Publishers working with iBooks Author now faced with some interesting and tough choices
ePub offers an easy way to build an eBook for the iPhone, but building the book from a previous interactive book with complex page designs, the compromises can be frustrating
The release of iOS 8.4 highly anticipated by a small group of eBook designers knowing that multi-touch eBooks built using iBooks Author would now work on the iPhone – potentially opening up a big new audience for their works. The update did, indeed, bring those books to the iPhone, though no one expect miracles from Apple when it came to design, and none came.
TNM Digital Media, the company behind TNM, has published two photography books, one interactive directory, one novel and one industry trade book using iBA since late 2013, all starting with iBA (and then building new version for other platforms including print using other methods). With the exception of the novel, all the other books featured fixed layout landscape designs with widgets, videos and photo galleries. Each eBook works now in the iBooks app on the iPhone, but there are issues. For one thing, the screen dimensions of the iPad are different from the iPhone and so the layouts are not as wide as the iPhone’s display. Second, a book like Talking Digital, which has a secondary portrait design, loses that portrait layout because of the way iBA handles artwork, putting the art into a left-had side column, something that just doesn’t work for the iPhone.
To create new eBooks for the iPhone that look great, Apple included two new ePub templates in the update for iBA. The templates are minimal in the extreme (one is simply blank), and this isn’t such a surprising because this is, after all, ePub we are talking about. Meanwhile, nothing changes with the old templates and the old eBooks created with previous versions of iBA. They work on the iPhone, but look better on an iPad. Conversely, new ePub templates look fine, though simple, on the iPhone, but sometimes clunky on the iPad.
Designers of digital magazines know all about these issues. Having at first designed beautiful interactive digital magazines meant to be read on an iPad, suddenly they are told the apps need to be universal. The solution often used is simply to let the iPhone version is a replica of the iPad magazine. The solution, now seen more frequently, is to create separate designs within the same app, each native to the device the reader will use. One of the first to do this was the British Journal of Photography, using the Mag+ platform, but now this is far more common (though admittedly PDF replica far outnumber native digitla magazines).
So, what are publishers of interactive eBooks going to do? One could simply continue to publish first for the iPad, and let iPhone users get a replica of the tablet version, or one can design a second ePub version for the iPhone, or simply wait and see if Apple incorporates its ePub work inside the older templates.
This would be the best solution, but also a complicated one. It would not be as simple as an alternative layoyut, but more like having two apps in one shell. With the old templates, when a designer builds the landscape version first, the portrait version simply takes the same artwork and puts it in a new place.
TNMDM is currently building an interactive film eBook that uses a couple cool features incorporated into the previous iBA update like autoplay videos. The layouts are not overly complicated but involve full page photos with overlays. These look OK on the iPhone, but the pages don’t fit (if you remember).
So, rather than experiment with a new, complicated eBook, I went back to the first one we published: A Darker Sun, by Dean Brierly, the editor of Black & White magazine. A Darker Sun is a simple, iBA built eBook, with fixed landscape layouts, and no complex design elements. The goal: to produce a workable iPhone version of an eBook heavy on photography.
I’ve seen many attempts at this from skilled eBook designers, but the results have been mixed. The good news is that iBA doesn’t produce a bad eBook for the iPhone. The designer, if working with simply layouts, just needs to make some elemental decisions concerning where to place the photos and how to organize the eBook to best display the photography.
The first thing I noticed was that all photos work best at 667 pixels wide in the design (that is, the frame, or widget is 667 pixels wide). Then one might place them at the top, as the template suggests, but this risks have a page with only the chapter or section title on a page, then everything else jumping to the next page. I reversed this and made sure the photos followed the titles.
Most publishers of ePub books are used to their books having little design, and things falling as they may. This drives art directors crazy, and they won’t be happy with iBA producing anything that does this. Since the fonts are adjustable to ePubs, there is nothing to be done with text that lays out awkwardly. In fact, designers working off iBA files for fixed layout eBooks better remember that they likely added a bunch of soft returns in order to make the text layout nicely. These have to be deleted, of course.
In a photography book, the photos are the thing that matters. In an iPad eBook, one built using iBA making photography shine is easy. But there is no such thing as a fullscreen photo in an ePub until the reader taps the photo. So the only thing to be done is to make sure the text surrounding the photos don’t fall in odd places. This is why Apple put the photos in the template at the top of the page (all I did was move the heading up, not the text). But what about when you want more photos? Right now I think the solution is to make each photograph its own section, this allows you to easily index them, and it means that any text that might accompany the photo can follow it on the page(s).
The ePubs, built for the iPhone, work on the iPad. But they scream “ePub”. So for now a designer has to make a choice: two books, one design; or two books, two designs; or one book, one design.
Just to be clear, because one reader mentioned it, when Apple refers to ePub, they mean ePub3. But, as usual, Apple wants to keep things simple for users – like iWeb, I suppose. Don’t worry about, none of this really matters here because it is all within the Apple ecosystem. But if you use the ePub export feature, which TNM has not talked about yet, that is another matter altogether.
I’ve noticed a few bugs in the recently updated iBooks Author, nothing serious, though. I’ve heard from one reader who a problem with previewing on the iPhone, but this was a simple error (she hadn’t updated the device).
First, at times the Preview button would gray out, with solution being to save your work, quit and restart the program.
The second one involves previews themselves. In the older version, when previewing on an iPad or Mac, once you hit “Preview” the iPad or Mac would open the file at the page you have open in iBA allowing you to see the page you’ve been working on instantly. In the new version, your iPhone will open to the last page you read. That can be annoying, but not serious problem.
I haven’t encountered any other major issues with the latest version of iBA and I haven’t played around with ePub exporting, one way to use iBA as the basis for eBooks on other platforms. I still have serious issues to work out on my existing projects.