Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Quick iBooks for Mac preview

Update: Several people have reported to me that iBooks for Mac does not support pop-up footnotes. Hopefully that's a bug that will be fixed soon!

Although there have been ebook readers for the Mac for some time, I was very pleased to hear that Apple's new operating system (Mavericks) includes iBooks for the Mac—which in contrast with most other desktop ereaders (except Readium) supports both flowing and fixed layout and both EPUB 2 and EPUB 3 format ebooks. Since iBooks is free and installed automatically, this means that Mavericks users will be able to double-click an EPUB file from the desktop—or an email message—and have it open right up.

EPUB files with iBooks icon

I was very anxious to see what iBooks might look like on the Mac. But I'm not so foolhardy as to install a brand new operating system on my computer while I'm finishing up a couple of big projects, so I installed it on my daughter's computer instead! I thought I'd give you a quick rundown of what I found.

First, you don't have to install iBooks separately, it comes included with Mavericks. I found it on the dock: an orange circle with an open book.

iBooks on Dock

When I opened it up, it immediately asked me to sign in with my AppleID—it feels like you can't go anywhere these days without identification. I find it a bit oppressive, especially since I wasn't on my own computer. And though it let me log in, I couldn't download any of my purchased books because I had already authorized five computers and this wasn't one of them. So I went and deauthorized them all and then reauthorized this one only to be warned that if I downloaded books from this particular AppleID account, I wouldn't be able to download items from a different AppleID account (e.g., my daughter's, who owns the computer) for 90 days. I didn't think she'd be very happy with me, so I didn't do it. I tried creating a separate user and then opened iBooks again, but got the same error. So I opted not to download any of my already purchased books.


This was frustrating to me. I should be able to access my purchases on any device to which I log in, whether or not someone else also has an account there. This means iBooks doesn't really work in the cloud—it only works on your personal devices on the cloud, not at the library, or at the vacation house you rented, or on the computer you borrowed from your daughter.

For testing purposes, however, I don't have any trouble getting my hands on other EPUB documents. I chose an EPUB3 flowing book, and EPUB3 fixed layout book with JavaScript, and a fixed layout book with EPUB2-style read aloud.

To load them into iBooks you choose not File > Open Book (which remains stubbornly grayed out, and refers to opening a book that's already in iBooks), but rather File > Add to Library. You can add a few by command- or shift-clicking multiple items in the dialgo box. Click the Add button and you'll see them listed in your library screen.

Library, showing title and author

If you've logged in with your AppleID, you'll also see any books that you'd previously purchased, with tantalizing cloud icons in their upper right corners. Display the books' authors and titles by choosing "Show Title & Author" from the Sort By menu in the upper right corner of the Library window.

Let's look first at the flowing book (double-click to open). I used What's up with Catalonia? (a recent collection of essays from leading Catalan leaders and thinkers on the independence movement there).

The default view is a two-page spread. The cover is shown on the left-hand side, which in my case, shifted the copyright page to the right-hand page, and the title page to the left-hand page, an effect I didn't like much. But of course, there's not a lot of control with a flowing book, so I bit my tongue.

You can switch to a one-page view by choosing View > Single Page or by simply dragging the right edge of the page to make the layout narrower. iBooks will let you view a narrow single page, or you can drag it out to make it wider.

flowing book 2
flowing book 3

If you get too wide, iBooks will first add white margins around the text, and finally it will shift to a two-page layout to keep the text from displaying on excessively long lines. You'd think you could choose View > Two Pages to go to the two-page spread view, but although it was automatically chosen when I pulled the layout out manually, it was always grayed out, and I couldn't ever choose it. Looks like a bug.

flowing book 4
flowingbook 5
flowing book 6

Click the full-screen option (diagonal arrows in the right top corner to fill the window with the screen, which means a two-page spread with moderately wide paragraphs and ample margins.

flowing book 8

Make the text larger with Command-+, and then make it smaller with Command-–.

flowing book 10

And yes, you can make the text sufficiently large so that a full-view contains only a single page.

flowing book 9

But you can't make it so small as to force a third page.

Turn pages either by clicking the arrows that appear when you hover over the right or left edges of the page, or perhaps more easily by clicking the right and left arrows on your keyboard.

page arrows

Consult a dictionary for the definition of a word by double-clicking the word in question.


If you select a phrase or two, you can choose to highlight (or underline) the text for further reference, add a note, copy it, look it up in the dictionary, search the web or Wikipedia, or post the selected text to Facebook, Twitter, send it in a Message or Email, or (with Start Speaking) read the selection out loud.

iBooks for Mac options

iBooks appends a link to the excerpt's book on the iBookstore, but that link only works if the copy came from the actual copy of the book on the iBookstore (and not a local version).

excerpt notes

If you already know you want to highlight, hold down the Command key while you're selecting text.

iBooks won't let you copy more than a few paragraphs of text at a time, presumably for copyright reasons.

You can see the contents of a note in two ways. First, you can click the little note icon next to the highlighted text itself. Or you can view all your notes and highlighted text by clicking the small page icon on the left side of the window. The notes will be organized by chapter—as long as the book is in EPUB3 format with a proper NAV document. If the ebook is in EPUB2 document, the notes are displayed in chronological order, which seems a lot less useful, to be honest. You can jump to the referenced section in the book by clicking the page number next to the note.

iBooks notes

You can consult the Table of Contents by clicking the bulleted list icon in the upper-left corner. Note that the chapter currently being viewed will be highlighted in blue. (Curiously, this works for both EPUB2 and EPUB3 documents.)


OK, how about Fixed Layout?

I opened up my Monarch Butterfly Book to see how iBooks for Mac would do. The Monarch Butterfly Book is EPUB3. I felt compelled to jump to Full Screen view right away so the photography-filled book wasn't lost among the myriad windows on my screen. You can always choose View > Thumbnails, click the little Thumbnails icon, or press Comand Shift T to make the handy page thumbnails appear at the bottom of the screen. Click on a page to jump there.


All of the JavaScript effects in the book worked just fine, including transitions and animations, scripts, and more. Again, use the right and left arrows for navigating (or the thumbnails), and the mouse to click.

You can also set bookmarks for fixed layout books. And once you have, you'll see them listed when you click the bookmarks menu.

There are two related things that annoyed me about iBooks rendering of fixed layout: you can't show a single page, and you can't zoom in to a book. My Monarch Butterfly Book has high resolution photos but you can't zoom in to see the details like you can on the iPad or iPhone.

One solution is to create a single image out of two pages (half of the image is on each page), like I do in Barcelona Beyond Gaudí: (If you were specifically targeting an EPUB to a laptop audience, you could also be careful with the aspect ratio so that it better fit a horizontal orientation.)

one image with two pages

Read Aloud, and Right-to-Left Page Progression

My manga.epub example is an EPUB 3 fixed layout book with Japanese writing and right-to-left page progression. I'm happy to report that iBooks for Mac displayed it perfectly, including the proper highlighting of the words when the Read Aloud media overlay was invoked. You can double-click words to have iBooks restart the reading from that point.

iBooks for Mac Read Aloud_Japanese

Another interesting thing is that you can have multiple books open at the same time. This is obviously useful for readers, but I can see it coming in very handy for testing and production work as well.

iBooks-multiple books

Finally, I should call your attention to iBooks' preferences, where users can choose whether to force text justification (regular line endings on the right side of the page) or let the lines divide naturally, and/or whether to allow hyphenation. I haven't yet tested whether these settings override or are overridden by settings in an EPUB document itself.

Users can also choose to sync bookmarks, highlights, and collections across devices, but it didn't work for my manually uploaded books. I suspect it only works for books purchased from the iBookstore.

I'd love to hear if you find out anything else interesting about iBooks for Mac. Overall, I'm pretty pleased. It's great to have a free program on the Mac that people can read EPUB ebooks with.


  1. Thanks for the write-up. I wondered if you think this makes it easier, or harder to develop ebooks for iBooks. For example:

    How confident can we be that iBooks for OS X is feature identical to its iOS siblings? Does it obviate the need to test on iOS devices or at least provide a faster way to iterate a design prior to testing there? Will ebook projects long since finished need to be re-tested in the desktop app to make sure they still work? Are retina vs non retina issues worked out?

    I'm a bit of a pessimist about it and figure there must be at least some new issues this introduces.

    1. (I would be looking at some of this myself but need to hold off on the update until I know what issues it will create for the version of VMWare Fusion I'm using, if I fail to fork over $49 to upgrade it.)

  2. Thanks for the quick review. At first, I was lamenting that iBooks looks plain, but then I realized that in comparison to Digital Editions it's a beauty queen. This is 1.0, so hopefully later editions will look more spiffy.

    Like you, I wonder why those who develop ePub readers insist on placing everything in libraries. Is it just in imitation of Digital Editions? Maybe. If so, someone needs to think outside the DE box.

    I do realize that books with DRM or those stored in the cloud do need some sort of management. But why can't iBooks let us view ePubs like Preview lets us view pdf. Placing every thing we view however briefly, in a library means we have to manage that library. Drafts we glance at just once will linger there until we go to all the bother of deleting them. That a pain.

    I might add a couple of tips to yours.

    1. Hitting the space bar will page forward in a document.

    2. At least on my Mac, clicking on an ePub still defaulted to opening it in Digital Editions. But when I selected an ePub and entered command-I, I could choose to open that ePub with iBooks and click the Change All button to open all ePubs with iBooks. Much better. ePubs that I click on are still added to that pesky library, but at least they open quickly.

    --Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  3. epub:type="noteref" not work in windowed mode.
    full screen - ok.

  4. noteref'd footnotes are not working if the notes are marked as neither windowed nor full screen... When you click a footnote link, reader renders the last page of that chapter (where the aside elements are listed invisible)...

    huge disappointment...

    1. I've written < aside > without spaces. Sorry :)

  5. Mavericks should run on about 80-90m Macs (most made since 2008), but there are 170m iPads out there and 400m iPhones. I'm not expecting any changes to my sales numbers unless Apple can successfully now promote iBooks as a viable alternative to Kindle.

  6. Some quick notes from my first few days with it:

    -- Caching on the Desktop version is worse than iOS. Once an epub has been loaded, original versions of the pages will be cached. The pages will update to the new code, but there's this weird transition that happens. Old code appears first, new code then fades over it... Very frustrating for testing, but, changing the ISBN in the opf will cause iBooks to setup a new cache.

    -- Footnotes don't work as expected. I was using it to generate pop-ups of translations, but the functionality is pretty much completely broken. Looks like they're working on it, as the latest version seems to offer some modest functionality.

    -- As a result of ^^, I had to use touch-events and mouse-events to determine which platform I was on during page loads, and change the functionality where appropriate. Apple rejected one of our books based on the broken footnote functionality in iBooks for Desktop.


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