The Apple iBooks Author controversy


This is why I disagree with the comparison to Microsoft’s embrace/extend/extinguish strategy: Apple isn’t calling the new iBooks Author format “ePub”. They never mentioned “ePub” during last week’s event. iBooks Author doesn’t use “ePub” anywhere in the user interface or documentation.

via Daring Fireball.

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that, last week, Apple released a new software package called iBooks Author. This allows anyone to create multimedia rich textbooks (and other books) for the new iBooks app on iPad. Professional textbook publishers can create highly polished textbooks, and ordinary teachers and professors can also publish course books. (I’ve started working on one myself).

But some people are unhappy with the software, and with Apple, and there are two sources for that unhappiness.

First, some people don’t like the fact that Apple have messed with the standard ePub book format by adding proprietary extensions. In the quote above, John Gruber addresses some of these concerns. This would be a Bad Thing, he argues, only if Apple were pretending that their iBooks format was ePub, but they aren’t. Elsewhere, he’s mentioned that nobody fusses that Amazon insists on a proprietary format for the Kindle.

Standards: you can never have too many of them (J for Joke).

In an ideal world, there would be one electronic book standard, just like there was one printed book standard (well, softback and hardback, but you get the drift). But this is capitalism, and Competition is Good For Us. The problem for an innovative company like Apple is that they don’t want to wait for the world to catch up, and they don’t want a book standard designed by a committee.

The second objection concerns the EULA, or End User Licence Agreement, the thing you click “Agree” to when you come to the point of uploading a book to the iBooks store. The problem here is that Apple are saying that you can only sell the things you create using their software in their book store.

This is Apple being Apple, looking to maximise profits, and drive people towards buying iPads. Content is King, which is a fact Apple has always known. Sure, we’d all love to be able to author once and then output in multiple formats, but Apple have a track record of doing what they want with their software.

But there’s another interesting aspect to this. Once the EULA was publicised, it caused quite a lot of upset, but other bloggers have pointed out that what Apple are demanding is no better or worse than you get if you sign a contract with a big publisher, or (if you’re a musician) with a record company. Music history is littered with albums that were never released because the record company didn’t like it, or artists whose careers faltered because the record company wouldn’t release them from their contract.

Bruce Springsteen famously put his recording career on hold between 1975 and 1978 while he tried to extricate himself from his management contract. Tom Petty also went to war in the late 1970s when his record company sold out to another, and he didn’t want to be on the new label (nobody asked him). Young musicians sign bad deals. Young authors sign bad deals. You want an audience and you have no power.

If you’re an author and you don’t want a publisher messing with your work, you have a simple choice: don’t sign. If you’re a musician and you want to keep creative control, you have the same choice. So Apple are being pretty ruthless with this iBooks thing: you don’t have to “Agree”. But if you want the potential audience? Balance the benefits against the costs, as artists always have.