I'm a writer and visual artist in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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An Artist’s Book in iBooks Author

"small landmarks" coverI recently created my first ebook, small landmarks, and published it on the Apple iBookstore. It was a rewarding project, but at times a little bewildering. During the process I found it very useful to read other people’s tips about digital self-publishing and working with iBooks, so I decided to write about my own experience. Here are my notes about using iBooks Author 2.0 to publish a photography / art book on the Apple iBookstore.

From idea to iBookstore

Small landmarks is an artist’s book of photos and notebook writing. It’s a visual journal of walking and thinking in eastern Canada. You can read more about it here. The book has 114 pages, and contains 228 photos often presented in sets of two or four. It also contains just over 6000 words, mostly presented as scanned handwritten notebook pages.

First thoughts and first drafts
Early notes for a book project.

Early notes for a book project.

The idea of making a book has been in the back of my mind for several years, and small landmarks started to take shape over a year ago. Photoblogging has been a significant part of my artistic practice for many years, and I wanted to present the work from my photoblog in a way that felt more fully resolved. Rather than making large prints, I decided to focus on a book, which better matches the intimacy and structure of a blog. I also decided to include some writing from the notebooks I often carry when walking with my camera.

I began by sifting through my archive of photos and writing – about eight years of digital photos and physical notebooks. Many of the photos came from my indexical photoblog, where I often presented photos as diptychs, so pairs of photos became an important part of the structure of the book. I scanned dozens of notebook pages and began matching snippets of writing with the photos. As the project grew, I realized that it would be quite expensive to print a large book of colour photographs. Around this time (about a year ago), I happened to be hired by a photographer to assist with designing and publishing an ebook using iBooks Author. During my research, I realized that small landmarks would work quite well as an ebook.

A first draft in Keynote.

A first draft in Keynote.

I teach university classes, and often use Keynote for presentations. Keynote is a pleasure to work with, so I decided to use it as a fast and simple way to create a first draft of my book. This worked especially well since small landmarks is basically a series of images. I did three different drafts of the book in Keynote before moving to iBooks author.

Hoping to build a small audience for the book, I set up a Tumblr and started posting excerpts. Nothing I put on Tumblr was shared very widely, but I enjoyed knowing that people were finding out about the project, and receiving a little bit of feedback as I worked.

Building the book in iBooks Author

When I started importing my draft into iBooks Author, I was thinking of the book as a single uninterrupted stream of pages. However, iBooks Author expects multiple chapters (it automatically builds a table of contents), and at this point I began rethinking the book’s structure. I wanted to present the photos and writing non-chronologically, but loosely organized according to where the photos were taken. I decided to split the book into three chapters (Newfoundland, Halifax and Montreal), which helped give the book a stronger sense of movement and pacing.

I prepared my book pages in Photoshop, with each page a single 2048 × 1366 image. This doesn’t fit the iPad dimensions exactly, but worked best to accomodate both the vertical pairs of images and the scanned notebook pages. In iBooks Author, I used the Inspector to make my images 1024 pixels wide to fit on the page. I used the shape tool to make a black background on each page. I wanted to keep the interface very simple, so I didn’t use any interactive widgets, and the images are shown without titles or captions. I disabled portrait mode for my book since the pages are all landscape.

You can run into colour profile issues when importing images into both Keynote and iBooks Author. I found that copying and pasting images instead of using the ‘Choose’ dialog solved the problem.

Working in iBooks Author.

Working in iBooks Author.

In iBooks Author I also created a cover, table of contents, introduction and afterward. I then spent a considerable amount of time fine-tuning everything, including reordering pages, proofreading, and tweaking typefaces and spacing. At one point I took a two-week break from the project. Returning to the project with fresh eyes helped me better see the book as a whole, and I removed a few pages which didn’t seem to work. I also rearranged the handwritten texts to better carry certain themes through the book.

I don’t own an iPad, which slowed my progress a little (I occasionally borrowed a friend’s to test the book). It’s unfortunate that iBooks Author 2.0 doesn’t allow any way to preview the book without physically plugging in an iPad, but I suppose this will change once OS X Mavericks enables reading iBooks on a Mac.

Applying to the iBookstore

As I neared completion of small landmarks, I began the process of registering as a content provider on the iBookstore. Because I wanted to sell my book, I needed to apply for a US Tax ID (EIN), even though I am Canadian. This involved a 15-minute call to the IRS, then waiting about a week and a half for my number to enter the system. Next I applied to iTunes Connect, another two-day wait. Finally, I was able to log in to iTunes Connect, download iTunes Producer, and submit my project to the iBookstore. Submitting a book requires a lot of paperwork, as you have to provide banking and tax information for each country you want the book to be available in. I decided to submit to the Canadian, US, and UK iBookstores, and elected not to get an ISBN.

Paid books are required to provide a “free sample” version. Rather than having iBooks Author automatically generate this, I put it together myself. I also had to provide metadata about the book, including a short written description and a few screenshots.

Once a book is uploaded, it is reviewed by Apple for quality assurance – another wait! In my case this turned out to be quite a delay, as Apple’s reviewers were not thrilled that my book contained handwriting. After two days, I received an “Action Needed” ticket notifying me that my book could not be approved because it contained scanned text, “which causes a lot of customer complaints.” Apple wants text to be searchable and accessible, which I certainly understand. However, the handwriting in small landmarks is an expressive and essential part of the book. I replied to the ticket, explaining the reason for the handwriting, and arguing that my book was more like a graphic novel. After a few days went by with no reply, I began to worry. I wrote to Apple again through a different contact form, and also posted on the Support Communities forums.

Finally, more than a week after I’d uploaded the book, I received a reply stating that my request was approved, and that my book would be available on the iBookstore within 24 hours. The next morning, everything had worked out. Small landmarks is available right now on the iBookstore, for 99¢.

Some draft cover designs for small landmarks.

Some draft cover designs for small landmarks.

Overall, the process was a little more complex than I’d expected, but I learned a lot. Here are some things that I liked and didn’t like about working with iBooks Author and publishing through the iBookstore.

Good things about iBooks Author and the iBookstore

  • As I’d expected from my experiences with Apple software, I found iBooks Author fairly easy to use and intuitive, as long as you can work within the limitations of the templates provided (see “Bad things” below).
  • I appreciated iBooks Author’s option to export the book as a PDF, and it does a great job. This was useful for sharing the book with friends who do not have iPads.
  • Digital publishing feels like the future, and iBooks is an easy way to get started. It’s pretty amazing to be able to put together a book of my work and have it available for sale in multiple countries in such a short time. Ebooks are a huge opportunity for artists and writers to take control of how their work reaches a wider audience. As a web designer I can fairly easily self-publish work on the web, but an ebook feels more fully resolved and can be conveniently sold, which is something I wanted to try with this project.

Bad things about iBooks Author and the iBookstore

  • iBooks Author 2.0 can be frustrating in many ways. It’s clearly designed with interactive textbooks in mind, and the templates provided are not particularly imaginative or varied. You don’t have to spend much time on the support forums to find authors frustrated with the software’s assumptions about what a book looks like. I chose to work with the templates rather than struggling against them, which was easy for me as my book content is fairly adaptable. The templates are actually surprisingly customizable, but you often have to dig through the Inspector menu for an obscurely-labelled option to accomplish what you want. As usual, Google searches proved invaluable.
  • Because of the way iBooks Author handles text flowing across multiple pages, the software does not let you rearrange pages. So something as simple as switching the order of two pages becomes an unwieldly ordeal of inserting a new page, copying and pasting content, then deleting the old page. This felt especially preposterous since my book does not have text flowing from page to page.
  • It is almost inevitable that you will find yourself using small hacks to accomplish things in iBooks. There were a couple of times the software simply wouldn’t let me delete something (such as a divider or a page number), so I resorted to hiding it behind a background image, or setting the text colour the same as the background. This shouldn’t be necessary.
  • iBooks Author should provide a way to quickly preview the book full-screen without needing an actual iPad. This will likely be fixed in OS X Mavericks, but lacking such a basic feature makes iBooks Author 2.0 feel like beta software.
  • The process of setting up an iTunes Connect account was not as simple as I would have expected from Apple. Granted, this was partly because of the requirement to apply for a US tax ID, which I suppose Apple doesn’t have a lot of control over. There are additional complications when setting up to sell books in Canada, and you will inevitably find yourself digging through the Apple Support Communities forums for clarification and commiseration. However, I did receive a prompt and helpful response from iTunes Tax Support when I emailed them with a question.

After all that…

Finally, for all the effort put into this process, I should note that I do not expect to sell a ton of books. Small landmarks is a very personal and unconventional artist’s book, and my goals for this project were mostly to experiment with a new medium and to present this particular body of work in a professional way. The visual nature of my book makes it a good fit for the iPad, but I’ve deliberately kept its structure simple so that I can adapt it to other ebook platforms, or perhaps make a print version. The ebook format seems to be a good match for my work, and I enjoyed the process of making one, so I definitely plan to continue experimenting with electronic artist’s books.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to check out small landmarks, it’s available here (including a free excerpt version). I’m also on Tumblr and Twitter.

Content ©  2019 Matthew Hollett. RSS