Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

iBooks Author tempts you with bling

It’s very easy to make a decent-looking ebook in iBooks Author, then drop in a bunch of expensive and badly thought out interactive doohickeys and call it a day.

This is a mistake. A regular book ‘decorated’ with interactive tumours growing throughout its body is not an improvement over even a regular ebook.

I’d like to say that iBooks Author has enabled a lot of experimentation but instead it’s been the ‘safe’ option for creating interactive and ‘designed’ ebooks. It’s become the tool middle-managers point at when they don’t want to take any risks even though it won’t make a profit. If it looks good enough, you might win awards. It’s a venue of acceptable loss. Where before publishers would hire an expensive programmer to create an app they now hire an expensive freelance designer who then proceeds to ignore iBooks Author’s template features and lays out every single page by hand, racking up so many billable hours that the programmer begins to look cheap by comparison.

Oh, and don’t forget the obligatory hour or so of crap video they throw in as well.

(Not crap because it looks ugly. These companies spend a fortune making oodles of beautiful video shots for these things. They are crap because they are pointless and don’t add value for the reader.)

Being able to drop in widgets makes everybody think they’re an expert in interactive design, dropping the bling in left, right, and centre, with no thought as to what it’s for, whether it adds value.

What makes this even worse is that iBooks Author combines the worst of ebookstore and app store worlds. It has the limited business model flexibility of ebooks (no subscription, no in-app payments) but is also bound to a single platform like most apps.

Scratch that. Two half platforms: iPads and recent Macs.

It’s an unfortunate inevitability that the type of interactivity that is the most harmonious with a regular ebook’s design and nature is also the type of interactivity that is both impossible to do easily (requires javascript) and not on the roadmap for most ebook platforms.

In theory, these are exactly the sort of feature that should work well in content apps, ereaders, and websites.

Making sure that a reader could reorder a table, for example, or interact with an image in basic ways is unobtrusive and doesn’t distract from the reading experience. Yet it does help whenever the reader needs to make sense of a complex thing.

However, the only way to implement this type of interactivity is with javascript and that only works in iBooks. It might end up working in Readium SDK apps, whenever those get rolled out, but that’s of limited use as long as Amazon has no plans of ever supporting javascript in ebooks.

That limits our options quite a bit. Essentially, if we think that the value we can add to a specific digital title is via interactivity then we have to turn it into something that isn’t an ebook. And it can’t be an app that looks too much like a book because Apple has an occasional tendency to block those.

But there’s another more subtle problem with this type of interactivity. They add little to no value to a text exactly because they are harmonious and integrate well with most texts. Because they don’t disrupt or restructure anything, they are sapped of power.

The iBooks Author temptation distracts us from the true problem with its genre of ebooks. Most of them wouldn’t work that well even if they were available in a cross-platform, standards-compliant way on flexible business terms.

The problem with taking an ebook and adding interactive widgets to said bog-standard and linear ebook is that it’s fundamentally just a redecorated horse.

It isn’t even a faster horse because it honestly isn’t any better than the print original.

It’s an incremental addition to a form that is pretty damn good to begin with. There is little to improve over the basic form of the book. There is a hard limit to how much value a little bit of interactive bling can add to a text when you are also otherwise being faithful to the original text.

Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly as much of a hard limit to how much they can cost to make.

There’s also quite a bit of arrogance in the idea that interactivity can be contained within a widget and dropped into an otherwise unchanged text. It’s yet another demonstration of the publishing industry’s disrespect of interactive media as a form.

The interactive bits that do add value become integral to the entire experience and transform the text as a whole. If you can add or remove it without changing the meaning of the text substantially then you aren’t adding value to the text.

In other words, you are spending money on shit people won’t pay for.

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