Friday, December 17, 2010

Apple disses ebook developers at its peril

I'm feeling really grumpy today, and I've traced it back to a Twitter conversation last night in which I discovered that Apple has been giving support and information on how to create their new fixed-layout ebooks for iBooks 1.2 only to a select group of ebook producers, and under non-disclosure agreements (NDA).

I just don't understand why Apple wouldn't want to help all ebook developers make great looking ebooks that display beautifully on the iPad and so help sell millions of units. Instead, those of us who aren't on the list have to sleuth out, through time-intensive trial and error, just what will work and what won't.

Sure, that's my job. I'm good at explaining how to do things and figuring what people want and need to know and putting it in a way that makes sense. I don't need them to help me. But what I don't understand is why they don't want to. Why do they want to keep their documentation a secret?

That's not Apple's strategy for Safari, whose documentation is very useful and complete. Perhaps that is because they realize the web does not belong to them? The only way to compete is to offer a powerful browser and to explain to people how to get the most out of it.

For iBooks, though, it's all hush-hush. Perhaps they don't want to admit that they're new fixed layout "illustrated books" are nothing more than glorified PDFs— EPUB files in name only. Perhaps not invalid, but many of these fixed layout books are almost impossible to read because the type is so small, and they are all but unusable on smaller screens than the iPad. What is the point?

And Apple has been less than forthcoming with information about earlier versions of iBooks as well, publicizing books that violate the very requirements listed on their web site, promising to follow the EPUB standard, but picking and choosing just which pieces to support.

The ebook market has taken many years to take off, since both readers and books are needed to make it go, and both were lacking. When ereaders were so expensive, few people had them, so there was little demand and thus little production of ebooks. For me, the iPad was a fiendish way to get ereaders into the hands of millions of people who were curious about ebooks but reluctant to spend $400 on a standalone ereader. iPad buyers could justify the price because of all the other things it could do. All of a sudden, millions of people had an ereader, and were clamoring for more books. It was only after the iPad existed that the price of the Kindle and Nook fell to the ground, encouraging even more people to jump on board. More ereaders means more demand for ebooks, which makes ereaders more attractive, and so on.

Apple's strengths in the ebook market are its beautiful color ereaders (e.g., iBooks on iPad), its support of HTML5 to include audio and video, and its embrace of the standard, non-proprietary EPUB format. These features are a big part of why EPUB is still a viable option, in the face of Amazon's juggernaut.

But an ereader is only as good as the books you can read on it. The iBookstore is practically empty. I hear from more and more people that they would like to buy books from the iBookstore but what they're looking for is not available. No wonder, if Apple is keeping its documentation under lock and key. I would love to help people make gorgeous books for the iPad and iPhone. Apple, you ignore us at your peril.


  1. `I hear from more and more people that they would like to buy books from the iBookstore but what they're looking for is not available.'

    So let them install Bluefire Reader and buy ePub books from other stores. Or use the Kindle app and buy from Amazon.

  2. I whole heartedly agree - I produce e-pubs for one of the big publishing companies and have hacked and thwacked my way around Apple's non compliant reader to produce titles that looked great in iBooks 1.1 and still degraded gracefully on other readers. Are they now broken in 1.2? Do I have to revise them and where does this leave customers that have bought the previous versions? AFAIK there is no way to push out corrections and revisions to the consumer.
    With no documentation for the new features or reference for the supported standards it is extremely difficult to produce files that use any of these features and still provide an acceptable reading experience on other readers. No publisher wishes to maintain separate files for different devices or entertain hacky workarounds and so the features are likely to be ignored by any publisher with a large list. STANDARDS, DOCUMENTATION and, if possible, LESS ARROGANCE please Apple.

  3. It's all about money and being exclusive—that is their marketing strategy. I can see it clearly this morning as I read this blog post after JUST receiving an email ad from Apple:

    iBookstore Spotlight: Children's Books

    I am truly disappointed if they are making so that a simple epub that works on the earlier version will not work in 1.2. They are doing what Microsoft had done before in the browser wars and continued to do in non-cooperation with standards. I hated them for it, and I am not happy now.

    I have been working on three children's picture books and planning on publishing one this summer, hoping to get it out there in hard copy and as an epub. What is this going to mean for me? I cannot publish it and have it read on iPad because they have exclusive authors?

    Let us spread the word and complain to Apple. To dis their producers and have it effect their consumers in such a way that they do not have variety is not that smart.

  4. Apple has always moved ahead and left standards behind. What they're doing here isn't new to them. And what better way to test changes the might not work than to give it to a limited sub-set of developers, possibly developers who have paid them to develop the technology?

  5. Ack...1.2 wrecked some of my amateurish workarounds for picture books I was producing. Apple really should make it possible to push out revisions/corrections to people that bought earlier versions.

    I realize it sort of defeats the purpose of EPUB to create a file intended just for the iBooks or Apple devices. HOWEVER I'm trying to lock the display orientation of my EPUB files - so when you turn the iPad or iPhone, it doesn't reorient everything. Is that even possible? Would that happen to be in your Straight to the Point book?

  6. If I understand it correctly, the new iBooks app allows full-page bleed on images, a major improvement for picture book creators such as myself. I totally agree that withholding info seems bizarre, but am hoping it has something to do with working out the bugs first.

    Re the size of type, etc. on a small screen, maybe publishers are hoping to switch over as much as possible of their backlist to ebooks whether they're really suitable or not.

    However, authors and illustrators are going to have to write/design with an ebook and its limitations/advantages in mind from the start in order to get the best end result, methinks. Thanks for your blog!

  7. Apple is a very controlling, proprietary-technology company. They have never had any interest in being open. That is not going to change with eBooks.

  8. Totally agree Liz. I don't even know where to find out about these illustrated books! Maybe there is nothing in the eBook store for the UK?

    Anyway, as someone who is coming from a web developer background, I am very used to (although not happy about), hacking stuff for different browsers. It seems the same for the eReader devices now.

    So, I make some feature that shows up on the iPad, but I then am faced with a huge growing list of eReaders that will also display ePUB - so I will possibly need to test for those devices as well :-

    Anyone got an ebook usability lab for hire??

  9. Thanks Liz for you blog and books, your recent EPUB books is a good send. I am with a publishing department with in the USDA, and we're exploring Ebooks, and so far are leaning towards the epub format, but with this recent Ipad 1.2 issues, we maybe have to wait and see how feasible it is to support development in a format that maybe to proprietary. Keep up the good work, look forward to your blog updates and publications.

  10. I suspect the picture book format was (maybe still is) a work in progress. As soon as they publish a how-to, they're locked into the procedures and algorithms they describe. As soon as they get it all worked out, they'll publish how to do it (or they'll add the functionality to Pages, and it'll be easy to figure out on our own). I agree, though, it's frustrating to be looking around and not be able to figure it out.

    I doubt very much Apple intends to keep it secret, but they understand they don't have the same leverage with publishers as Amazon does, so if they published too soon, they'd risk Amazon beating them to the punch with their own tech.

  11. The folks I work with (university faculty) can't use inDesign (too expensive) or write ePub from scratch (they have responsibilities that preclude the learning investment required). That leaves Sigil (Mac/Win) and Pages (Mac).

    With ePub 3 on the horizon, it's understandable that things are in a state of flux with regard to the standard-ness of ePub.Perhaps we'll see more attempts at achieving a fait accompli with ePub 3.

    It will be interesting to see if the Pages app in iWork '11 predicted for the next quarter will reveal any more clues.

  12. ePub 3? That sounds promising, maybe this is an early implementation and still a moving target. Seems fair to assume that the new ePub format will support larger screens and fullscreen images.

  13. At the risk of being off-topic, why not also scold Amazon for their lousy ebook format? Of course, the Kindle devices are e-ink so far, but you also have kindle for ipad to worry about and future tablet devices. Sure, you can submit epubs to Amazon, but the css support is too limited to do anything.

  14. @Robert. I think what bugs me most about Apple is that they are pretending to follow the standards by saying they support ePUB and then don't really follow them much at all. Amazon makes no such pretensions. I think Amazon's choice of format is unfortunate and wouldn't buy a single-use device like the Kindle, but at least they're up front about it. (Don't worry, though, I have plenty of complaints about Amazon too :)

  15. @Anonymous the first one, you can update the books by re-opening the iTunes packages and putting in a new ePub and then resubmitting. It's not obvious and at my company have had problems knowing if this works or not.

    It is annoying that they have kept so much secret from normal ebook publishers. We also make apps and you get more information about how everything works with which we can usually track a problem down. Not so with iBooks.

    Also has anyone seen how to create these new illustrated books or is that a closely guarded secret still?!

  16. @Mark, you might be able to deconstruct an example if one could be found without DRM. I see that Apple has made a few eBooks for developers available AND they are not DRM'd. Currently, i am looking at the one on iOS human interface guidelines. I use BBEdit so it's a simple matter of dragging and dropping an .ePub file onto the BBEdit icon in the MacOS X dock.

  17. @flowney,
    I like the idea that university faculty have responsibilities that preclude learning.

    Writing an ePub from scratch wasn't very difficult. I would hope that university faculty, of all people, would be able to have opportunities to collaborate with smart, technical people who will work cheap or for free.

  18. @flowney

    I had heard somewhere that those books available were done for the old version. Does anyone know if that is true? Has anyone tested these out in the new version of iBooks?

  19. What on earth is the rush? Personally, I'm glad that Apple is making an effort to get things working right before they publish documentation. The last thing I need is specs and procedures that change every few weeks. I spent a decade chasing changes in browser renderings, and I'd rather avoid doing that again. And though I'm eager to see how the new tricks are done, I think they've done great with their documentation so far.

  20. The "Restless Universe" that I cited earlier, works nicely in iBooks 1.2, the newest version. If memory serves, these functions worked in the previous version except that text was subject to standard page boundaries, flow, etc. Now, it's wall-to-wall. Even double-tapping illustrations goes to the full screen though that doesn't help many of them, just adds more white space.

  21. Liz: there is a reason Apple didn't and still doesn't want majority of people to create ebooks in a fixed layout - that's against the spirit of epub and won't work too well in different aspect ratios, think maybe Apple TV or iPod nano...
    I don't think there ever will be a good solution that will allow both a reflow and decent positioning, unless you go the route of FOSI os XSL:FO which is not for the faint of heart, so you have to bear in mind that this current solution is pretty much a 'hack' to make it work to those who absolutely need it and need it right now.
    I think in the future it will be replaced by HTML5 canvas or a similar solution.

  22. A writer, graphic designer, and publisher, I am currently ripping my hair out trying to get my InDesign picture book to work as an EPUB. The best format is a PDF, of course, as the picture book does not need text reflow. After 30 years of supporting Apple (as a published author with Scholastic and as an independent publisher as well), I am very disappointed in Apple's lack of ibook support to independent publishers with GREAT products.

    Liz, thank you for any help you can give us on how to create an EPUB picture book that maintains the original image and text layout and design quality. Your EPUB book is being delivered to me, today, but it doesn't sound like you have yet published on this specific topic - darn!

  23. I *have* written about how to create Fixed Layout EPUBs. A whole miniguide. It's free to anyone who's bought my book, no matter where you've bought it, or $4 if you want to buy it on its own. More info here:

  24. Hi,
    This is Debasish from India. I am a Publishing Service provider, One of the my client request to quote for a service, but I don't know how I convert there MSS to fixed-layout epub, there is complete child illustration book.
    Clients Comment:
    "I believe they changed the requirement for illustrated books in mid-March in that they now require them to be in fixed layout form" can you help me in this regards.


  25. I believe they changed the requirement for illustrated books in mid-March in that they now require them to be in fixed layout form. Can you help me in this regards

  26. @Lisa Tennant - Did you manage to get your children's books published on iTunesConnect?


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