September 3, 2020
Apple devices could be a great platform for books.
That's what this article is eventually about, but let me start by discussing money.
A lot has been written lately of the 30% that Apple takes from App creators in the App store.
Apple takes the same amount from book authors that they take from developers, but Apple doesn't give us the support we need to create great books.
I don't know and am not here to argue that 30% in the App Store is or isn't the right amount, but think of what Apple gives developers.
Developers have Xcode, Instruments, the Simulator, and a whole suite of offerings from Apple to author, debug, profile, beta test (Test flight), and otherwise prepare their app for sale. They have documentation of the APIs (such as they are), sample code (such as it is), forums where developers are supported by other developers and sometimes by Apple employees, and a yearly conference of content designed to make their product shine.
Book authors have nothing.
We pay the same 30% to sell in their store that app developers do.
Is 30% too high?
As a comparison, Gumroad charges free accounts 8.5% + $0.30 per sale. To be fair, this is a huge difference between us and app developers. The app store is the only way for them to get their app on the phone while we do have Gumroad and Amazon. But let me continue.
On a $10 book, for example, I pay Apple $3 and Gumroad $1.15. On a $30 book I pay Apple $9 and Gumroad $2.95.
As a contrast, on a $30 book I pay Amazon $21. That's right, Amazon keeps more than twice what I do on a $30 book. I add that for three reasons.
- It continues to bother me that Apple gets beaten up over their 30% while Amazon's 70% is somehow ok and not discussed publicly.
- If I charge less than $10 for my book, Amazon only takes 30% - but that's the same 30% that is complained about when Apple takes it and Amazon is forcing me to lower my prices if I want it. Even this lower amount of 30% for Amazon doesn't get complained about even though it is the same as Apple's share.
- Amazon employees have been public about complaining about how high the percentage is that Apple takes while ignoring what their own company takes. It's their right but it feels like Zuckerberg complaining about Twitter not policing false posts.
Even given all of that, my primary issue with Apple and books is not the 30%. It's the lack of attention we get.
Honestly, I think to some extent the same is true for App developers. If radars were less opaque, docs were up to date, the App store was also less opaque and also apps were discoverable, if the App Store and its policies were more of a level playing field, and if there weren't the occasional random punishment of a well-behaving developer for unseen reasons, I think there would be fewer complaints about the 30%. Not that the 30% might want to be revisited or there might want to be different tiers - but I think if these other areas were addressed there would be less grumbling.
OK. Enough about App developers. As I mentioned, they get a ton of love from Apple in terms of tools, events, docs, and support.
"But Daniel," you say, "you can write a book for Apple Books using Pages."
Pages is not an adequate tool for writing a book. iBooks Author had promise and at one point was quite good. It was abandoned fairly quickly and didn't gain the features it needed to survive. Finally it went from abandonware to being end-of-lifed and virtually no-one noticed.
But that's not the real problem with Apple Books. Here are a few.
Apple Books is not cross-platform. How can you compete with Amazon and Kindle if I can only read my books on Apple devices. When I read an ePub in Books I'm essentially using a wrapper around a Safari engine (more on that in a minute). Why can't I read my books in a web browser from my iCloud account? I can view my photos, my calendar, reminders, Keynote presentations, Pages docs, Numbers spreadsheets, etc. Why can't I read my books?
Aside. I love Dark Sky. I've used it for years. I don't understand why, when Apple acquires a great piece of existing software they shut it off on other platforms. Dark Sky works better when there are more users providing more information. Apple will never do it, but, Dark Sky should still work on Android and there should be a version of Books that works on Windows.
I said that Books uses the Safari engine for rendering ePubs. This is something I've been told over the years. What I don't understand is why it doesn't use the same engine on both Mac and iPad. Or why its customizations are different. The same HTML and CSS will render differently on the two platforms. And - for fun - if I first test the pages in Safari on each platform, they will likely render differently in Books. In other words, even though it uses Safari, I get different results than if I test using Safari.
Here's an example (FB7693301). I'm trying to support night mode for my books. That's the mode where the user selects the theme with the black background. I can support dark mode in Safari. There have been sessions on dark mode for web developers at WWDC and there is ample documentation. It works great. As I write my books I can preview them in light and dark mode in Safari. But Books doesn't use dark mode. The only thing that changes in dark mode in Books is the chrome of the app not the page itself. Instead the user has to choose night mode.
Night mode has a black background and, except for links, all text is rendered white. You'd think it would use the dark mode colors for text if they exist - they don't. There is a secret API that allows you to change the text color in night mode. Apple hasn't published it and won't respond to author questions about whether or not we can depend on these settings.
Apple's reply when I filed this bug that they haven't documented this API is "We will need a sysdiagnose and a screen recording of the issue to continue assessing your issue."
No they don't. There is nothing wrong with my system. It is true on every Mac, iPhone, and iPad I or anyone else owns. They have not documented something. Their documentation has nothing to do with anything I or anyone else is running. Am I supposed to submit a screen recording of their documentation not existing?
For this I pay 30%.
The best way to read my books is on an iPad using landscape mode and scrolling.
Landscape allows readers to increase the size of the text without the code splitting over multiple lines.
Scrolling means that code listings aren't split over multiple pages.
For some reason, scrolling mode is not available in Books for the Mac (FB7693294).
For some reason, you can select one page at a time or two pages at a time on the Mac - BUT - if you select one page at a time and you stretch the page to be wider, it automatically switches to two pages at a time. I want to make a single page wider so all my code fits on single lines instead of breaking - you know, kind of like landscape mode on an iPad. Nope. Books switches to two pages up and the pages are initially really narrow until you widen the screen more. (FB7693297).
When I have raised these issues with friends at Apple they reassure me that "no one reads books on a Mac." I get a regular amount of complaints from my readers assuming these issues are my fault and problem. That's why I went to so much effort to color the text appropriately in night mode.
For me, the issue isn't the money. The issue is the lack of support and assistance for making the book reading experience better for those who want to read my books.
Although I mention money and percentages here - this is not an article about money and percentages. It is an article about Apple and Books.
I don't know if the Apple iBooks (now Books) anti-trust case sucked the energy out of Apple's commitment to books, but there are simple ways they could and should strengthen their offerings.
As much as Amazon and Kindle are the dominant player in this field, reading a technical book on a Kindle is painful. Math and Science equations and computer code look awful. Often equations are presented using images which means that when the reader increases the font size the equations remain the same size.
It reminds me of the early days of creating mimeographs of math content where you would leave spaces in the prose and hand-write the mathematical equations in.
If you create a book for Apple's Books store as an epub, you can support presentational MathML which essentially brings LaTeX quality equations to your books. You can also use CSS to style your code to either use syntax highlighting or custom highlighting (as I do) for great results.
Apple devices could be a great platform for books.
I think what makes Apple Watch so great is that people who work on the product love watches. Now, half a dozen years in, these people love Apple Watches and the endless possibilities of the platform.
I believe the camera team loves images. They take pride in the advancements they bring to the iPhone camera and related software year after year. It allows them to take better pictures and they clearly love bringing this technology to a wide audience.
I don't get the feeling that the people in charge of the Books team love books and reading. I don't get the feeling that they want to empower authors and readers. The lack of attention to the tools for creating, discovering, purchasing, sharing, and reading books is apparent,
It could be such a rich ecosystem with the right vision and the attention to detail that Apple is justifiably famous for.