So professionally, this was an interesting week for me.
Wednesday, Chegg shipped their new eReader which is the project I’ve been working on since August. It’s HTML5, and its a faithful representation of the books (more on why that’s important in a bit).
Thursday, Apple shipped an upgraded iBooks, announced a new textbook initiative aimed at K-12, and shipped a new “eBook authoring tool” called iBook Author.
That same day, I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine about eBooks and their effects on libraries. He had the typical Silicon Valley arrogance for anything non-digital: “those publisher people are dinosaurs and we should legislate them out of existence” . Having lived outside the Valley for most of my professional life, I had a more measured response that the publishers do add some value, and that much more interesting things would happen if we made them allies instead of enemies.
Since iBook Author was free and I’m lucky enough to use a Macintosh for work I immediately had to go and check out iBook Author.
I’m underwhelmed. I know its a 1.0, but there are several missteps here. No print publisher is going to use this tool to create books. Even amateurs are going to find it a bit challenging to produce really high quality books. Even if an amateur makes it through the process, they will then be shocked to find out it will also cost them $125/book to publish their book even if they want to give it away free because you need an ISBN number to publish a book.
Still, its a really well done product, its just not solving the problem in the right way. Hopefully if someone at the relevant team at Apple reads this, they will take this as constructive criticism.
For you to understand my point of view, I first need to discuss some things I’ve learned in the last 21 years of being in the technology industry; the last 5 months of being in the digital textbook industry; and the last 45 years of being the son of an elementary school teacher.
iTunes did not kill the music Industry
Contrary to conventional wisdom, iTunes did not kill the music industry. If anything, iTunes and iPod saved the music industry. iTunes directly saved the music industry from online piracy. iPod helped as well, because they made it easier for people to listen to music.
Yet the music industry’s revenues are down. The music industry’s revenues are down because people spend slightly more of their income on entertainment but across many more categories. That is, the music industry has a smaller percentage of the entertainment dollar. Hour per hour, people have a certain amount of leisure time. They divide that time between music, books, exercise, movies, television, food, renaissance fairs, etc. All entertainment categories have seen a decline, but music has declined less than any other category precisely because iTunes and iPod have made it easier to consume music than any other category.
iTunes saved the music industry! But there’s a reason that all of the music companies are now owned by movie studios, or as we call them now, “entertainment conglomerates” that produce movies, video games, music, toys, etc. Even when people are spending more on entertainment than ever before, there’s more completion than ever before for that same dollar.
Publishers are not the enemy
Unfortunately, the publishers don’t know anything about the entertainment industry. All they know is that like everyone else, their revenues are down. Down by a two thirds! It’s making them understandably nervous and scared. They don’t know what to do about it, because they see what happened to the music industry and they expect it to happen to them with eBooks because they’re blaming iTunes instead of the Internet. Their old business models aren’t going to work any more, and change sucks.
There’s this classic New Yorker cover called the New Yorkers view of the World. In that cover, anything outside of New York is a vast desert; New Jersey is represented by a little mud bank on the side of the Hudson river and so on. It uniquely captures the arrogance of a New York denizen about their town. When I was a kid, I remember meeting people from New York who came out to California; they were always surprised it wasn’t like a John Wayne movie, all horses, Wild Indians and sagebrush.
Silicon Valley people have their own version of this. It’s the assumption that only they know how to do anything digital, and that digital technology is so superior to the “old way” of doing things that anyone doing things the “old way” should just roll over and die. It would be amusing if they didn’t also start arguing that the legislature should make sure that they die.
Here’s the thing. Its not necessary in life to make enemies of everyone who disagrees with you. In my job, I have to negotiate with the publishers all the time, and I never, ever approach them as the enemy. Do they ask for things that are unreasonable? Yes! But as I’m constantly telling my co-workers, they’re reacting from fear. So it doesn’t matter if their request seems irrational. You can’t argue them out of it with logic, you have to address the fear. It’s basic human relations that when people are reacting from emotion, you have to deal with the emotion first. When we do that, we get a much better response from the publisher.
Publishers are not in the dead tree business
The standard business school myth is that the railroad companies, once the largest and most profitable businesses in the United States, didn’t realize they weren’t in the railroad business, they were in the transportation business. As a consequence, they didn’t seize the opportunities presented to them by the rise of the trucking industry. Gradually that led to them become irrelevant because they couldn’t adapt. The thing that always bothers me about this story is that we could have had container shipping 100 years ago. Computerization helped, but we had people with clipboards 100 years ago.
The thing you have to realize is that textbook publishers are not in the dead tree business. They are in the education business. The publishers realize this. The holdback for electronic education has always been more of a problem of platform (Windows was too hard to use), expense (computers were too expensive), and the system (you have to get all the bureaucrats to agree). Plus let’s face it, no one really knows what e-learning looks like yet. Even eBooks are just a Old thing in a new package, and it’s not clear the new package is really better because dead trees don’t crash and need to reboot.
Currently, we’re in a transition period, which means the publishers are “living in interesting times”. Cut them some slack! The face of education is changing, and the publishers are desperately trying to figure out what e-education looks like. Before you mock them as dinosaurs, realize that no one else knows what e-education is going to look like either.
Textbooks are 50% design
Someone commented to me that Calculus hasn’t changed in 100 years, so why do we need a new Calculus textbook?
One of the most popular text books on Chegg’s site to rent is a textbook about how to use Microsoft Office 2010. Think about that. The most popular book, is about a subject that didn’t exist until 2 years ago. It’s also about a piece of computer software. Textbook publishers definitely do crank out edition after edition. Some of that isn’t warranted. But so does the computer industry! Leave the Silicon Snobbery at home. The Publishers are creating value in the world. I’m not sure that’s true of many Silicon Valley companies.
I’ve spent the last few months looking at a lot of textbooks, and I can tell you, these aren’t the textbooks I had in school. Calculus may not have changed, but the way we teach calculus has changed. The textbook publishers have taken every trick in the book made possible by desktop publishing and brought that level of design into the textbook. Textbooks are now 50% design, 50% writing. It would be a very cool thing if we started giving textbook designers credits in the same way we give the authors, or for that manner, film directors.
Yes, you can read Harry Potter on your iPad. But trying to shoehorn a modern textbook into ePub loses half of the design sensibilities present in the textbook design.
Neither ePub 3.0 or HTML5 can capture the fullness of a modern textbook. If you don’t believe me, try to to implement a sidebar, notes in a margin, and 2 column reflowing text, with an attached picture in HTML.
It can’t be done. CSS teases you into thinking its almost possible but it’s not. HTML cannot reflow text into columns! it can’t move a picture to float into the margin while the text reflows. For that you need a layout engine.
The ideal textbook writing application
If I was going to sit down and write an application to write textbooks I would start by thinking about the components of a textbook. Because what I would want would be something that I could use to describe how the information in a text book relates to each other and to the page. For instance picture the following 6 interrelated items:
- A block of text describing a concept. It should be nicely formatted on the page, justified, with two columns in landscape mode.
- A picture that goes with this block of text as an illustration.
- A caption that goes with that picture.
- A margin note goes with the block of text near about the center or rather next to the 3rd sentence in the 4th paragraph
- After this text, present this sidebar.
- A footnote is associated with this portion of the text.
While that seems like a lot, what I’m describing isnt any more complex than the layout of a “Dummies” book. That doesn’t seem like a particularly high bar to aim for! The textbooks I’ve spent the last 5 months looking at are considerably higher quality than this. In those books, every page is hand crafted.
Thinking about the components of a textbook would help me to build a data model to describe how the pieces of information in a textbook relate to each other and what those pieces are.
The next step for me in building this tool would be to reimagine how those elements should work in an e book. Not every print convention makes sense on a tablet. Do footnotes really need to be at the bottom of a page? Why not have them function as popups? What about footnotes that are extended asides? Should margin notes stay in the margin or should they be popups as well? What about sidebars?
So now I have a data model and some presentation ideas. The next thing I would need to build would be a layout engine. Because each reader has a different aspect ratio, and even the iPad is both a 4:3 and a 3:4 device, my ebook tool needs to be able to algorithmically layout a book the same way a human would layout a book.
That’s how I would build an ebook tool if I really wanted to revolutionize the text book industry.
Which brings us to iBook Author
iBook Author is not built the way I would build an eBook authoring tool. That’s because iBook Author makes a couple of simplifying assumptions.
- It only supports the iPad, that is 4:3 or 3:4 book orientations. iPhones, Kindles and 16:9 devices are not usable. Nor are laptops!
- The tool will be used to layout the book once, not write the book.
These assumptions are both iBook Authors greatest strengths and simultaneously it’s greatest weaknesses. iBook Author has no real provision for automatic layout of a book beyond basic text reflowing. It has no understanding of basic textbook idioms like sidebars, callouts, figures, tables, margin notes, etc.
What iBook Author instead understands is that on page X there are some boxes with certain specific pieces of content to display, in certain locations. If the iPad is in the other orientation, these boxes will be on Page Y instead, and they will be in these locations instead. Boxes can sort of float with specific pieces of text, or they can be on a specific page.
In other words, IBook Author is mostly a page layout tool. To get the same level of quality as a existing textbook, you would start by taking your existing textbook layout and throwing it away. Now you can rebuild your textbook as an iPad book from the original content.
Then, when you’re finished with that, you have to start over and layout the book all over again for the other orientation of the book.
So is it possible to use iBook Publisher to layout a modern textbook? Yes! People used to layout textbooks with paper scissors and glue. But it would also be incredibly tedious. Will the textbook publishers revamp some textbooks into this tool? Yes, especially the textbooks that are mostly text. Technical books such as the O’Reilly books that start out as a Word documents and essentially remain that way even in printed form will be easy to convert because layout isn’t really a factor for those books.
In fact, those sorts of books don’t need iBook Author. You can get any of the Pragmatic Programmer line of books in EPub or mobi already. In fact, Pages will already export to EPub for you without any weird licensing agreements required.
IBook Author is only interesting for books that require conplex layouts. But complex layouts mean complex work. Work that has to be done by someone manually. Is McGrawHill going to layout their entire 1,000 college textbook Catalog in IBook Author, then lay it out again for the other orientation? Not this week! not unless they hire 1,000 graphic designers to get it done.
No Programming required means it’s lame
The other big feature of iBooks are the widgets. Again, color me unimpressed. They’re pretty basic. There are 6 predefined widgets:
- Media (movies and such).
- Interactive image.
There’s no real wow here. If your really want interactivity, you’re going to have to program it yourself, but you’ll only be able to go so far as a widget. Embedding Keynote is going to be kind of weird, because you open a book, then there’s a presentation inside the book? That seems like a strange user experience.
So at the end of the day, while iBooks Author is cool in many ways, I don’t see it replacing high end textbooks any time soon. Low and medium end textbooks will do just fine in the existing ePub format, but it will be too tedious for textbook publishers to layout their complex textbooks twice until the market has proven itself. While the widgets are kind of neat, none of them are especially innovative.
The “Fuck You” dialog
So lets say you do all this work to layout your book (twice!). You’re ready to export the book. What do you get? This dialog.
As others have commented, using iBook Author locks you into somehow involving Apple with selling your book. The license agreement goes on to say:
If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.
B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.
Apple will not be responsible for any costs, expenses, damages, losses (including without limitation lost business opportunities or lost profits) or other liabilities you may incur as a result of your use of this Apple Software, including without limitation the fact that your Work may not be selected for distribution by Apple.
A format that doesn’t work with a publisher’s workflow, differs in important but subtle ways from standard formats, isn’t supported by any of the industry’s tools, is, long-term, going to be a torture to support.