Why The Emotional Criticism Of iBooks Author Is Wrong

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A smattering of journalist authors are freaking out over Apple’s license agreement for the free new iBooks Author tool.

ZDnet’s Ed Bott called the license agreement “greedy and evil.” PCmag.com’s Sascha Segan wrote: “Like iBooks Author? Apple now owns you.” Even Daring Fireball’s John Gruber called it “Apple at its worst.”

Et tu, Gruber?

What’s strange about these emotional responses to Apple’s legalese is that they fail the reality test. Apple’s iBooks Author terms are neither greedy nor evil; they don’t mean Apple’s “owns you;” and it’s certainly not the worst thing Apple has ever done.

Here. I’ll prove it.

Emotional response #1: Apple’s terms are “greedy and evil.” 

Here’s the part that has critics apoplectic:

If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.

The iBookstore distribution required nets Apple a 30% cut.

Is it too obvious to point out that Apple’s terms are optional? Nobody is forced to accept them. Is Microsoft greedy and evil for charging $120 for Microsoft Office? If I don’t like the price, I don’t have to use it.

Apple’s iBooks Author is just an offer. Take it or leave it. Nobody is being coerced.

On the contrary, Apple’s terms aggressively champion the cause of free books. There are several powerful incentives for authors to give books away free. Who wrote this policy, Richard Stallman? Apple’s authoring tool is free, and if you don’t charge for the book, you can distribute it anyway you like. Wow!

I would think Ed Bott would be way more angry about this one. As an author who makes a big part of his living selling technology-oriented books, he should be worried that Apple’s incentives for generating free books would flood the market with books that Apple doesn’t make a penny from. Now he’s got to compete with free.

Look, Apple has decided that its overall publishing channel starts with a free application. As a publishing channel, Apple’s is way better and way cheaper than, say, Amazon’s Kindle channel.

Amazon’s royalty rates are all over the map, depending on the price of the book, whether affiliates are paid, whether Amazon chooses to discount your book and many other factors. But their very best royalty rate is identical to Apple’s: They keep 30%. Their worst rate is that they keep 70%.

Amazon and Apple are the only two players in the category of eBooks that involve powerful mainstream, broad-base distribution on tablets. And in this category, Apple takes far less from authors and also strongly encourages a free model from which Apple makes nothing. And, in any event, the whole system is optional.

The iBooks Author terms are the opposite of “greedy and evil.” They’re generous to authors, and strongly encourage the creation of free books so that poor people aren’t disadvantaged by the cost of learning materials.

Emotional response #2: Using iBooks Author means “Apple owns you.”

Really? How?

Before iBooks Author came along, a typical scenario for a self-published author might be this: You write a manuscript and gather images, and hire designers and others to format it for print.

Starting with the same original materials (not the print-formatted files), you use Amazon’s system for creating a Kindle version.

Starting again with the original manuscript and images, you might do another format for PDF distribution, which you might offer for sale or free download from your web site.

And once again, starting with your original manuscript, you might format a script that you read or have a voice actor read for an audiobook version.

The existence of iBooks author gives you yet another powerful distribution channel. Starting once again with your original manuscript, you format the text within iBooks Author for sale as an iBook.

iBooks Author gives you a fifth option to add to the previous four. In each case, you start with a text file manuscript, and share your revenue with people or organizations that enable you to distribute within that channel.

Apple doesn’t “own you,” has no claims to your copyright and demands no exclusivity.

It’s a bizarre claim, and one easily proved false.

Emotional response #3: iBooks Author is “Apple at its worst.” 

iTunes for Windows is Apple at its worst.

The claim that iBooks Author is “Apple at its worst” is a comment on the following quote by Dan Wineman:

“Apple, in this EULA, is claiming a right not just to its software, but to its software’s output. It’s akin to Microsoft trying to restrict what people can do with Word documents, or Adobe declaring that if you use Photoshop to export a JPEG, you can’t freely sell it to Getty. As far as I know, in the consumer software industry, this practice is unprecedented.”

Uh, publishing is not a consumer activity. It’s a producer activity.

Apple isn’t giving you a movie player for watching Seinfeld re-runs. Apple is offering a publishing and distribution channel and, by the way, here’s a free tool optimized for supporting that channel.

If Apple had decided to make iBooks Author a web app that constituted the first step in submitting your work to iBooks distribution, nobody would be complaining. They would see the online authoring tool as just part of the publishing channel.

Instead, Apple decided to make Step One of the iBooks publishing system a downloadable application.

Another complaint by critics is that Apple has pointed out in its licensing agreement that it reserves for itself the right to reject books. A clause in the license agreement states:

“Apple will not be responsible for any costs, expenses, damages, losses (including without limitation lost business opportunities or lost profits) or other liabilities you may incur as a result of your use of this Apple Software, including without limitation the fact that your Work may not be selected for distribution by Apple.”

Apple’s iBooks Author clause that says they’re not responsible for reimbursing you for your time if they reject your app is perfectly consistent with Apple’s past behavior, and it’s unreasonable to have expected anything else.

The lack of filtering in Amazon’s Kindle channel of publishing actually threatens the desirability of that platform.

As a Reuters article pointed out last summer, thousands of books published through Amazon’s Kindle system are made up of junk content “bought very cheaply” and repurposed into a book. Nobody makes a lot of money on these books, so unscrupulous pseudo-authors are making it up on volume. In fact, little sweatshops have sprung up to grab content, dump it into a Kindle book and sell it on Amazon.com.

As the article points out, “Spam has hit the Kindle, clogging the online bookstore of the top-selling eReader with material that is far from being book worthy and threatening to undermine Amazon.com Inc’s publishing foray.”

I don’t think anyone can have honestly and reasonably expected Apple to let spammers flood iBooks with junk.

The assumed expectation of critics that Apple should have given away a free eBook authoring tool as a front-end to its publishing channel, and invited authors to use that tool to advantage competing publishing channels is an expectation based on what?

Apple’s strategy, as I pointed out last week, is to become the eventual publishing platform of choice. To this end, they have undercut Amazon’s royalty program visicously, offering terms that are to Kindle publishing what the Kindle Fire is to the iPad in terms of pricing — generally less than half.

They have strongly incentivized the publication of totally free books.

They have offered another great, author-friendly channel for distribution that in no way prevents authors from publishing the same content on any other platform, including direct competitors.

And they have created a legal framework that will prevent iBooks from being filled with shameless spam in the guise of books.

Emotional responses to this licensing agreement are natural, given the unusual terms it contains. But once the emotion has subsided, and the facts are considered with a cool head, Apple’s new iBooks Author looks like a pretty good deal.

I’m predicting that a whole lot of authors are going to love it.