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Monday, January 23, 2012

iBooks Author: the REAL Problem

There has been a lot of sensationalist “reporting,” breathlessly repeated on Twitter, about the licensing terms for Apple’s new iBooks Author app. I’m not going to reward blind panic with links, but I’m sure you can Google your way to something that would be “enlightenment” if there were any useful information to be gleaned from that link-bait. This fish ain’t bitin’.

The big problem is: there’s something that we, both authors and eReader owners, need to worry about and the link-bait articles aren’t telling us about it. And iBooks Author is only half of it.

Let’s take a look at the clause in the iBooks Author licensing agreement that has all the link-baiters going ballistic. Fortunately, it’s like the third paragraph down in the licensing agreement (under “IMPORTANT NOTE,” emphasis mine):
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.
XKCD always puts things in perspective.
I’ve bolded the part that should (but won’t) hush up the link-baiters and the fish that continue to bite at it. Let me make it clear:

Apple is only restricting the output of the software. What you do with eBooks generated by any other means is your own freeking business.

So basically, you can take your MSS and feed it to Amazon, Smashwords, or anywhere else you like. But if you’re selling your book (and aren’t we all?), the version you generate using iBooks Author — and only the version you generate using iBooks Author — has to be sold on the iBookstore. Apple may or may not approve it for sale, as they do for iOS apps on the App Store.

A lot of indie writers have talked about the problems we face, often put succinctly as “now that anyone can publish a novel, anyone does.” Most of us want to put our best foot forward, providing an engaging story at a price that won’t break readers’ banks while giving us the opportunity to earn some recompense for the work we put into bringing that story to the readers. Unfortunately, we are often lumped in with those who just throw whatever they have onto the eBook stores. What Apple is doing is attempting to guarantee some measure of quality (what measure that may be, I have deliberately left undefined) for people who want to sell enhanced eBooks in the iBookstore. Instead of welcoming this development, authors are running around with their hair on fire.

The Real Problem

Unfortunately, iBooks Author presents half of a real problem, one that nobody else is talking about. The other half is presented by… Kindle Format 8. Right up until the new year, we had to deal with only two eBook formats: MOBI (Kindle) and ePUB (everyone else). Both formats are well-standardized — you can build an ePUB by hand if you really want to (I’ve done it) and convert it to MOBI using Amazon’s free KindleGen utility. Now we have Apple’s extension to ePUB (i.e. iBooks Author) and Amazon’s extension to MOBI (Kindle Format 8) — and who’s to say B&N won’t jump into the game with their own incompatible extensions for Nook Color?

In short, it’s the browser wars all over again. The only winner of that war will be traditional publishers.

People writing technical documents, comics, and other works that require more formatting options than current eReaders offer are the ones in a bind here. They’ll have to live with the possibility that what works now might not work next year. They'll have to determine whether it’s worth the effort to work with features that are coded differently in different tablet eReaders, or if they should just work with one eReader and not the other.

I’d like to see a few zillion pixels dedicated to this instead of a misread licensing clause.


  1. As one of the people you're laughing at in this post, I say thanks for writing it. Very informative.

  2. I concur, your close reading of it is informative.

    And I agree that multiple formats will only be a pain in the neck for us all.

  3. Thanks for writing this in a way I could actually understand ^_^

  4. I only saw value in what Apple was offering, before and after this scare. Apple's e-book market needed some more attention and this is a boon to self-publishing, though what "separate agreement with Apple" turns out to mean could wind up harsh. I appreciate your clarifying some here. However, I admit to getting tired of the hyperbole (especially by "authors are running around with their hair on fire" came around), and I didn't need the images, the giant red paragraph, the bold or the italics. These all make your valid points feel like still more ranting on a subject that you were trying to clarify.


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