Apple updated iBooks, their ePub and PDF reader for iPad and iPhone, to version 1.2. In the update are a few significant improvements: the ability to organize your library into categories, print book pages, search for books, and back (and forward) links for anchors (like in footnotes). The big news for book makers however is support for new formatting that allows for ‘illustrated books,’ or books that have full page illustrations and custom-positioned text.
To geek-out for a moment, the new version of iBooks allows for fixed pagination within an ePub, either through CSS (page-break-before) or defining the page size directly, set through a proprietary file that is added to an ePub (com.apple.ibooks.display-options.xml). That file (and the iTunesMetadata.plist file that’s also included) break the validation of the ePub. This means that unless you’re working directly with Apple as a publisher, you can’t make and submit an ebook you made to the iBooks store that uses this feature (because Apple requires submitted books to validate as ePubs). Ugh. In addition, the ‘chapters’ for an illustrated book (like ‘Olivia goes to Venice’) don’t exist, the chapter markers are simply one chapter per page. That removes the semantic structure that chapters are supposed to convey. The formatting for the text an images themselves relies on absolute positioning of text and graphics in each page, meaning the book can’t reflow for different device sizes.
So, what do all these Apple-specific hacks do for the books? Pages can have images that go from edge to edge (‘full bleed’) and you can zoom in and out with pinch gestures. The horizontal orientation shows the book as a full spread and looks beautiful, something you can’t do with a PDF reader on any device. It truly feels much more like a book than other readers.
But these new formatting features are a real dilemma for book makers. They allow for some beautiful books, but require proprietary additions and a separate version of an ebook for just iBooks. This isn’t a dilemma for readers so much, since people will probably get most of the content they want on whatever device they buy. It’s a rough situation for book makers, since they now have to decide if they are going to take advantage of the new formatting (and make their ebooks incompatible with all other ePub readers), or have books that work on lots of readers but don’t look as good. Apple has, despite using an open standard (ePub) as a starting point, created a closed system that people can’t use (and this is different than the Apple browser project, which is open-source). This will ultimately mean fewer ebooks that look good on an iPad, and that is surely a lost opportunity for book makers (and Apple).