The Odyssey To Apple: on the trials of publishing in the iBookstore
Being able to publish digitally is a liberating experience for many writers, but that freedom can come with other hats to wear, including becoming your own sales department. Getting a digital book into an online store is far easier than getting printed books into brick-and-mortar stores but, there are still hurdles to overcome. Unless you plan to finish your manuscript and stick it in a drawer, after writing and editing and formatting, the day will come when you must choose how and where it can be seen and sold.
Amazon and the Apple iBookstore will likely be the first locations that come to mind. Beyond them, there are a few other retail booksellers with online stores, but most authors will probably begin with accounts at only two or three popular sites. Creating an Amazon account is fairly straightforward, and when all is said and done it can take as little as twelve hours for your book to be available. The upside is simplicity. The downside, if there is one at Amazon, may be that Amazon only sells your digital book in “Kindle format”, intended for their eReaders. With Apple’s iPad such a powerhouse platform, and more and more tablets ready-made to use the ePub format, getting an ePub version of your book into Apple’s iBookstore is practically a necessity. But Apple’s application and delivery process is somewhat different from Amazon’s.
Applying to sell digital books through the iBookstore begins with creating a new iTunes account. For some reason, Apple does not allow you to use an existing iTunes account with the iBookstore, so if you already sell music or other products through the iTunes Store, being forced to create a separate account to sell books could pose a problem. Nevertheless, the popularity of iTunes software, the iTunes Store, and the Apple universe means a new account is unavoidable. Once the application form is filled in and you click the final button…the waiting begins. Though the iBookstore will enable you to sell your books, Apple’s process leads to several ‘why’ questions.
When the last button is clicked, what then? Once the application has been sent, there is no follow-up notification to let you know it has been received, and nothing to say how long the process may take. Returning to the iTunesConnect web page over the next few days and trying to login may seem like the only way to check if it is active. You may eventually wonder whether something went wrong, or whether your email address or password was entered incorrectly. A follow-up email after the application is submitted would be helpful because, judging by what others have said about the process, it can take days or weeks for the application to be approved. So, patience is a necessity.
One word of caution: a Tax ID number is required and, though you simply enter it at Amazon, Apple wants to verify it before clearing your application. If you have just received the number from the IRS, though you can use it immediately, it may take a while to appear in the IRS database where others can verify it. You might want to check with the IRS to be sure it shows up before submitting the Apple application since failure to verify it may set you back another week.
Nevertheless, you will eventually receive an email notifying you that your account is ready, and it’s time to move forward with delivering your content. But, hold on…
Perhaps the most frustrating thing you might discover only after setting up an Apple account is that you cannot send/deliver/upload your digital book to Apple any other way than by using iTunes Producer—a software application only available for Mac computers. There is no Windows-based version of the software, no online upload as there is with Amazon, and no way to even send it from inside the iTunesConnect web page where you manage your books. Presumably, a bookstore wanting to sell your books would make it as easy as possible to send your books to them. In this instance however, if you do not own a Mac computer or have access to one that has iTunes Producer installed, you will be referred to an ‘aggregator’. Third-party aggregator’s are companies that will submit your books to Apple for you, and they can be very helpful, but you accept the additional cost simply because Apple requires use of a Mac computer. Windows users will certainly feel ostracized by Apple’s decision to limit access to Mac users. Whether that is what Apple intended or not, the block against Windows users is difficult to understand if the iBookstore is earnestly trying to compete with Amazon.
However you go about delivering your work to the iBookstore, whether through your own Mac computer or through an aggregator, you will again need patience. Apple has it’s own validation process to check your ePub content for any errors. Even after passing muster with Epubcheck, a free program that is the defacto standard for validating ePub content, Apple has strict requirements and may find a few things that need fixing. Some errors will be reported immediately after uploading, and you can fix them quickly. Other problems are returned through a ‘ticket’ system that is reported on the iTunesConnect webpage where you manage your books. These may be problems unrelated to the ePub content itself, such as image sizes being too large, and will need to be corrected before resubmitting the book. Nevertheless, there are a few instances when errors generated by the Apple validation process are false-positives. If you fix a minor problem and resubmit your book, only to have an obscure error suddenly turn up, you may want to simply resend it…sometimes it will pass the second time (but do check the error first.)
The process of using iTunes Producer to set the details and pricing options for your work is fairly intuitive and flows nicely. Most of it is simply a matter of clicking the tabs and inputting the information. It does vary from Amazon because of the requirement for specific ‘meta-data’, which is probably confusing to first-timers. Still, a few minutes of online searching should clarify the type of meta-data they are expecting, and this step is actually fairly easy. I suspect that in the long run Apple’s detailed process allows for better searchability and visibility by potential customers than the simpler method at Amazon.
The most time-consuming step in Apple’s process is choosing your pricing for international markets. Amazon automatically calculates the comparable price in other markets based on current exchange rates, and in most cases that seems the fair choice. Apple’s iTunes Producer does not generate automatic exchange rate calculations, and the Publisher User Guide does not give clear guidance on what to do or how to select pricing. There are a dozen or so international markets for iBookstore sales, and a number of different currencies to consider, and it isn’t clear whether setting the price in U.S Dollars as the default will automatically have the book placed in other markets at a comparable price. As a result, it seems a necessary step to go online to any of several currency conversion sites, calculate your price in euro’s or the other required currencies, and then enter that amount where it is required in iTunes Producer. The process is actually very clean and concise, and iTunes Producer is very usable, but setting pricing could be considerably easier (e.g. a one-click solution to convert the USD price across all curriences.)
After what can be days or weeks waiting for your application to clear, and if you were ultimately able to get access to a Mac to deliver your books, the process reaches the ‘pending’ stage. Once your book passes internal validation and hits the ‘pending’ status, get out of your chair or you will start to put down roots. It can take another week or more to see any progress. There may be a lot going on at Apple at the moment, perhaps the book business is in a bit of turmoil over the legal issues with “Agency Model” pricing, but there are long delays. For all the value of having a book available on the iPad–and the iPad is still the defacto beautiful tablet on which to see your book–I cannot help but wonder how much business Apple may be losing because of the incredible time lag in making a book available for sale; not to mention the difficulty in getting there. It takes only a matter of hours on Amazon (I am uncertain what it would take on Barnes & Noble…for other reasons I’ve not put books on their site). But Apple, who could be the strongest competitor to Amazon, and who, with the iPad, have the best tablet to date for reading ePub books, needs to seriously streamline their process. Any delay can only be seen as an advantage by competitors.
I admire Apple products–who wouldn’t want a 17″ MacBook Pro and a new iPad–and I am big on creativity, whatever does the job best gets my vote. But money is always limited and, like many authors, I have been Windows-based for years. As amazing as Apple’s products are, and as slick and elegant as their engineering and designs are, most writers look to the iBookstore as a place to buy and sell books, and they are willing to give Apple a share of the profits for access to that service. But the sense of being intentionally shut out for lack of a Mac computer and being forced to go hat in hand to an aggregator can be a rude awakening. A person could be forgiven for wondering whether someone at Apple decided the iBookstore should be used to drive sales of Apple computers.
I dare say that, for some authors, this will be a deal-breaker, forcing them to give up selling through the iBookstore and driving them to other venues (e.g. Barnes & Noble.) After the frustration of having sent an application and waited for days or weeks, only to find out that you cannot even send your books, Apple may lose much of its luster.
One caveat: it is possible now to run a version of Max OSX on Intel-based, and some AMD-based, computers. It violates the terms of Apple’s software license, and it is far faster and easier to simply buy a Mac, but it can be done if you have a free machine to experiment with, a good deal of patience, and serious techie ‘stones’. Or, if you don’t have an extra pc, virtualization software allows running several different operating systems in ‘virtual machines’. That process can work extremely well, and a company called VMware makes a terrific product for that purpose. Once you have a chance to see how nicely the OsX operating system is, you will appreciate the legions of faithful Mac users and the genius and determination of Steve Jobs and his engineers to build such elegant devices.
Amazon, in particular, has battled over marketshare for years. The tablets and eReaders sold for the lowest possible price by Amazon and Barnes & Noble are an effort to get customers locked in to purchasing from one site or the other (though customers will eventually find ways buy at the best price.) With Apple pushing the envelope with iPads, iPhones, and user-friendly devices, what’s in it for the customer comes down to two things: usefulness and content. If the iBookstore is for books as iTunes is for music, then Apple should do it’s best to make it as easy as possible for authors to get their content into the iBookstore. The faster new books are available in the iBookstore, and the easier it is for authors to get their work ‘on the shelf’…hey, we all may decide to buy an iPad, and for that matter, that 17″ MacBook Pro as well since everything works so nicely together.
At the moment, publishing your work in the iBookstore can feel like having to crawl to Washington state simply to get to (an) Apple. That doesn’t mean we don’t want it–seeing a book on an iPad is the best. It just shouldn’t be so difficult.
I‘m reminded of the famous words of Jerry McGuire, pleading to Cuba Gooding Junior, “Help me help you.”