Some iBooks Author Thoughts

I have been working in iBooks Author and finding it fairly good for basic tasks. However, the moment you want a bit extra from the program, it does fall short. Then again, the ePub 2 format also falls short in numerous areas.

The “.iba” (iBooks) and “.epub” formats are nothing more than standard compressed “zip” files containing various folders and files of HTML, images, fonts, and more. The structures are well documented, but not simple to edit and update without a good tool.

Let me acknowledge that some of the “problems” I experience with ePub/iBook formats are limitations that will require some re-imagining of the book format. The issues arise because eBooks in various formats are designed to allow the *reader* more control of content than the designer. The eBook concept is reader-centered, not designer centered.

The reader can change orientation (portrait vs. landscape), magnification, typefaces, font sizes, and screen colors (inverse, for example, when white-on-black is preferable than black on white). With everything a reader can do, the layout of a book is dynamic, not static.

My mind is already pondering how eBook generators could be improved.

A dynamic book, at least with current tools, cannot display footnotes or marginalia easily. My opinion is that references should “pop-up” the full citation, which for now means coding in HTML. I’d prefer an easier method that not only adds a pop-up, but it would be great to add citations to a bibliography and include links to works available via various booksellers.

I suppose a simple script can be added to the eBook pages, just like you might use for website pop-up definitions. I’ll certainly be testing the idea for my current projects.

The dynamic pages also make indices difficult. You cannot link to “page numbers” because the numbers change. For now, creating links to anchors within the text is the best solution I can imagine. Links are not a perfect solution, but they are a solution.

Again, hand-coding links is not horrible, but can’t this be automated? The programming logic is straightforward: given a word or phrase, find it and create a link. The text of the link could be the chapter and section numbers, since page numbers won’t help readers. An example index entry might read: Fonts; Ch 1 Sec 2, Ch 2 Sec 1. It isn’t as convenient as page numbers at first glance, but remember that these would be hyperlinks to the anchors. I plan to use this approach for a book we’re converting at this moment.

To use the “anchor” approach, you do need to keep track of anchors somehow. I suppose the anchors would be something like this: “#fonts_1″, “#fonts_2″, and so on, incremented for each new occurrence of the indexed word and not associated with a chapter or section since text can be moved. The index generator would have to track locations, though.

Most eBook generators create decent tables of content, but they don’t easily generate tables of figures or lists of tables. I’d like those features, too. Yet more “auto-generation” based on anchors, ids, and styles, I would suggest.

None of the missing features would be difficult to add to eBook generators. Already, iBooks Author includes a glossary tool. Why not add some of the other common textbook features?

Once the features are added, let’s do something about the pain and misery required to create custom templates. Why don’t the eBook tools, including iBooks, do a better job with the CSS they generate? I’ve used Pages, InDesign, Sigil, and iBooks to create eBooks. I’ve also used Scrivener. Without question, the bare minimum ePub generated by Scrivener was the best of the bunch — because it was simple. I used the Oxygen XML editor to tweak the CSS in a Scrivener ePub and was pleased.

We all mix-n-match software applications for the best possible results. We create images in Illustrator or Photoshop, edit long texts in Word, and finish the layout of a book with InDesign or QuarkXPress. But, I consider the CSS aspect of eBooks similar to the styles of InDesign or Word. Why should I need another program to tune simple CSS, with only a handful of styles?

In time, iBooks Author and similar tools will add the features I want. Even with fine-tuning and hand-coding, eBooks are much easier to create and distribute than traditional printed books.

2 thoughts on “Some iBooks Author Thoughts

  1. avatarChris Seckler

    Scott, thanks for taking the time to explain all this! Much appreciated!

    I am trying to create an HTML widget that will be able to link to content within the book. As you had mentioned in your article, In the epub3 format, I would just link to an .xhtml page that contains the content, but since the new .iba format is flow-able and there are no actual pages, how can I link to content within the book?

    I noticed that you mentioned linking to some element on the page with a specific ID, but I am not sure how to get the ID onto an element in iBooks Author. In your article, it sounds like you had not attempted this approach yet. Have you been able to get that to work? Do you have a code sample?

    Any help is greatly appreciated!

    1. avatarTameri

      In iBooks Author you can define a bookmark (simply a named anchor) and then link to the bookmarks. The links work, but I found that I couldn’t create bookmarks in some content areas. Instead of creating a bookmark at each chapter, the anchor has to be the first paragraph of actual text in the chapter.

      We are working on two books right now and have even started to delve into replacing “.iba” content to alter templates. Someone could develop a pretty decent theme tool — wish I had the time — that simply expanded the “.iba” (a standard .zip file) and allowed you to drag-n-drop new theme graphics. Add in a CSS editor and such a tool would be a winner for iBooks creators.

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