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iBook Lessons: Take Control of iBooks Author

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

Michael E. Cohen is an ebook designer, instructional software developer and the author of "Take Control of iBooks Author". This new book introduces iBooks Author to users, and discusses publication through the iBookstore.

Cohen agreed to sit down with TUAW to talk about ebooks, the iBookstore, and creating books using the iBooks Author tool.

TUAW: Michael, you've been doing this a long time -- and by "long time," I mean since before the dawn of the ebook. Can you tell us a bit about your experience in the ebook world, and where you're coming from?

Cohen: It all began on Bloomsday in 1990 (for those unfamiliar with James Joyce, June 16 is the day his novel Ulysses was set, and is Bloomsday to Joyce fans). The Voyager Company had just made a name for itself in the Mac world by producing the first interactive CD-ROM for consumers, Robert Winter's HyperCard exegesis on Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

Bob Stein, who ran Voyager, and who came from a publishing background, was interested in what could be done with text on a computer and he got a grant to bring a bunch of scholars and geeks together to discuss it at an in-house conference. I was working at UCLA at the time as a technical advisor for the Humanities Computing Facility (actually the job title was User Relations Liaison).

One of the invitees was Richard Lanham, a professor of English and specialist in rhetoric. Dick and I were friends, and he invited me to tag along to the meeting (I had turned some of his book, Revising Prose, into a computer program for the Apple II a few years earlier, and had done a sample version of his Handlist of Rhetorical Terms as a HyperCard stack).

It was at that meeting that Voyager began what become known as the Expanded Books project. At the end of the meeting, Bob Stein offered me a job -- jokingly, I thought. But it wasn't a joke; a few months later I had left UCLA to work at Voyager, ostensibly on a CD ROM edition of Macbeth but also as part of the Expanded Books team.

So that's how I came into this business.

TUAW: What were some of the Expanded Books projects you worked on, and what lessons did you learn while creating them?

Cohen: Oh, my. Got an hour?

TUAW: I do! But the condensed version is fine. We're on your schedule here...

Cohen: I began working with the people who were trying to imagine just what it would mean to put a book on the computer (specifically the just released line of Mac PowerBooks). So we spent a lot of time doing mock-ups, trying to imagine what qualities/features/functionality people expected from books and how to best express them simply and cleanly on the PowerBook, in HyperCard.

Some lessons were simple: how to mark pages and passages. We came up with interfaces for that (dog-ears, margin lines, and slideable paper-clips). The issue of how to show where one was in a book was another: we developed a hideable "page gauge" for that.

Fixed versus variable pagination was another. We went with fixed pages...BUT we also developed a way to double the text size while retaining the same pagination for those who were older and wanted larger print.

Taking notes was another. We came up with an in-book notebook.

We also looked to the past. We were asked to look at Elizabeth Eisenstein's treatise about the 100 years following Gutenberg, and how printing changed the world. We were very interested in how that was being replicated at a much faster pace with the invention of digital technology.

Basically, we came up with an interface that was a book-like as possible. And we consciously decided not to patent or copyright it. We were interested in publishing books and figured that if we made the interface available for others to copy, we could help establish ebook conventions.

That way, there could emerge a vibrant ebook market.

And it would have worked, too, if that rascal Tim Berners-Lee hadn't unleashed the World Wide Web, and destroyed the nascent interactive media market in the process!

I helped write the HyperCard scripts for the first ebooks, and personally laid out the first three ebooks Voyager published: Jurassic Park (before the movie!), The Complete Annotated Alice by Martin Gardener, and Douglas Adam's Complete Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

TUAW: Many of those revolutionary aspects you worked on are now available in iBooks Author. Looking at iBooks Author with all your experience, how do you evaluate this tool? What ground does it break and what does the software mean in the overall ebook world?

Cohen: Some of our inventions (like bookmarks and page gauges) are still in use by most ebook makers. Ah, iBooks Author. How do I evaluate it? I have two perspectives on it: one as an educator (and trainer of educators) and one as a crazy geek who likes to customize and extend technology.

As one who has worked training teachers to use digital technology in instruction, I have to say that iBooks Author is the bee's knees and cat's pajamas. Really. It is something that offers most of the features one would want in a digital textbook, and, more importantly, one that I could teach intelligent faculty to use profitably (in the educational, not remunerative sense) in a few hours.

As a geek I am disappointed that it is not more extensible, and uses a proprietary framework (but one that IS very close to the EPUB 3 standard). But, overall, I am delighted to see it...and very sad that it took over 20 years since we started making ebooks for it to emerge.

As for what it means...gosh, I could speculate. My hope is that it creates a thriving marketplace for ebooks in education. I think Apple is being clever here: use education as a way to expand the capability of ebooks, and then extend that capability to non-instructional books over time. Meanwhile, it solves the ugly problem of ever larger and more expensive textbooks that kids have to carry around.

TUAW: What are some of the features in iBooks Author that excite you the most?

Cohen: Well, obviously its existence itself is the biggest feature. It's a way to create attractive inexpensive textbooks? That's huge.

The various widgets are the other big features: they are suitable for so many different kinds of instructional use. And I'm personally intrigued by the misnamed HTML widget (it's actually more of a way to host Dashboard-style HTML/Javascript widgets inside of the iBooks framework). Had I world enough and time, I'd spend hours and hours playing with ways to use it.

The templates are another big feature. They provide an easy way for novices to quickly produce attractive materials, but are also extensively customizable for the more professional book developer.

TUAW: Are there some features you feel could still be improved?

Cohen: What don't I like? The fact that it is proprietary. I understand why it is, but I don't like that it is. And I don't like that it doesn't easily support collaborative work: many textbooks have multiple authors, but iBooks Author doesn't lend itself well to distributed authorship. Also, there's no change tracking and no sidebar comments, the kinds of tools available in Word and Pages

TUAW: Who is the target audience for your book, and what will they get out of it?

The target audience is really anyone who wants to learn how to use the software. More specifically, though, I did write it with textbook authors and educators in mind, because that is who iBooks Author itself is really designed for.

It is not a general ebook creation tool; it is exquisitely tuned for creating a specific family of book-types: textbooks. For use in the classroom and for home study. iBooks Author can be used for creating catalogs and similar books that require lots of images and interactive sidebars associated with the text, but it really is a textbook creation tool.

If I were a novelist, I wouldn't choose it as my ebook platform, unless my novel was in the form of a textbook, of course (which could be interesting to try to do).

TUAW: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to talk. It's both a pleasure and an honor to meet you. You bring an amazing history of ebook creation to the table, and I'm sure there are still many stories to share that we didn't have time for. Would you be open to coming back and talking further?

Sure. Ebooks are something of a passion of mine. You may have picked up on that!

Take Control of iBooks Author (US$15) by Michael E. Cohen is available from Take Control Books. Michael E. Cohen taught English composition, worked as a programmer for NASA's Deep Space Network, and helped develop the first commercial ebooks at the Voyager Company.

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