2.99 is a premium price. With books, folks expect to pay more and so $2.99 was an extremely reasonable starting price for our book. With future books we think that we can even charge much more. With higher prices we don't have to worry about the volume so much."

Monster Costume CEO Kyle Kinkade opted for a custom app instead. Having debuted in the ebook scene with the highly popular Bartleby's Book of Buttons, Monster Costume is known for producing high-quality, extremely interactive titles with a strong attention to detail.

"We do books as applications," he explained, "Because, frankly, there's no platform that's mature enough yet to support the kind of interaction we create. If iBooks Author could produce the level of what we wanted it to do, we'd use it in a heartbeat. The problem is that it can't handle the demands we put on an interactive book."

For Monster Costume, iBooks Author's Keynote-esque toolset -- intended for ease of use and book production by non-programmers -- doesn't deliver the level of interactivity or customizability needed. The company builds its own proprietary book development tools in-house.

"We can handle logic way better than iBooks Author, and we can handle high-level scripting," Kinkade said. "We provide finely detailed interaction as well. We can adjust ourselves and our engines to a much higher level of graphical horsepower, too. In comparison, iBooks doesn't provide the horsepower or the finesse that we need for our projects."

Monster Costume is currently working on The Adventures of Tyler Washburn. Kinkade told TUAW, "For Washburn, the title we're building now, we just couldn't have done it in iBooks. That degree of graphics and interaction simply does not exist in the tools that Apple has provided."

Economically, building in-house tools has been an investment in the future. "The cost of development for our engine was extremely high," Kinkade explained. "Using that engine for future titles will be at a far lower cost now that we've created it. We are in talks with various content producers and publishing companies right now to license those tools, to let them do what we do."

Choosing to go in or out of the iBookstore represents another point of difference between developers. For Olson, iBooks is a positive. "The iBookstore is a new marketplace and iBooks Author books are an even newer phenomenon. That means that Apple loves to promote great examples of innovation on the platform and it's easier to get on their radar. It also takes fewer sales to get high up in the charts," he said.

"So did we make the right choice? Absolutely. No regrets. Our iBook peaked at the #12 book in the iBookstore and was the #1 app in Arts & Entertainment for over two weeks. Sales are definitely not on the same scale as the App Store but they don't have to be because we charge more than what we would for an app and sales are good. We think we can find ways to make these iBooks even more efficiently and you can definitely expect more iBooks from us in the future."

Kinkade prefers the App Store. "We've found that the iBookstore gets way less traffic than the traditional App Store. So we get the advantage by positioning our books with the apps. The only negative is that it's harder to get featured as a book in the App Store -- although we did. It was just hard as hell."

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