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Jan. 17, 2012, 8:30 a.m.

A GarageBand for ebooks: Simplifying publishing could mean a flood of new content

Apple’s new rumored ebook-publishing tool could bring ease-of-use to a complicated process. That could have a big impact on the field.

It’s not just the platform — it’s the tools.

That’s the line that kept coming to mind this morning as I read this Ars Technica scoop on what Apple has in store for its press event in New York Thursday. Here’s Ars reporter Chris Foresman:

While speculation has so far centered on digital textbooks, sources close to the matter have confirmed to Ars that Apple will announce tools to help create interactive e-books — the “GarageBand for e-books,” so to speak — and expand its current platform to distribute them to iPhone and iPad users.

…[A]uthoring standards-compliant e-books (despite some promises to the contrary) is not as simple as running a Word document of a manuscript through a filter. The current state of software tools continues to frustrate authors and publishers alike, with several authors telling Ars that they wish Apple or some other vendor would make a simple app that makes the process as easy as creating a song in GarageBand.

We’ll see on Thursday, of course — but making ebook publishing easier has the potential to have a significant disruptive impact on information industries.

The first disruption of the web, after all, was making it possible for people to publish online without caring about money. Ebooks have already allowed a new generation of small-scale (and large-scale) publishers to reach an audience — sometimes for money, sometimes just for passion’s sake. But the process of ebook publishing today reminds me a bit of the early days of blogging, when publishing online was possible but still a pain.

The web as a platform dates back to 1991, and nerds like me were publishing personal webpages not long after. But it took the development of tools like Blogger, Greymatter, and Movable Type — nearly a decade after the web launched — for the power of personal publishing to start to be fulfilled.

Doing it by hand meant learning HTML, then manually FTPing an updated .html file to a remote server. It wasn’t outrageously complicated, to be honest — but it was enough of an obstacle to keep most folks from writing online. When tools reduced personal publishing to typing words in a box and clicking “Post,” a whole new universe of potential contributors was suddenly ready to pitch in, and you saw the blogging explosion of the early 2000s.

And further improvements in tools — think Tumblr and Twitter — have brought even more people to publishing. For a host of creative endeavors — think desktop publishing, motion graphics, video editing, data visualization, coding — it’s the arrival of tools or frameworks that abstract away complexity that marks when they move from niche to something closer to mainstream.

While there are many hundreds of thousands of them published every year, books have historically been the most constrained form of publishing. Getting a book into print usually meant convincing an agent, then an editor, then a publishing house that your work was worthy — and that’s before trying to convince the Barnes & Nobles of the world it should have a place on their shelves.

Ebooks have blown open that world of exclusivity — but the ease of use still isn’t there.

There’s a long list of tools that try to make ebook creation easier, from big names (Apple’s Pages, Adobe’s InDesign) to smaller ones (Scrivener) to open source alternatives like calibre. But it’s still a complicated enough business that there’s a healthy ecosystem of companies offering ebook conversion services.

Their task is made more complicated by the format divide between Amazon, which uses a proprietary .mobi-based format called AZW, and most other ebook platforms, which tend to stick to flavors of .epub. My girlfriend is a book editor (buy her books!), and that’s given me a front-row seat to the still-frustrating world of ebook conversion and formatting. The world of iBooks is particularly frustrating because its greater multimedia and formatting capabilities make you want to use them. (The Kindle keeps display options significantly simpler. Although that too is changing with Format 8, the engine that runs underneath the Kindle Fire and, presumably, future tablet Kindles.)

Here are a few questions to ponder as we wait to hear the details from Apple on Thursday:

Will ease of ebook authoring come with greater ease of ebook publishing? Once you have a properly formatted file, getting your ebook in the Kindle Store is a breeze. That’s not true of the iBookstore, where — perhaps inspired by Apple’s app-approval process — it can take weeks from submission to first sale. That’s kept some publishers from jumping on Apple’s bandwagon, particularly in the journalism world where a couple weeks’ wait can have a significant impact on a work’s timeliness. If Apple wants to make the production process easier, will it also make its go-to-market process easier?

Will there be an iBooks for Android? The Kindle and Nook platforms have the advantage of living on multiple types of devices: both on their own e-ink and tablet devices and on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. Apple’s iBooks thus far lives only on iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads. If they’re aiming at widespread adoption in schools, sticking to Apple-only devices could be a hindrance. Apple’s bitten this bullet before, putting out a version of iTunes for Windows when it became clear keeping music purchasing Mac-only was a recipe for irrelevance. An iBooks for Mac seems like an obvious next move, but are sales of non-iOS smartphones and tablets sufficient to also spread the platform in new directions?

Will this new tool publish in multiple formats or simply create iBooks? Apple’s platform is in either second or third place in the ebook race, well behind Amazon and possibly behind the Nook. Will Apple see a new easy-to-use tool as a way to support its ebook platform — by pushing more content into it — or as a way to gain widespread usage by also supporting the bigger Kindle market? The former would support iBooks; the latter would support Apple’s Mac business, since presumably the software would only run on Macs.

Apple’s gone both ways on this before. GarageBand creates MP3s that will play anywhere; iWeb creates webpages that can be uploaded to any server and viewed in any browser; iWork apps will export into the more popular Office formats like Word’s .doc and Excel’s .xls. In each of those cases, Apple supported market-standard technology because the market had the power. But for years, music purchased through its iTunes Store famously included DRM that only let it work on its industry-leading iPods.

If ebook publishing really does become super easy, how should news publishers fit it into their workflows? Imagine it really did take just a few clicks to get a work onto an ebook platform. What would it make sense to publish there? Should every three-part newspaper series be turned into an ebook? Should every sports season produce a newspaper-generated ebook made up of the year’s game stories, player profiles, and so on? Should a compilation of a newspaper’s restaurant reviews be pushed out as a $2.99 ebook each year?

To the extent that news publishers have dipped their toes into ebooks, it’s been for only the most special projects. But if publishing is dirt simple, what other kinds of content should find its way into the paid-content marketplace? And, on the flip side, how would publishers (book, news, and otherwise) respond to an even greater flood of competing content than the ebook world has already produced?

POSTED     Jan. 17, 2012, 8:30 a.m.
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