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January 31, 2012 / davebirss

The problem with iBooks

Last Tuesday I set myself a challenge.

I decided that I was going to write and publish a book in a week.

It’s all thanks to iBooks Author being so lovely and simple to use. All I had to do was knock out a few thousand words of inspired genius – and then upload it to the Apple Bookstore.

So on Sunday night I achieved the first part. I finished all the words. I’d even had a bit of a spanner thrown in the works when I was talking to Al and Jules at St Lukes about the book and they pointed out another section that should go in.

There was also the problem that iBooks Author got more turgid the more I wrote. My book isn’t long – only about 80 pages – but it’s crammed with interactive stuff. It got so slow that I couldn’t have any other apps open and I still spent three quarters of my time looking at the spinning beachball of eternal frustration. The finishing touches to the book were done through gritted teeth and potty-mouthed outbursts.

Regardless, I finished writing my masterpiece in 5 days. That gave me 48 hours to proofread it and upload it to the bookstore. That sounds achievable, right?


The Apple experience stops here

I made a big mistake. I assumed that the Apple experience would continue all the way through the process. I assumed that there would be a nice simple process where you upload the book, you add a description, you set the price and you enter your bank details to get your cut of the cash.

It’s nothing like that.

And I was slightly sickened when I slammed head-on into some massive obstacles.

And for those of you thinking about doing your own iBook, here’s a wee bit of insight.

As soon as you hit ‘publish’

There’s a lovely happy arrow in the menu bar of iBooks Author. It was the one button I was so looking forward to clicking on. That meant that I’d finished my book. This was a big moment for me. It opened up my browser and give me a screen with two nice simple options.

I knew which category I fitted into. This was going to be alright.

I clicked on ‘Create a Paid Books Account’.

Here we go!


This is where Apple wave you a cheery goodbye and leave you to fend for yourself.

I found myself thrown smack into the firing line of some pretty nasty bullet points.

I’m dyslexic – which may be unusual for a writer – so this kind of thing scares the living crap out of me. It’s just a nasty grey block of official text to me. It takes real effort to get into this stuff.

I took a deep breath and tackled the first bit: the system requirements.

I’m OK. I’ve got a pretty new Mac.

I pass with flying colours.

Next bit: the content requirements.

At this point I find out that I need ISBNs for all the titles I intend to distribute. Blithering arse! I know nothing about this. I’ll come to this later.

I also need to be delivering the book in ePub format. What’s that? Does iBooks Author do that for me automatically? More confusion. Let’s return to this.

Now onto the Financial Requirements.

Holy blinkin’ mother of Bob! I need a U.S. Tax ID? What? Really?! I have enough issues with the British taxman – and now I have to compound that with entering a contract with Uncle Sam’s penny pincher?

This all seems like a freakin’ nightmare to me.

Time for some research.

What the hell is an ISBN and how do I get one?

I at least understood what an ISBN number was. It’s the unique ID for published books. But I didn’t have a clue how to get one.

Hello Google, how you doin’?

It seems that there’s only one UK company licensed to hand out ISBNs. It’s Nielsen:

As you can see, their site is so bad that it doesn’t format properly on my Mac! The menu in the top left goes over their logo. And the headlines in the right hand boxes go over the lines.

Not only is it a design-travesty, but it is a mass of text with no clear way forward. And a table at the bottom informs me that I’m going to have to buy a batch of ISBNs – the minimum batch being 10 of the things for £118.68. OK. I think I may be able to stretch to that.

I bookmark the page and decide to move on to the next point.

What is an ePub format and how to do I get the book into one?

I look at the export options for iBooks Author. Nope. I can export as a PDF. I can export as text. And I can export in iBooks format. No ePub.

So I click on the Help menu and select iBooks Author Help. There’s got to be something there. I type ‘epub’ and get no results.


I’m forced to do more research. And after half an hour I work out a kind of workaround.

I can export the book as a PDF and then use an app called Calibre to convert it.

Great! And Calibre is free. Woohoo!

The problem is Apple adds all sorts of crap to the PDF. Like “ iBooks Author” on every page.

And my two column text layout confuses the order of the text. All the words are there. They’re just in the wrong order.

Close. But no banana.

More research.

And then I find an app called Sigil that allows you to edit your ePub file.

I’ve started to tinker with that. It looks pretty good. But it’ll take a lot of work.

I may be better rebuilding the book in Pages as a linear text document with added images – and then using Calibre.

Still trying to work that one out.

Am I now going to be chased by the US taxman?

I then look to see how easy it will be to get a Tax ID from the IRS. And try to find out my tax obligations if I do that.

I find this:

Another slab of official grey text. This stuff terrifies me!

I do, however, notice that it’s free. But it’s not immediate.

Gaaaah! Is there an alternative?

Let’s go back to Apple’s hail of bullets. Somewhere at the bottom it offers you an alternative if you don’t want to go through this system.

Great. Because I don’t want to have to address any of this nightmare crap.

There’s the option to go through an Apple-approved Aggregator. Sounds intriguing.

I click on it and get this:

Here’s a list of companies who can handle much of this ugliness for me.

I look at the European options.

The first is called Bookwire. It’s all in German. And it’s just a form.

I use the Google translate feature and it tells me next to nothing about what they do, what the deal is and how long it will take.


I try the second option – Immatériel. Clearly not a British one again. It gives me this:

I may be dyslexic but I still shudder at the spelling of ‘plateform’. Surely, if you wanted to attract business from the UK, you’d want to check the spelling of the headlines. My confidence is shaken. But at least it’s a better option than the German one.

I may go with this.

But I’m still not sure.

Or I may see if some of the American options will accept me.

It’s all part of the journey I’m on right now.

So is there a conclusion to this?

I feel that Apple have really let me down here. And probably more so because I’ve gone to so much effort to write a book!

What exacerbates the situation is that the process is topped and tailed by the characteristic Apple awesomeness. I started off using iBooks Author which (although it had my Mac on it’s knees) is very lovely and intuitive. It then finishes in the lovely Apple Bookstore.

These idyllic environments make the bit in the middle  – where Apple leave you in a hostile wilderness with no tools or help or advice – all the more horrendous.

I know I’ve been naïve with this. If I was a ‘proper’ writer, I’d have just gone through a publisher. But the wonderful thing about the internet is that you don’t need the middle-men any more. I publish my own podcast. I publish my own thoughts here. It’s easy to publish your own music and films. That’s the way forward!

I’ve looked online and not found any decent help with the situation. So I’m sharing it with the group. And when (not ‘if’) I find a way around this, I’ll share it again.

Well, that’s kind of taken the wind out of my sails about my book announcement!

At least my second book will be easier!


Leave a Comment
  1. yasminselena / Jan 31 2012 1:20 pm

    Dave, thank you so much for making the time to share that experience. That software’s been flagged upto me too, but I’ve never yet used it! It looked like a bit of a doddle to me too when I had a mooch.

    ISBN’s are not meant to be mandatory at least they are not with printed books, it’s only if someone wants to order your book via distributors and outlets I believe that its meant to be the case. As far as I’m aware you shouldn’t have been frog-marched into procuring one. So that’s interesting.

    Well done you though for cracking out a tome. It’s taken me aeons to get to the end of Gunshot Glitter, but the plan is still to self-publish to maintain creative control unless a publisher can offer me assurances they won’t try and turn my behemoth into chick lit or a dull covered thriller! I love my book way too much to do that too it… x

  2. Robert Arnold / Jan 31 2012 3:29 pm

    Hi Dave!

    This post couldn’t have popped into my feed reader at a better moment!

    A few months back I started writing a book (a sci-fi), you can see my cry for help here!:

    Before iBooks Author came out, I was in knee-deep with looking about how to get published online, including talk of ISBNs, agents – you name it… completely put me off ever wanting to write a book ever again!

    Then came iBooks Author and like you I began the same *promising* journey… and it seems I have hit the same issues as you, so disappointing 😦

    On the plus side, I have found this site, which looks promising:

    I’d love to hear how you get on. I’ll be trying to get my book sorted too – so I’ll let you know 🙂

  3. Aaron Rutledge (@neonarcade) / Jan 31 2012 5:12 pm

    Sadly, this is almost entirely comparable to the App Store experience. Apple hasn’t done much to facilitate the smooth transition from app maker to app publisher, and they’ve now replicated that with books. It’s a pretty hideous process. The worst part is that regardless, people will wade through this mess and continue to publish this way simply because the exposure is worth the headache. With so many apps in the app store now, and so many more arriving every hour, what reason would Apple have to update the process?

  4. Carmel / Feb 25 2012 9:12 am

    If you try to publish through Kindle, you’ll run into the same sort of problems. Maybe something ‘amateurs’ need to accept is that, if they want to publish themselves, online or offline, they need to find out what the professionals do then learn to do it. If that’s too difficult, then the alternative is to pay someone to do it for you. Alas, there simply is no magic button that does all the work.

    Sites like and have large amounts of free information on the publishing process.

    There is nothing unusual in what you have mentioned from your Apple experience. Apple can hardly be expected to educate the novice in the entire publishing process. I think it reasonable to assume that, if you are on the point of publishing a book, you at least know what an ISBN is. An ISBN is a tracking device which enables the retailer (the Apple store in this case) to easily identify your book from another which may have the same name (there is no patent on book titles). If you are selling only off your own website, you don’t need an ISBN, but it would be very unusual for any other retailer not to insist on an ISBN. Incidentally, you need different ISBNs for different formats of your book … eg a print book needs a different ISBN from an eBook of the same title.

    All that said, yes, online instructions can be confusing, and not only for the amateur. Perhaps there should be an introductory section (or a link to an appropriate instruction manual) saying READ THIS FIRST or proceed at your own risk.

  5. Davide Barranca / Mar 7 2012 5:19 pm

    I’m gathering information (I’m writing an iBook to) and I bumped into the following page (sorry, it’s in italian):
    which explain *very thoroughly* how to compile the module for the EIN (Employer Identification Number) – I don’t know if it’s useful for you but I’ve thought to share it anyway 🙂

    By the way, I’ve seen that ISBN prices are quite different from country to country. In Italy it seems a 100 numbers stock is about 130 EUR, while the 10 numbers is about 50 EUR (UK prices are incredibly higher!)
    Keep us updated with your progress and thanks for sharing!


  6. Rus / Apr 4 2012 9:23 am

    Hi Dave, you describe like a copy of the process I went through. Where I sidestepped was that I really talked to the US IRS for about 45 minutes and they explained me that in some exceptional cases it was possible as a non US-based person to get an IRS number. We went through all the steps and in the end the very nice guy said: “so we need a copy of a statement that Apple is requiring this from you.” :”Easy”, I said, “I just send you a copy from the web page from Apple where they say this is mandatory.” “Uhuh”, said the very nice guy, “We need a letter, signed by the company itself.”

    I guess you all see where this is going…. Still, after numerous phone call to Apple I succeeeded in getting past ignorant customer service agents and get someone on the phone who really was involved in the iBookstore bizz.

    Again, guess what the answer was: “We are really sorry, we don’t do this, otheerwise every small person who want to publish something comes by and want this letter. We only serve large publishers.. If you’re not one you have to use an agregator” So the whole story of Apple on easy publishing is a complete fake, because of this IRS rule. I you really look at what they write on the iTunes web site about this, it is a simple lie: it cannot be done by anyone from outside the US.

    So at this moment I am following the aggregator road. The German one (Bookwire) only work with professional publishers also, so it’s a no-go. The other one Immateriel is already keeping me busy for two months and still my book is not yet in the iBookstore. Their “backstage dashboard” gave a number od error messages that are not in detail explained and for the [ast two weeks my emails remain unanswered and the phone is not picked up anymore.

    I spent about Euro 300.– to convert my PDF bookfile in a fixee ePub file and I am stuck with the feeling that it was a waste of money and that the complete Apple iBookstore thing is one big vague thing about which they evade clarity.

    I guess I will try to call Immateriel again this morning for the eight time in the last two weeks …..
    See if the phone is picked up.

  7. Anonymouse / Oct 22 2012 12:36 am

    You can get $5 isbn’s from


  1. The Apple iBooks nightmare « The Dictionary of Specific Generalities

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