Roy Leban

Guest Commentary: In 1981, when IBM introduced the IBM PC, Apple ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal that said “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.” The ad was controversial at the time, the mouse tweaking the lion. But Apple actually needed IBM to legitimize the business. Before IBM shipped the PC, it was still possible for people to dismiss the personal computer as a curiosity, a toy. With IBM all in, the industry grew up overnight.

This week, Apple announced the next stage of their iBooks platform — interactive ebooks and a system to build them in. In response, we say:

Welcome, Apple. Seriously.

My company, Puzzazz, has been selling interactive puzzle ebooks for more than a year. But, as a small company, it’s been hard getting people to understand that a book is a book, not an app or a game. That’s even been true of the folks at Amazon, the leader in ebooks.

We certainly didn’t invent the idea — we’re just delivering what we all saw in Star Trek and 2001 many years ago, and, of course, the potential goes far beyond what we’re selling. Someday all books will look like this — it’s already the case that people are using the term “paper book” to mean a book that isn’t an ebook.

The biggest thing we’ve struggled with is something that has been embraced by almost every company in the space. They all seem to believe that books are apps. There are tens of thousands of individual books sold as apps in the iTunes App Store, and Amazon wants to sell our puzzle books as games.

Some of the most spectacular books as apps come from TouchPress, which produced the impressive coffee-book style apps The Elements and The Solar System. They’re amazing products and they’re only on the iPad. Apple liked them enough that they featured both in TV ads. I have to say, when the big companies like Amazon and Apple don’t seem to understand, it can be pretty disheartening.

Books Are Not Apps

In this week’s announcement, it’s clear that Apple gets it. Books are books, even if they’re interactive. Books are books, even if they have programming inside. Books are not web sites or games and they’re not apps.

Debates like this are common with new technology. People have claimed that photography was the evolution of paintings, that movies were the evolution of photography, and that video games are the evolution of movies. None of this is true. Formats may change — today, most photography is digital and people see more movies on DVD than on the big screen — but each of these types of content are fundamentally different, and they all coexist. Similarly, apps will never replace books — books are evolving on their own.

So what makes a book a book? It’s about how it feels. Books have authors, who are people, not companies. Whether it’s a novel or a textbook or a puzzle collection, a book is arranged and presented in a standard, familiar format. The standardization is an advantage, not a limitation. Readers don’t have to learn how to use each book independently, they can switch between them easily, and organize them together. And, perhaps most importantly, books are orders of magnitude cheaper to produce than alternatives such as apps. One-off applications can never realize this critical advantage.

Some people think interactivity changes this. But interactive books have been around for centuries, with interactive kids “button” books, puzzle books and other books you can write in, and even “choose your own adventure” books. We can add more interactivity without losing what makes a book feel like a book. Angry Birds is a great game, but it’s not a book.

When Apple mentioned The Elements and The Solar System in their announcement, they called them apps, not books. That was a conscious decision and it probably made more than a few people invested in the status quo mad. Last week, a traditional book author or a publisher had two choices. They could create a relatively static document-based ebook, which was only better than a paper book in a trivial way — it could be downloaded. Or, they could pay a lot of money to a company that would create them a custom interactive app. Of course, the companies creating those custom apps loved all the business they were getting.

Things Have Changed

With Apple’s push into interactive textbooks, things have changed in three very important ways:

Technology. iBooks 2 and iBooks Author are designed for textbooks, but they also will allow plenty of other books to be turned into interactive books, with authors and publishers concentrating on their content, not technology. (Not surprisingly, this is the same thing we’re doing in the puzzle world.)

Mindset. The future of books is interactive. It always has been — just ask any science fiction author. But now Apple’s added their voice, unequivocally. It makes a huge difference in consumer mindset and it certainly helps companies like Puzzazz.

Publishers. The publishers have historically moved slowly in embracing new technology. Only Apple could get them to embrace this new world as they have. Kudos!

Of course, Apple has an Apple-centric view of the world. One funny moment was in the introductory video shown at the event. There’s a huge lecture hall with about a hundred students. Most of the students open up their laptops, which are all MacBooks. Apple’s dream perhaps, but not representative of the real world.

Apple’s dream highlights one big concern for all of us. To the extent that Apple is successful in this initiative, it could hurt all of the other companies in the ebook space, including companies like mine. But I think that’s unlikely since iBooks targets only one platform and it does not accomodate all types of books. I think Apple’s strong push here is a huge boost to a more vibrant, more competitive ebook ecosystem.

And that’s why we welcome Apple. Seriously.

Roy Leban is founder and CTO of Puzzazz, a puzzle technology company based in Redmond.

Comments

  • guest

    Good article.  One thing you didn’t mention was the Apple requirement that anything produced in iBook Author cannot be sold anywhere else but through iBooks … even if they reject the book and don’t sell it.  To publish elsewhere you must completely reenter the text (probably not that big of a deal) and reformat picture and chapter layout, etc. in another program (a real big deal).  Typical Apple BS. 

    • Guest

      I don’t see what’s so bad about that. Google has the same clause in Google Docs: anything you produce with it may be sent via Gmail or published via Google Books only. I think it’s only fair that a company making a publishing tool retain the rights to control how data may be published therewith.

      • guest

        Google is wrong also.  For instance, say you used Microsoft Word or Publisher to layout a book (ok quit laughing it is just an example) and saved it in the correct format for publishing.  To be consistent you must think it would be fine for Microsoft to state that you can only sell it through them because you used their tools for creation.  In addition, if they made the constraint that you want to sell through them at all, you are limited to their tools it puts you in a box … to sell through them you must put it in their tools, but to sell to someone else you must use different tools starting from only a text export.  Doesn’t sound right to me.  If an author wants to publish his book in many formats (e.g., Kindle, iBook, PDF, etc.) he really shouldn’t have to completely re-lay it out and completely format it again … this is a lot of work.  I think authors currently tweak their books for different formats which is a lot less work than a complete restart on formatting.

        • http://www.tianobookdesign.com/ Stephen Tiano

          Hey, they’re not telling you you can’t use your own work–the writing you authored–as you like, just that the book you make using their tools (in Apple’s case, its free iBooks Author tool) must be sold on their market. Yes, if you want ot sell on other platforms, you’ll have to remake for those platforms. Apain in the ass maybe, but not unfair.

          • Guest

            Definitely not unfair, Stephen. Microsoft makes tools for publishing a game for Xbox 360. Obviously Xbox games won’t play on PlayStation 3, but that doesn’t stop developers from building great games and releasing them for both platforms.

            iBooks Author is for iBooks. To build material for other platforms, other software is needed. Apple will probably not publish such a software.

  • Max Whitby

    Perceptive piece Roy.  Thanks for your generous comments about our Touch Press.  We absolutely consider that the titles we publish are books.  Book in the full sense of the term written by authors, with strong editorial value and respect for our readers.  The fact that they happen best to be delivered as apps is incidental. iBooks Author is an important advance that opens up production of high quality tittles to a much larger range of publishers.

    Max Whitby, CEO
    touchpress.com

  • Max Whitby

    Perceptive piece Roy.  Thanks for your generous comments about our Touch Press.  We absolutely consider that the titles we publish are books.  Book in the full sense of the term written by authors, with strong editorial value and respect for our readers.  The fact that they happen best to be delivered as apps is incidental. iBooks Author is an important advance that opens up production of high quality tittles to a much larger range of publishers.

    Max Whitby, CEO
    touchpress.com

  • http://www.tianobookdesign.com/ Stephen Tiano

    I guess my only disagreement is that, while it’s true a book is a book for the reasons you state, I’d hate for an ebook (or iBook) to lose the sense that a book can be more than a container for an author’s work. A printed book can be an art object in its own right, an individually and uniquely designed thing that’s worth having in addition to what the book is about and how well it is written. Admittedly, I’m a freelance book designer and page comp artist. But I’m also a tech junkie and I really like most everything Apple. I just don’t want there to be two extremes of iBooks the app end, where one needs to be more of a programmer and the resulting iBooks are simply shiny objects that require more coding skill than book arts; and the do-it-yourself end where everything looks one-size-fits-all, reigniting the sense that self-publishing is for books that weren’t good enough to grb a traditional publisher.

  • Rajeev

    Great article Roy!

  • http://twitter.com/Vroo Vroo (Bruce Leban)

    One ‘guest’ said “One thing you didn’t mention was the Apple requirement that anything produced in iBook Author cannot be sold anywhere else but through iBooks”

    Another ‘Guest’ said “Google has the same clause in Google Docs: anything you produce with it may be sent via Gmail or published via Google Books only.”

    Here’s two posts on Apple’s unprecedented power grab. http://venomousporridge.com/post/16126436616/ibooks-author-eula-audacity http://venomousporridge.com/post/16178567783/common-misconceptions

    If you’re too lazy to click the link, here’s what Apple says: “If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.”

    There is no such requirement in Google Docs. See http://www.google.com/google-d-s/terms.html and in particular the copyright section of http://www.google.com/google-d-s/addlterms.html which says in part “You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, share, upload, post or display on or through, the Service.”

    My take: if Apple’s EULA said that you can’t distribute files in the ibook file format except through them, it might be enforceable (and they could certainly use technological measures to enforce even if it wasn’t enforceable through legal measures). But by saying “any other work” they cross both a legal and moral line.

    • Guest

      You retain copyright and other rights as well when you use iTunes Author, Bruce. I apologize that you’re not getting the point, but iTunes Author is an entry point into the Apple ecosystem. It’s no different from Xcode, an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) made for Mac OS X. Xcode is intended for producing iPhone apps that can be sold exclusively in the App Store. You could sell iPhone apps at a pet store, for example, but why bother? The App Store is the only legal avenue to get iPhone apps.

      Apple is well within their legal and “moral” (ha ha ha ha ha) rights to release iTunes Author and we, authors, are within our rights to use it to release content to many stores — knowing full well that only the App Store may sell iBooks.

    • http://www.lawjock.com/chalktalk Joe Stansell

      Hey, Bruce. How have you been?

      I see a lot of “alarm bells” going off around the Internet, but I just don’t see a fire. 

      Anyone using iBooks Author is almost surely developing an iBook. (It outputs pdf and txt files, too, but why use this software for that?) 

      The EULA says that if you sell your iBook, you must go through the iBookstore. Otherwise, you can give it away. 

      It seems to me that this is the same as saying this “service is free” when used for “non-commercial reasons” — a time-honored way of attracting traffic for Internet-based services.

      The real problem with iBooks Author is not its EULA. The real problem is that it cannot generate any useful file other one proprietary to Apple’s iPad. 

      • http://www.tianobookdesign.com/ Stephen Tiano

        Very good observations, Joe. As to iBA generating PDFs, I guess it’d be nuts to use it for that if you can only sell thru the iBookstore. Distill it thru InDesign or Acrobat–or Quark, for that matter–as there are no restrictions on where those PDFs or their printed pages can wind up for sale.

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