Tag Archives: iBooks Author

Exploring iBooks Author Books and Templates

I’ve talked to a few authors and editors who wish to create custom templates for iBooks Author, well beyond what is possible making minor changes to fonts.

To create a custom template with altered background images and formatting, first create a simple iBook using an existing template.

If you are familiar with the ePub format, which is a compressed directory, you know there are several folders within the ePub. These folders contain what might be compared to a self-contained website. I like the ePub structure and wish iBooks were closer to that format than they are. But, Apple goes its own way. The iBooks format is much simpler than ePubs.

Do you wonder what is inside an iBooks “iba” file? To find out, do the following:

    1. Copy your “.iba” (I use the Apple-D “Duplicate” command in Finder)
    2. Change the extension from “.iba” to “.zip”
    3. Double-click the “.zip” file, which will uncompress the folder
    4. Explore the new folder

First, you will notice there are a lot of files. In the iBook I tested for this analysis, there were 16,720 files and one folder. That’s why I suggest using a nearly empty book to craft a custom template.

The entire text of the book, layout information, and revision data reside in two files:

    buildVersionHistory.plist
    index.xml

The “index.xml” can be opened in any text editor. If you open this file, you can skim through the file until you see the text of your book. While the ePub format supports chapters or sections as individual files, the Apple approach places everything in one huge XML file. Again, I prefer the ePub standard instead of placing everything in one disorganized folder.

The only subdirectory / folder that Apple creates in the iBooks format is named “QuickLook.” The folder contains thumbnail images of the book. This is interesting because the mail folder also contains a long list of thumbnail images. In the sample book I am using for this analysis, the thumbnails in the main folder are named KFPageThumbnail-XXX.jpeg, where the XXX ranges from 1 to 650.

In the example books I have explored, there are some images that seem to exist no matter what. These image files are:

    slate_green.jpg
    slate_grey.jpg
    slate_light-grey.jpg
    slate_rust.jpg
    slate_tan.jpg
    slate_yellow.jpg

I don’t know what the purpose of the “slate” set of images might be, but they appear in three different books I created using a mix of templates. Maybe someone else can dig into these?

There are also several other image files. These seem to be the images used for the various templates, based on my explorations. These files are different in each template. The design files in the book used for this example are:

    Background-1.jpg
    Colored_paper_backgrounds-1.jpg
    Light-parchment-paper_a-1.jpg
    Photo 2.jpg
    Photo 6.jpg
    Shape1.png

Three Adobe/Apple color profiles are also in the book folder:

    color-profile
    color-profile-1
    color-profile-2

If you want to craft a custom template, you need to alter the files in this uncompressed iBook folder. For example, you could change the “Background-1.jpg” to a background of your own design. Match the size of the existing file, though. Don’t worry about things like “DPI” or other settings in a graphics program: focus on the pixel-by-pixel size, such as 1024-by-768 pixels used by the original iPad screens.

Once you have changed images or made other tweaks, you can then compress the file back into a “.zip” format. Changing “.zip” to “.iba” makes the compressed folder an “iBook” again, a document you can open and edit in iBooks Author.

Again, the steps are:

    1. Create an “empty” shell book using an existing template.
    2. Duplicate the file and change the extension to “.zip” so it can be decompressed.
    3. Decompress the iBook into a folder you can edit.
    4. Alter or replace any images you wish to customize.
    5. Compress the modified folder.
    6. Change the extension from “.zip” back to “.iba” to open the file in iBooks Author.
    7. Open the new file in iBooks Author and save it as a template!

You now have a customized template.

For a discussion on creating a template, read the following thread in the Apple Discussion Forums:

https://discussions.apple.com/thread/3677610

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.