Mixed Blessings

Well, there we are. Apple announced a very positive step toward destabilising the textbook industry, check; they offered a free authoring tool for producing textbooks, check; their software, iBooks 2 and iBooks Author, is available immediately through the Apple online store, check; and they’ve announced a sort of courseware for autodidacts, check. Aye, but what’s the good news?
The announcements yesterday were both more and less than I hoped. I had expected to have to pay for a textbook authoring tool; I would have paid, gladly, for such an app. The there’s no such thing as ‘free’, either — iBooks Author will only run on OS X (that’s not astonishing), the latest version of OS X (that’s a little surprising; the functions of an app for generating EPUB files is no big deal, but apparently the sparkly things Apple added to the textbook recipe depend on features in Lion); and the End User Extortion Agreement forbids selling files produced by Author anywhere but through the Apple iBooks store (oh, come on, Apple). You can give away Author-ed EPUBS, but you can’t sell them anywhere but Apple. I don’t think that’s a DRM issue, Kelvin, if I understand the format correctly — the limitation isn’t baked into the output file — but a contractual issue.
It would make a great deal more sense to me if they’d approached the business model a few degrees differently. The app runs on OS X, that’s probably non-negotiable. The latest version? Well, if I must (I haven’t, yet). The file output matter plays precisely to Apple haters (haters gonna hate, sure, but there’s no need to feed trolls, either); if Apple is moving to the front line of textbook creation and vending, why inhibit people who are already using Apple software (OS X and Author) and hardware (to run those, and to read the iBooks) from exporting and selling the textbooks they produce? The Apple iTextbook store would still have the advantages it already enjoys: convenience, confidence, ease of access, integration with everything else in the iUniverse. The move to strong-arm authors into an exclusive relation to Apple smacks of uncertainty, as though they doubted they could continue their leadership if authors weren’t locked-in. Contrariwise, it looks to me as though by setting their file outputs free to inhabit the ebook ecology without constraint, Apple could set the standards by which etextbooks are recognised, read, and produced — more or less ensuring that they’d have a dominant share of the market without the sort of lock-in that makes some possible buyers hesitant to commit. Ironically, the closed model Apple is pursuing seems to me to intensify the impetus for competing proprietary or FOSS alternatives (InDesign, Scribus, calibre, Sigil (for the stout of heart), PDF export from your word processor of choice — anything I’m forgetting?) (Yes, Lyx.)
So that’s me: positively impressed by what they seem to have envisioned, disappointed by the limitations they’ve constructed into their model, eager to see how Author works (when I eventually get around to upgrading and trying it out), and still, always excited to see what happens when people who understand technology, education, publication, media, and so on can put their efforts together toward open models for distribution and dissemination. That’s what I thought ten-plus years ago when I began banging away at academic administrators about this; that’s what I thought eight or nine years ago, when we got enough funding to start-up the Disseminary site (but not enough support from administrators, funders, or paid participants actually to give it any momentum); that’s what I still believe.

8 thoughts on “Mixed Blessings

  1. I can’t help but be very interested to learn about your experiences with this – for obvious reasons.

  2. I wonder how they work the DRM alchemy; is the code inserted at the stage of publishing-to-iBooks store (and do they mediate those iBooks at all, as they do apps for the App Store)? Or does Apple itself inject some toxin after it gets to the iBooks Store?
    Anyway, however you slice it, the idea is pungently noxious. The Photoshop comparison doesn’t work, because one pays a donor kidney to buy Photoshop — that’s their market. I’d rather Apple had made Author a pay-for app, without the restriction. But then, I’m well-accustomed to my perspective not affecting decision-makers.

  3. Even EPUB files can be DRM-free. Apple’s ‘new’ offering sounds awesome, but it’s really using already existing formats and software to which it adds a straitjacket and some DRM. The two main electronic routes for making publishable books are PDF and some flavour of eBook (EPUB, Mobi, etc). For PDF versions, yes there’s export from Word (which needs to be added to Windows through a PDF print driver) and Open-/Libre- Office (which has built-in PDF export), but there’s also other apps as well. I’ve a few friends who swear by Scrivener. I swear by LaTeX (which was once used for typesetting in many publishing houses) which has numerous WYSIWYG editors (LyX, TeXshop, etc). I’ve found that LaTeX has completely replaced my use of Word because it is much easier after getting over the learning curve (mostly figuring out how to use the BibTeX citation package, page formatting, and the Beamer presentation slide package). I decided to use LaTeX for my thesis and I think the end result was fabulous because I didn’t need to worry about things like pagination (the compiler does that for me), chapter/section numbering when re-arranging the text (again, compiler), adjusting the table of contents (wow, compiler again!), footnote numbering (compiler!), or citation/reference format (compiler and the BibTeX Chicago format package). Heck, it’s even got a package which handles quotation marks which means I can switch from US-style quotation marks (and enclosed punctuation) to UK-style quotations (and external punctuation) by changing a single line in one file (the language setting). If only there were a package which changed spelling for me! In some ways, LaTeX is a step above Sigil in terms of difficulty; but once learned, it can handle anything: presentations, articles, books, letters, formulae, music score, indices, HTML export, PDF export, you name it!

    Both InDesign and Scribus are great, but they’re mainly for page layouts. While they work at designs, they’re not really the best for typesetting long books. I’ve seen a few designers use them when I worked in print shops, but they’re often used horribly wrong and end up taking more time than they’re worth. Calibre is mainly for managing and converting existing documents (I use it all the time for my Kindle), and its ability as a production tool is limited. However, it (as well as Pandoc) are wonderful for converting files into nearly anything.

    Additionally, it seems the Open Access publication movement is gaining momentum (e.g. Princeton’s recent decision to require it), so it may be (at least for the near future) a competition for second place behind traditional publishing between Apple’s iProfit (err, iBooks) and Open Access. With Apple’s power at branding/marketing and their free, easy-to-use app which does everything but make coffee for users, it seems that we’ll see an increase of DRM-laden eBooks (much as we have seen with digital music). Of course, there’ll be the few rebels who go solo (much like Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, and Radiohead have done), but it won’t be large enough to upset the balance in the Force.

  4. Thanks Christopher. And Tom Coates suggested that the Apple template offerings neglect the single most common, most subtle use-case: the unillustrated page of text.
    I never crossed the geek Rubicon of LaTeX — everything else worked well enough for non-mathematical copy that I balked at the learning curve. Maybe it’s time to take the leap.
    After I finish the James commentary and write at least one hermeneutics essay.

  5. TYPO ALERT: “Ironically, the losed model Apple” -> I think you mean “closed.”
    [Edit: Thanks, fixed!]

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