Could Apple be stealing a quiet march on Amazon? Bradley Metrock, executive producer of the iBooks Author Conference, believes that the future of digital books is here - but not where you might think.
Before Steve Jobs passed away, he oversaw the creation of iBooks Author, a technology he hoped would "digitally destroy" the educational textbook market.
This software would make it easier than ever before to publish a digital book. And by including multimedia, such as high-resolution photography, audio, and video, it would make it easier than ever before to publish a next-generation digital book. And, in true Steve Jobs fashion, iBooks Author included something profoundly forward-thinking: HTML5 support. Any author could import HTML5 code to add interactivity like never before to these digital books.
Jobs passed away in late 2011, and Apple released iBooks Author in early 2012 into a marketplace dominated by Amazon and the Kindle. And while today's digital book marketplace is still dominated by Amazon and the Kindle, a confluence of factors (including mobile hardware improvements) has created an opening for Apple. Fortunately for them, they've already taken the first step by releasing iBooks Author - and massively updating it over the last 18 months - as adoption has continued to grow.
iBooks Author is widely used today in three broad sectors, signaling the large degree to which the market has moved toward this type of interactive publishing technology: education, entertainment, and enterprise.
As educators were the original target market for iBooks Author, it should come as no surprise that educators have yielded some of the software's biggest success stories to date.
Julia Maurer, academic dean at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, led that school into a bold future in which all textbooks, previously purchased from large textbook companies, are now produced internally by faculty using iBooks Author. This not only saved students over $110,000 since 2012, but nearly every metric the school measures to evaluate student performance increased since then, including standardized test scores (which were actually expected to decline at first, as these teacher-authored books were not written in alignment with these tests in mind).
Another educator, this time in public education, used iBooks Author to go international. Jon Smith, educator and technology integrator for Alliance City Schools in Canton, Ohio, used iBooks Author (along with another content creation tool, Book Creator) to unite students across 48 countries in collaborating to produce a single digital book on a given theme. These books created as part of Smith's "The World Is My Audience" project have been downloaded tens of thousands of times worldwide.
The broad spectrum we'll call "entertainment," for the purposes of discussing the iBooks Author user base, includes everything from music to movies to self-published fiction to museum exhibits around the country and more.
Demi Lovato, Star Wars, Led Zeppelin, the Museum of Modern Art, George Harrison, and Breaking Bad have all had iBooks created to either complement or extend a core experience. In these books, interactive images walk readers around a static high-resolution picture, providing an additional narrated layer. 3D images allow readers to touch and rotate and play within a universe. Behind-the-scenes audio recordings and video clips are included, much like the bonus features of a Blu-Ray disc. (Complementary software, like "Hype" from Silicon Valley startup Tumult, provides even further HTML5 animation capabilities that can be then imported into iBooks Author books.)
But perhaps the most compelling growth of iBooks Author use has been the rise of independent artists using the format. After all, the software is free, which fits the budget of most independent artists. Entrepreneurs too, for that matter.
Indie pop/rock band Airplane Mode released a new EP in February which was accompanied by an iBook representing an enhanced version of the EP. This iBook contained the audio for each song, along with lyrics, photos of the band and its EP recording session, an hour-long recorded interview with the band's producer, and behind-the-scenes video. And wisely, the iBook was priced at $3.99 on the iBooks Store, roughly the cost of the EP itself on iTunes.
This is the area that stays under the radar, mainly because what large organizations publish with iBooks Author stays internal and out of sight. NASA, HCA, Boeing, IBM, the city government of Chicago, the University of Tennessee, and this year's iBooks Author Conference keynote, Southwest Airlines, all have created internal digital collateral using iBooks Author.
In many of these cases, iBooks Author was used to create internal training curriculum for employee onboarding or continuous education. Southwest Airlines was one of these companies, using iBooks Author to create "Southwest Airlines University."
Deploying these interactive books and digital collateral to devices across the enterprise has been the roadblock standing in the way of greater adoption. Fortunately, with iOS 9.3, Apple has created a long-anticipated deployment solution (albeit for education) that is expected to be rolled out to other sectors by the end of the year.
The uneasy fit With traditional publishers
The connection between education, entertainment, and enterprise is that, in the vast majority of cases, the digital books published don't need to be monetized. And in fact, in many cases, they can't be monetized due to contractual restraints or other obligations.
The opposite is true for traditional publishers. They need to be able to monetize everything. Easier said than done, when the public is just now warming up to the idea of paying a premium for enhanced, interactive digital books. Compounding the problem is work Apple still needs to do: fixing the broken iBooks Store to improve searchability and discoverability, providing a cross-platform iBooks application, and more.
But make no mistake: everyone is a publisher now, thanks to iBooks Author. And thanks to iBooks Author, the expectations are raised for what a digital book can, and should, provide.