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iBook Lessons: Childrens picture books

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

I recently had occasion to give advice regarding an author considering the move from traditional books to ebooks. Normally, in these cases, I recommend starting with Amazon. It offers the simplest tools for publishing manuscripts with a minimum of effort.

In this case, the material was a children's picture book. And because of that, I suggested going with the iBookstore instead. The iBooks Author software, available freely from Apple, provides a much better match to picture book layout and interaction than standard document-to-EPUB conversion tools.

For picture books, which typically run 32 pages in length, the layout is just as important as the content.

iBooks Author offers fixed page layout, so you can be sure that the page you design and the page the reader sees are essentially the same. This makes it the best match for many cookbooks, textbooks, and of course, picture books. Best of all, it's pretty easy to pick up for anyone with some technological mastery.

As an alternative, advanced design tools like Adobe InDesign enable you to create fixed layout using traditional EPUB 3, but the software is expensive and the technological demands are higher. (Link is to a PDF describing the process of converting childrens books to EPUB 3 using InDesign.)

The advantage to EPUB is a potentially wider audience, but you do so subject to the whims of the rendering platform without the guarantees of page fidelity that Apple brings to the table with iBooks. There's no implied contract of performance. As Smashwords CEO Mark Coker points out, "Any time you add complexity to a book, you create opportunities for incompatibility or limit the number of supported platforms."

One of the challenges of a fixed format book is that it limits the platform on which it can be read. With iBooks Author, you limit your audience to iPad owners. The expanded iBooks format is only available for tablet reading.

The unfortunate side of choosing fixed layout is that you lose out on many services that exist to transform manuscripts to EPUB formats. Sites like Smashwords, Lulu, and FastPencil offer simple-to-use book conversion and publishing options. You upload a manuscript, choose a template, and publish. They are a perfect match for casual writers without a tech background. That kind of automated conversion just doesn't seem to exist for fixed layout projects.

Coker explained that fixed layout isn't an easy path, even for a constantly evolving service. "We're looking to the future to see how we can add other formats," he said. Smashwords currently supports EPUB 2, but is exploring additional formats including EPUB 3 and other fixed layout solutions like iBooks.

"Just within the last week, we introduced a new feature called Smashwords Direct," he said. "The service allows authors and publishers to upload their own professionally formatted EPUB files." Prior to the Direct service, Smashwords limited their uploads to Microsoft Word documents. "This is the first time we've allowed a format other than just Word docs. We see this as the first step, a foundational element for supporting other file formats."

Coker expressed interest in distributing books in iBooks format to Apple as well. "We're taking it one step at a time. Our Direct service is in beta. We're going to work on working out the kinks for the first generation then look to the future to see how we can add the other formats."

Coker could not offer a timeline due to the exploratory nature of the initiative.

In the end, the best bet for the picture book situation is probably to give iBooks Author a try. There are many excellent books and websites that guide you through the process and teach you how to use the app.

Have experience using conversion bureaus? Share your stories in the comments.

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