Friday, January 20, 2012

Multimedia reinvented, or, how to publish in today's world.

Apple announced iBook 2.0 yesterday and it boils down to publishing books with enhanced interactivity on iOS devices using touch gestures, like most of us with iStuff are used to. The things that are possible on the new iBook app were possible in online magazines for some time and in other platforms for years, almost as long as I can remember. Problem was the authoring tools used were kinda technical and it wasn't easy to built something descent if you were a casual user. So Apple took their iWork tools and modules and libraries and components and created some new ones and there you got iBooks Author 1.0.

You can use it to create smart interactive online books and publish them on the Apple store for money. Or you can just create your own nice little book that you want to share with friends who have iPads too. Building such books is rather easy, if you think hierarchically, meaning, in terms of chapters, sections, and paragraphs. TOCs are created automatically and most of the rest you need to do is either drag and drop or copy 'n paste. I transferred a 100 page two language book from InDesign to iBooks Author in a matter of a few hours. Of course the result wasn't too interactive, as interactivity was not desired in that particular case. The use of InDesign in my case was purely coincidental. It could have been a Word document or even a plain vanilla PDF. Copy, highlight a text container's Lorem Ipsum bla bla bla, paste and Bob's your uncle. The Author creates as many pages as necessary to accommodate your content and there you go. Next Section.

The fun part is when you connect an iPad to your authoring station (a Mac something). While you're editing on the Mac, you can preview in almost real time the result on the iPad. And you can use your cute little finger and do some gestures to check whether your intended interactivity works as desired/designed. Authoring with iBooks Author also involves embedding a number of widgets that help you build quite sophisticated interactivity. Sort of. You are only limited by your imagination. For sophisticated authors, they have allowed low-level code intervention with HTML (5 I'd reckon) to build custom and cooler interactivity. I can live without though. Too old for that.

Submitting an ebook to Apple for publication requires an extra level of complexity that I decided not to pursue after receiving to my face a statement like I couldn't download (in Europe?) a certain facility necessary to submit the source files to them*. I hope they make the process easier, like Amazon's Kindle submissions, for instance, that also seven year olds are able to do. It took me less than half hour to prepare a doc per their specs including cover, decide commercial conditions and publish a book in Amazon Kindle, that took another half day by themselves to approve and put live in six of their sites over both sides of the pond. Well done Amazon. Real money makers 'long tail' style.

Nowadays, publishing books at the lowest possible cost and maximum quality is a piece of tiramisu, if you know what I mean. At least if you are a little proficient with software and computers, that is. Not at a PhD level, mind you. Just Sixth grade stuff.

I use two services for printing books. The one I used when I first printed a photo album for myself (Apple) I don't touch anymore because they are insanely expensive. Great quality but too costly for what you get. Also, they don't offer a market where you might by accident sell some books, like I did once to someone who liked a book of mine about Paris-La Defense and the Cartier Latin. The two I'm using nowadays however are Blurb and Lulu. (Jeez, what's wrong with online book printers who select brand names like for braindead...)

Blurb is good quality for photo books, but their binding is often kinda cheap. I had books fall apart. Their papers and printing however are super! You make books for Blurb either by using their own Booksmart software, or online, and since recently via the Beta version of Lightroom 4.0. The latter is based on an embedded pretty neat module from Blurb and is well integrated into Lightroom. Booksmart is far more flexible, and one thing I noted was that a book I did with Lightroom wasn't salable in eBook for iPad format. Maybe I did something wrong. When you create and upload books with Booksmart this has never been an issue. At Blurb, you can also create your own content file in PDF format (with InDesign for example) and Blurb tells you what to pay attention to, but I have not yet tried that. I have only done this with Lulu.

Lulu is for pro's. You need to know stuff like InDesign to create proper PDFs of the final documents and you also need to know imaging stuff like Photoshop to create your own covers. Their proposed cover design facility is probably OK for most people, but not for eclectics like myself. The interesting thing about Lulu is the low production cost, the discounts, the large variety of book sizes and qualities and formats, and the fact that they are built for large retail distributions. They'll supply to you free ISBNs at your heart's desire, and they'll be the middle man to sell your books via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others. They'll also do marketing for you if you pay them a fee. They are really good. I just helped a friend publish a book and it all went pretty smoothly and was highly professional. They even pushed the book references to the Google search engines.

What is the conclusion then? Well, anybody with creative talent who'd like to sell his/her written works worldwide and make them known in far broader and geographically distant markets can do that today at a minimum cost. You don't need to look for expensive editor houses, spend a fortune in marketing and begging them to accept your stuff, and hope they'll sell just because they are called Penguin, or McGraw. Of course these lads have earned their merits and I wouldn't dare minimize their importance, but I am looking at the Internet as an engine that flattened the world of Publishing to quote the "World is flat" author. Democratization of media, genuine meritocracy and may the best win.

I came across a 'writer' like this who made a fortune publishing his works online, without the help of Editors. He's only got someone to design his covers, he sez. Not too glamorous either, I may say. Like first gen HTML homepages sort of thing. He claims he sold 700 thousand ebooks most of them via Amazon and he's probably made for himself the best part of 5M bucks. I read samples of his content and I wouldn't say he's any close to make it to Stockholm in December any time soon, if ever. However, he's making a living out of his loft literally, in front of PC or Mac, and with his imagination full of cheap plots that sell in the thousands. Good for him. Not everyone is born to be a Hemingway or a Neruda, right?

UPDATE: I took the courage to try and eventually upload a textbook (that's the name they give to interactive books at Apple). At the time I didn't know Textbooks were only for the US, at least the said so for the time being. I don't know what that exactly means because I already downloaded that free super trooper 'Life on Earth' by E.O.Wilson that they showcased even at the Guggenheim last Thursday. Anyways. Mine was a simple book with a number of stories and few strophes arranged in two chapters, plus one review chapter (for testing students to see whether they read the book). It was real fun preparing it with iTunes Author, I'd have to give them that! Then I decided to publish the package. They forced me first to become an iTunes Connect member (understandable) and I used my Belgian iTunes Appleid (they actually need an id related to a valid Credit Card). Forgot to mention, there's two types of memberships. One to send free books to iTunes and another to send them books for which you wanna charge dough for downloads. For revenue generating uploads of your books, you needed a United States IRS id number (I thought they called it EIN), even if you never intended to reside in the US in this life. I tried to get one of those but US Civil Servants are resting on Sunday, so the online registration module didn't work. I decided to try the free downloads account instead; one that you can use to donate your wisdom to the world as altruist as you are.

I first had to download an app, aka iTunes Producer (sic), that actually access the package that the Author creates when you hit the 'publish' button, and further adds metadata about your upload, like descriptions, author names, editor names, screenshots, etc... and if all's well it sends it to the cloud in a heartbeat. I messed up a few times with the screenshots because it needs well specified resolutions to be accepted (three I believe from those related to the iPad monitor max pixels) and eventually I passed their local validation asset testing, and the package lifted off! A few minutes later I logged in iTunes Connect and tried the "manage your uploads function", but my book wasn't there yet. About ten minutes later it popped up. Fine. Now I knew Apple had the book in its possession and it looked ok. I could also disable distribution to anyone, if I wanted to. Of course, I wanted to get my hands on it via the Store for Textbooks, but there it stopped. The book is nowhere to see... Do they validate it with humans once more before they release it? Probably... who can say. I'd have to go dig on the net to find out how it works next. I decided to drop a line to their support dudes to find out quicker. It's then that I saw that textbooks were only available in the US for the time being (search me what that means).

Anyways, so far so good. I'll probably have to wait a few more days for another update here about whether this thing will ever be searchable and downloadable to everyone's iPad or not?
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