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Posted by Tom, January 20, 2012

Is iBooks a big deal?

As had been widely predicted, yesterday Apple made some big announcements related to their iBooks platform. They’ve launched two important new projects: iBooks 2.0, the updated version of their popular e-reading app, which now allows for enhanced, integrated multimedia (especially suited for academic textbooks), and iBooks Author, a free self-publishing tool for Mac users.

As soon as the news was out, Kate and I found ourselves asking, ‘what do we make of this?’ The same question was seemingly being echoed by publishers all over the internet, on Twitter and blogs and The Bookseller, and I was struck by several things.

Firstly, a lot of people in the publishing industry seem to be so poised for bad news that they see it even when it’s not there. There have undoubtedly been a lot of developments in the past 12 months – whether it’s the closure of Borders, or Amazon’s decision to begin publishing print books – that are cause for concern for some of us, but I don’t think iBooks Author (or iBooks 2.0 for that matter, on which more in a moment) is one of them.

Or, at least, if iBooks Author does pose any sort of threat to publishers, it is of a distinctly assymetrical sort that isn’t immediately apparent. One of the most oft-cited points of comparison in the past 24 hours has been with GarageBand, Apple’s consumer-level music production software, and there has been a strain of punditry of the “it will do to publishing what GarageBand did to music!” variety. Funnily enough, I agree with this entirely, but for sort of opposite reasons to those intended – GarageBand hasn’t done anything to the music industry; at least, not in a very market-disrupting sort of way. There haven’t (to my knowledge) been a whole rash of Top Ten hits that have sprung out of GarageBand recording sessions, and there aren’t (this time I am pretty certain) bunches of out-of-work sound engineers who have been rendered useless by software suites built for the amateur enthusiast.

I posed the question to Twitter – how important is iBooks Author? – and the responses I got seemed to confirm these notions. It’s certainly a big development, and in many ways a fantastic one, but also something more likely to affect the consumer market than the professional one.

@iucounu wrote: “it’s a catalyst for what is already happening – desk top publishing coming of age. Industry skills will still be premium tho”

Our own Ed Bryan (@edmundree) wrote: “My parents will be able to take all their photos, videos, notes, maps and make a wonderful travel ibook … …and share it with anyone else interested in travelling in Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, Burma, etc.”

And elsewhere, a comparison I found particularly apropos was this one noted by @ftoolan: “we’ve seen many tools that allow DIY activity in publishing. DIY may not be worth an author’s time. I still don’t brew my own beer.”

Of the two developments, then, iBooks 2 is the one most likely to directly affect traditional print publishers – especially those who publish textbooks – though this needn’t be adversely, and I don’t think the default setting for publishers should necessarily be “panic”. When Apple unveiled the new version, they did so with some beautiful, remarkable reference books from Dorling Kindersley, and elsewhere are also featuring on the iBooks home page an incredible (free) edition of Life on Earth, by Wilson Digital – which seems to demonstrate, however superficially, traditional and digital publishers coexisting side-by-side quite productively.

It is, of course, still far too early to say exactly what effect either of these new products will have – except that we certainly shouldn’t write them off. Once again – what do you all think?