iBook Author annoyances

This is a long post wherein I whine about the experience of using ibook author. I never really get to the part about how I think the fact that Apple rejected my ibook about Digital Scholarship from the iBookstore based on Apple’s belief that it has a “limited audience” is analogous to the Board of UVA deciding to fire Theresa Sullivan because UVA (where we in the digital scholarship world look to for inspi-freaking-ration!!!) wasn’t moving quickly enough into the online world. But, the analogy was the reason for the post, so please look for it. I meant to say “Apple doesn’t understand higher education as anything other than a business.” and “This ibook is about the stuff that ibooks are supposed to be doing!”. But, instead, I mostly complained about the interface.

The Story:

When my fantastic, curious, energetic and wise student worker, Shahzeen, asked if she could use the newly released iBook Author from Apple to create a book about digital scholarship at Haverford, I said ,”Absolutely. Perfect!” As we build a program to support Digital Humanities (and digital social science and science, and to increase digital fluency, etc) within the library at Haverford, I needed someone like Shahzeen gathering stories, both to share with the community about the kinds of work we do in the library, and perhaps more importantly to help us find new ways of talking about this digital scholarship work we’re engaging in. Hearing from scholars, from students, and from librarians about what they’re doing within this small Haverford world, and hearing it through the ears of a bright, open minded first year student, would be generative (a word I’d never heard before Haverford and now can’t live without). Plus, I needed all of the folks I work with, including my student assistants, to be mastering new technologies, so we would know the tools we claim to support.

Downloading the software was kind of a nightmare. I eventually figured out that the macs in our library labs were running a version of Mac OS too old to download iBook Author, but somehow that was way more confusing than it should have been for us to figure out. However, I’m used to being way over my head technically so I chalked it up to an insufficient understanding of the complicated universe of institutional licensing and my own inattention to the problem for too long. And honestly, it was only one frustrating afternoon.

Anyway, so we got Shahzeen a laptop to work on, and we got our itunes account worked out, and then she worked on the book — scheduling interviews, transcribing, editing, structuring, rethinking, writing, etc. iBook Author is kind of awesome. I mean that. It’s drag and drop simple for some stuff, and the templates are clean and appealing, and on and on in apple love. That said, as she went, it was clear that, software aside, there was a lot of content work going into preparing this thing, and it was kind of sad that it would only ever be available either on an ipad or as a pdf. I got to wishing there were other export formats. But, we were in. It was an experience. And, eventually, we hoped it would join into the larger conversations in the world of digital humanities, etc.

And, if I do say, I thought it was awesome. We ended up with 4 main interviews, plus conversations with myself, my colleague Mike, and my boss Terry. Shahzeen’s book did just what we’d hoped. It presented examples of what we mean when we talk about “digital scholarship,” it raised questions about how scholars actually think of the digital in terms of their own work, it highlighted the breadth of what “counts” as digital scholarship, and it gave a bunch of us a chance to think aloud about the work we’re interested in, whether that’s microfinance, ancient languages, early printed music or digital humanities itself. Plus, it includes audio clips of a Classics professor saying “bum bum bum bum” at various speeds to make a fascinating point!

So, finally, it was complete. Now, we just had to publish it, link to it and start publicizing it!

And now we get to the part that inspired this rant. I’m going to ignore how annoying it was to actually upload the work. The fact that, even though there was that handy “publish” button in iBook Author, the act of publishing a book actually involves signing up for an ibookstore account, then downloading a totally new program (itunes producer), creating a new username and password and then passing through a million screens of info so that you can use iTunes Connect. Forget the fact that I had to try uploading the file like 90 times before it would actually work but since everything is easy with a mac, there’s absolutely no useful error information to help solve the problem when it fails. And when, on the 91st time I had done exactly the same thing, it finally worked, I didn’t even feel relieved — only more annoyed that doing the same thing over and over again was actually the way I had solved this problem.

And, as a librarian, it was very difficult to choose from the list of possible categories for my book. But, I took a course on cataloging and a much harder course on indexing in library school, and I’ve been at this for over a decade, so I figured I was overthinking it. And I know it’s nearly impossible to find a list of categories for describing all possible books. So, ok. fine. I won’t object to the fact that they know I’m publishing a book and the potential categories seem to assume I’m pitching a pilot to Bravo TV. But, ok. They’re going for a broad audience, and I’m in. apple knows what its doing way more than I do.

And so I submitted Shahzeen’s book for publication. On May 24th, I successfully created an account with the iTunes bookstore. Then, on June 8th, I got the following message:

And, I’ll be honest. I was really busy trying to finish spring projects and plan our completely new website inclucing services and projects and toolboxes for the fall, and it took me a while to figure out what the problem might be. Because what does that mean? My full book asset is not called: Limited Audience, and it’s not x-rated, so I’m not sure what that meant. What should I replace it with? An entirely different book? So, since uploading it had been a giant pain to begin with, one day I finally re-uploaded it with a different saved version and a different description, thinking maybe there was some unknown problem and they didn’t know what the book was.

A few days later, I got this:

So, I’ve seen lots of tickets from ticket tracking systems in my time. But this is Apple! Apple where everything is drag and drop. So, it annoys me that they don’t translate their tickets into a lovelier form.  Upon inspection of this unlovely ticket, I see that “The original request was not fulfilled. Your changes were not saved. Issue still occurs: Limited audience. Your book caters to an specific community, namely that of Haverford. Please log in to iTunes Connect to view this request and upload replacement assets:”

Now, by “upload replacement assets,” I assume they mean “create an entirely new book about a different topic.” But, this project took a lot of time, and I like the book as it is. It represents the voices of 3 faculty members, 3 members of the staff, and students talking and thinking about the way technology is interacting with their teaching, learning and research. I believe that, even if nobody ends up reading our little book because time is valuable, its potential audience is rather broad, given all of the people engaged in digital humanities, and mapping, and music, etc. And, I guess I thought, well, the folks at Apple work at a giant company doing technology stuff for a mass market. No reason they’d know anything about this tiny corner of the academic/library interests. And so I sent a report:

I'm getting back an error that my book caters to a specific audience, namely Haverford College. However, given my experience with the Digital Humanities community in higher education, I know that the audience for the book will be much broader, and will include faculty and scholars from at least the community of elite liberal arts colleges, if not the much wider higher education community. Is there anythign I can do to convince you that this is true?

In retrospect, that message has a little bit of “You must not know about me” in it, and I regret that. I was trying to sound fancy, to use that privilege that comes with working at Haverford. I’m relatively disgusted by the throw in of “elite” in there, but my point was made. And, I don’t know, I thought maybe someone has a buddy who’s gone to a little liberal arts college, and they could ask them about this kind of thing. I have a tendency to be a little self-deprecating so I went for over-confident here. Oh well. It didn’t work.

So, I guess it’s over. They will not publish my book. Because they believe it’s intended for distribution at my organization (I prefer “institution”, but better organization than “company”). Even though I told them that I intend it for broader distribution, they somehow believe that it’s intended audience is just Haverford. So, who do they think decides the intended audience… And so I guess the purpose of this post is to say that I think it’s bizarre and troublesome that there is a product/store/model for distributing mass produced books and textbooks, presumably for an academic audience, among others, that rejects books produced from the academic experience for the academic audience because they are too narrowly focused. Too narrowly focused is not a thing in the academy, Apple! Really. You shouldn’t claim to provide a way of democratizing the spread of academic information and then reject works that are too narrowly focused. I don’t know. As I write, I wonder if I’m just bitter.

And of course, I knew the platform would be limiting, because Apple loves DRM and patenting ideas (which is morally despicable), and controlling their users, etc. But, I mostly don’t get worked up about these things, and am open to whatever technologies come along that allow for people to do cool things. So, I’m not going to boycott Apple, or tell people not to use ibook author, and we’ll just post the book to our website, and maybe put it in iTunes U, and move on. I offer the story anyway.