Experimenting with iBooks Author

I spent about two and a half hours playing around with iBooks Author tonight, trying to figure out various things about how it works. For 1.o software, it’s actually not bad at all. What is implemented works and works pretty well, but there is plenty of room for expansion. Right now, I have nine pages of the latest issue of Horizons, in iBooks on my iPad, and to just be able to push a button and make that happen is pretty sweet.

• Tables of Contents are auto-generated for each chapter when you add a new chapter to the document. Author is built specifically for textbooks, so you’re forced into preface/chapter/etc. terminology with no apparent way to change it for publications where those sections make no sense, like a magazine or a catalog.

• The Table of Contents pages for each chapter are difficult to edit, mostly because there is a photo for those pages that you cannot delete. If you don’t want to use a half-page vertical photo for each chapter, you have to move the photo box off of the visible area of the page. You cannot just delete it.

• There doesn’t seem to be a way to automatically generate even a starter layout (your elements, but obviously not positioned correctly) for whatever screen orientation you don’t start with. The program defaults to landscape; so if you want to support both orientations and also have a portrait mode for your publication, you have to build it entirely from scratch. So to support both, you’re essentially forced to build two completely independent books instead of one.

• There is no support for creating or importing custom colors. The only available colors are obtained from the system-level color picker.

• You cannot link text boxes and flow text in between them. If you have text that requires multiple pages, you have to paste the entire story on the first page and then cut off the bottom, then paste the entire story on the second page and cut off the top. This is a huge drawback when you consider having to build portrait and landscape modes entirely separately, especially if you’re working on a document of any size at all.

• Custom shapes are a pain; you are limited to picking points with a pen tool. But, once you’ve created the shape, there isn’t a hollow-arrow type cursor that lets you select individual points to edit each of the shape’s vertices. You’re stuck resizing the entire shape with the regular cursor. This is a page layout program with word processor-level controls; Apple will need to add some pro page layout features for this to really take off.

• I didn’t see a way to customize the appearance of the widgets. For example, the chrome around the photos for the gallery widget is enormous and, beyond deleting the text so those areas are all blank, there didn’t seem to be a way to get rid of the chrome entirely or pick an alternate chrome that allowed more space for the photos. As it stands right now, the chrome takes up a ton of space. It’s probably OK for very large photos, but for smaller photos it really takes away valuable space that should be afforded to the actual art.

Lots of little nitpicks for 1.0 software, I know; I don’t want to make it seem like I’m down on it either, because I’m not. What I was able to achieve in just a few hours while I was mostly just trying to learn to navigate the software is pretty remarkable, I think. I have nine pages of this magazine running in an eBook version on my iPad; on Friday, any notion of an “electronic version” of Horizons began and ended with “well we have a PDF version.”

There is a lot of initial work to get going here, but I suspect that once I get the hang of the software I can build a custom Horizons template and use that to save a ton of time in the future. It’s like anything else – do a ton of work up front to save yourself time in the future.

There will be some hacks who put publish terrible stuff with this – you’re going to see a lot of “magazines” coming from schools that are just full-page JPEG images dropped into Author and uploaded, which will be horrible. But there will also be some phenomenal work done with this as people get a chance to get used to it and discover how to push the boundaries of what the software can do. This is really exciting, and there really is unlimited potential for very cool stuff to come from this ecosystem.

Now the fun part will be to wait and see how often Apple issues updates for iBooks Author. They should be in possession of a significant list of feature requests for future releases, and I wonder if the speed at which Apple is able to release updates and add new functionality to the software will be an indicator of how seriously they’re really taking this project. Are we going to see frequent updates and lots of activity? Or will this be relegated to “hobby” status for Apple, like the AppleTV used to be? I suspect the former, so the wait is officially on for the first software update.

Now to plan my next iBooks Author projects — a completely unauthorized encyclopedia of IDW’s G.I. Joe comics. That’ll be fun. 😀

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