iBooks Author

Between Kieran Healy, Glenn Fleishman, Andy Ihnatko, and John Siracusa, almost everything I might have said about iBooks Author at this early date has already been said. Kieran and Glenn made the point that we’ve been hearing about computer technology revolutionizing education for decades—Kieran even got off a joke comparing iBooks Author to Encarta, something I was trying to squeeze into a tweet until I read his post. Andy made a simple little iBook1 to get a sense of how it worked. John went into too much detail (even for him) on the iBook structure and its relation to EPUB.

There are a few scraps left for me, though.


I might want to make an iBook one day, but I can’t imagine myself writing an entire book as a single “file” (it’s not a single file, but it looks like one in iBooks Author) in an environment like a word processor or page layout program. I gave up working in a word processor ages ago and have no intention of going back, but even if you like using word processors, you wouldn’t put a whole book in a single file, would you?

Assembling a book out of separate chapter or section files is where scripting would normally be used, but Andy said iBooks Author has no AppleScript commands to speak of and compared its AppleScript library to TextEdit’s. He was being generous; TextEdit’s library has a couple of minor features that iBooks Author’s doesn’t. Maybe Apple will add scripting features to a later version, but I wouldn’t bet on it; Apple doesn’t seem too keen on AppleScript anymore.2

Which raises the question of creating an iBook outside of iBooks Author. Is it possible?

Even after listening to Hypercritical, I still wasn’t sure whether any of the binary data in an iBook—from the images, sounds, and movies that may be included in it—gets bound up with the text. I was going to make a short iBook to test this, but when I heard that Andy had already done so, I just downloaded his and took a look at it.

Andy’s iBook is called Readme.Quack. When you download it, it’s in the form of a 3.4 MB zip file, called Readme.Quack.ibooks.zip. Unzip it3 and you’ll get Readme.Quack.ibooks. This is, in itself, a zipped archive, and if you run

unzip Readme.Quack.ibooks

you’ll get a file called mimetype, a folder called OPS, and a folder called META-INF. As best I can tell, all the files are plain text except the media files (images, sounds, and movies in standard formats) and a few binary plist files in the OPS/assets/hints subdirectory. The plist files could, conceivably, start off as text XML files and be compiled to binary, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to create the XML. I converted one of Andy’s plists to XML format through the plutil command,

plutil -convert xml1 content1-landscape.plist

and found that it had a <data> block,


which might be hard to generate. I think if someone could crack the structure of these <data> blocks, iBook assembly could be automated. It might require a hybrid approach—using iBooks Author to generate template files, perhaps—but it seems possible. If so, authors could publish their work in several formats without having to redo the layout every time.

Update 1/22/12
Prompted by a comment from Mark Eli Kalderon, an old hand at converting plain text files from format to format, I took another look at iBooks Author and the files it uses.

First, an .ibooks file cannot be opened in iBooks Author. If you download Andy’s example, you’ll find that it doesn’t consider iBooks Author to be its parent application. The working file that iBooks Author saves to has an .iba extension; it’s only when an publication is exported that the .ibooks file is created.

An .iba file is also a zip archive, filled with JPEG, XML, TIFF, plist and color profile files. I haven’t spent any time looking into these—I just created a new file from one of the templates, changed a couple of words, and saved—but apart from the color profiles, everything is either a text file or in a standard media format. Obviously, this may change as the publication becomes larger and more complex, but it does suggest that the best way to semi-automate the making of an iBook is to create an .iba file from your source material, do your layout in iBooks Author, then export the finished iBook.

Disposable textbooks

Many people are less than enthusiastic about iBooks Author because Apple chose a non-standard format for iBooks—EPUBish, but not EPUB. They don’t want their iBooks getting locked into a format that could be abandoned in a few years. For most textbooks, though, that’s not a problem.

I’m probably not the best person to talk about this, because I love textbooks. I still have almost all of my college texts and have over the years collected many old, classic texts in engineering and structural mechanics. When I think of a textbook’s lifetime, I think in terms of decades, not years.

But most people don’t have that kind of relationship with their college textbooks. They use them for a semester and seldom refer to them later. It doesn’t matter to them if the format of the book gets orphaned. And is there such a thing as a “classic” K-12 textbook, one that continues to be used, unchanged, for years and years? It strikes me that the K-12 textbook industry is continually updating and revising its “product.” The potential for Apple to drop the iBook format some years from now might be a concern for authors, but it shouldn’t bother K-12 textbook readers.

Non-school uses

One type of textbook that hasn’t been discussed (as far as I know) is the course material for in-house training and continuing education short courses. This is an education market that’s often overlooked but seems ideal for iBooks.

Have you ever taken one of these courses? I’ve never been subjected to in-house training, but I have taken several short courses, some on my own initiative, some that were required to maintain my professional engineering license. The course material is usually a three-ring binder full of badly photocopied journal articles written by the teacher, a few book excerpts, and printouts from the course’s PowerPoint deck. These courses don’t need 500-page behemoth texts, but could really benefit from the kind of well-produced 50-100 pager that seems to be the iBooks Author sweet spot.

And frankly, although there’s much clucking of tongues over the short attention spans of these kids today, I think it’s adults—who have jobs and families and have been out of school for years—that need the extra whizziness of iBooks to hold their interest.

As for me

When Apple launched the iBookstore a couple of years ago, I thought about putting something together to sell there, but I didn’t think I could get the kind of formatting I wanted—not, at least, without far more effort than I was willing to put in. iBooks Author has me thinking about it again. If someone develops a bit of automation for it, or if I could come up with a way to use it that wouldn’t leave me screaming in frustration, I might give it a try.

  1. There’s been some discussion about what to call these things. I’m going to call each publication made by iBooks Author an iBook. I know Apple made a laptop called the iBook—I had one for several years—but they’ve retired that product, and I don’t think there’ll be any confusion. The filename extension is .ibooks, and I suspect the singular form of that is what’s going to stick, even though iBooks is the name of the app in which we read iBooks. 

  2. I’m not keen on AppleScript, either. Like all right-thinking people, I despise it. But despite its many frustrations, AppleScript works. Tedious, repetitive actions can be scripted away. 

  3. You don’t allow your browser to automatically open “safe” files, do you?