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From InDesign to iPad: An Overview (Part 1)

I presented a session called “InDesign to iPad” at the InDesignSecrets Print and ePublishing Conference, May 13, and have heard from a number of people that it would be useful to repeat some of this information here. The session was very short and focused on the various methods for putting content on an iPad (content from InDesign, at least). I obviously, cannot repeat the whole session, but here’s the general outline.

Where We Are Today

After talking to a number of colleagues about this topic, and reading everything I can about it, one quote stands out for me… something that Branislav Milic said to me while in Seattle:

“2010 is the year of announcements”

The point is that every company seems to be throwing their hat into the ring, coming out with something new and exciting and hoping that their idea will stick. Many announcements don’t even appear to be turning into real products, but no matter… everyone feels the need to jump out and do something.

That said, Apple did ship the iPad and sold over a million of them in a few weeks. (And estimates indicate that Apple may be selling over 200,000 per week — more iPads than Macs!) That counts for something. So because of this success, many people feel that the iPad is the target to hit — the device on which their content must appear.

iPad vs. Standards

The iPad came on the scene when the publishing world had finally pretty much settled on three major standards for displaying interactive content: XHTML, PDF, and SWF. How does the iPad handle those formats? Well, in the case of two of them (PDF and SWF), the answer is “pretty darn poorly.”

Most of the hoopla over the iPad has centered on the fact that SWF (Flash) won’t run on an iPad. But very little attention has been given to a format that I consider even more important: PDF. I’ll go into detail on those issues below.

Okay, so how do you get InDesign content onto an iPad? There are five basic ways:

  • ePub
  • Kindle
  • PDF
  • App
  • Content delivery app

ePub and Kindle

ePub has gotten a huge amount of press recently, and some publishers think it’s supposed to be the holy grail of ePublishing. But I’m here to tell you that it’s not. It’s an limited, crufty file format that has been pressed into service only because there’s nothing else better. But using ePub is like taking a step back about 15 years: Fonts are a problem, graphics are a problem, typography is a problem, and the biggest problem of all is that you have no idea what the book will look like on various devices because every device displays ePub files differently.

ePub is an XML-based format — basically just HTML with limited CSS. You can make a pretty ePub, but you have to work far too hard at it. And InDesign is not going to be nearly as helpful as you think; you’re almost certainly going to have to do a bunch of manual coding. Have fun.

Ultimately, ePub is good for books with linear flow — books that you read from front to back without a lot of moving back and forth. That means novels, basically. Other books and publications (catalogs, magazines, newspapers, comics, etc.) are really problems for ePub. Even textbooks and technical books are often a problem in ePubs.

All that said, ePubs are not going away, and there is a very good chance that the format will be improved upon to be more robust, the readers will be improved, and that InDesign will be improved upon so that it creates better ePubs. (For example, InDesign really needs to be able to import/export SVG files, the only vector format that ePub supports on the iPad.)

Putting ePubs on an iPad

There are a number of iPad applications that can read ePubs or variations of ePubs, but the primary app is Apple’s free iBook reader. iBook is easy to use and displays ePubs reasonably well (though version 1 leaves lots of room for improvement).

If you care about DRM (digital rights management… basically, locking the book so that only people who buy it can view it) or you want to sell the book via Apple’s iTunes store, then you need to submit it to Apple. Unfortunately, Apple isn’t going out of its way to make this easy for small publishers. There are some brokers (aggregators) who work with Apple to get your book into iTunes, but I’ve heard mixed reports on their quality and efficacy. Aggregators include: BiblioCore, Book Baby, Constellation, INgrooves, Ingram, LibreDigital, Lulu, and Smashwords. For larger publishers, there are companies such as CodeMantra who can help. [Update: See comments below regarding signing up to publish in the iBookstore.]

Fortunately, the good news is that you don’t need to sell through iTunes to put your ePub on an iPad! In an uncharacteristically open-minded move (yay!), Apple lets you drag just about any ePub into iTunes and it shows up in the Books section. Then, when you sync, it appears in iBook on the iPad.

By the way, here’s a little trick: If you want to add your own custom cover artwork (iBook doesn’t automatically use the regular cover from page 1 of the ePub), you can easily add it by dragging any png or jpg image into the Cover Art section in iTunes. (Or, select the epub file in iTunes, choose File > Get Info, choose the Artwork tab, and then click Add.)

There are other ePub readers, but none as good. For example, at this time Lexcycle’s Stanza has still not been updated to take advantage of the iPad’s larger screen dimensions. (For that matter, what is up with Stanza? Once heralded as the best option for ePubs, they’ve basically disappeared since Amazon bought Lexcycle. I can only assume that it’s more-or-less dead at this point.)

What About the Kindle?

Speaking of Amazon, it should be noted that their Kindle app works quite well on the iPad. So why bother buying a Kindle? (The answer is weight, eInk, and battery life. But those aren’t compelling enough to me at this point.) I like reading eBooks in Kindle for the iPad almost as much as in iBook.

However, there’s one problem: You can’t use ePub — the most popular ebook format in the world. Instead, you have to ask Amazon to convert it to .azw for me, and then use to download it to your computer. So that’s clunky if you’re just trying to read your own e-documents. But if you’re trying to sell them, then it’s pretty convenient, as Amazon handles the DRM for you, and it’s easier to get into Amazon than into the Apple iTunes store.

Okay, in Part 2, I’ll explore other options (PDF and apps) for publishing on the iPad… stay tuned!

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at
David Blatner

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15 Comments on “From InDesign to iPad: An Overview (Part 1)

  1. My son, who’s a real Generation Xer (I’m only faux Gen X), sniffed at the iPad and commented that the only use he could think of for it was surfing the web while watching television. I didn’t even get that far, because after much head scratching and watching the launch presentation twice I couldn’t come up with any that didn’t involve at least a USB port and/or a webcam.

    As for ePub, I am still fairly skeptical.

    Best eBook reader so far, imho, is the new Sony. If only the speed would improve.

  2. So far I can tell you that the pads my wife and I have has changed how we use both our phones and computers. Basically when home we are using the pad for email, routine surfing and as an ipod in the house. I have over 5000 scanned pages of shop manuals in mine so it is in my workshop a lot. Much more convenient than a laptop as it doesn’t take the room. Our computer is seeing a lot less use.

    One PDF issue I did run into was the PDF version of our local paper. Photos would not show up until I flattened the files and then run the PDF optimizer on them. Not sure what they are doing to cause that in their Indesign PDF export.

  3. I should also add that our 19 year old son doesn’t think they are work the money due to video chat missing. Of course his HP netbook will do it, but the reality is that it’s a sluggish slideshow, not video. The HP is also dog slow next to the pad for routine things.

  4. @Alan: It’s ironic that you say you’re skeptical of ePub and then say you like the Sony reader… as Sony books are mostly epub, right?

    @Andy: Yes, I think you’re right that PDF is going to be the publishing mode of choice for many people. I cover that in the next installment of my article (still working on that now).

    As for your son: Right… iPad is still very much a version 1.0 product. Of course, if you and your son hasn’t seen Everything is Amazing and No One is Happy, you must. ;)

  5. Thanks David for taking the time to write about this! I find the whole epub thing fascinating, as well as InDesign’s ability and “shortcomings” in creating epub files. I’m currently using InDesign to convert a 1000 + page html book to an epub file for my personal viewing pleasure.

  6. David ? you posted a comment on concerning Wired’s new app for the iPad. It certainly is exciting but are we sure yet how this (app production) was done considering Apple’s no cross-compile on iPhoneOS and Adobe’s Catalyst solution? The excerpt from the blog post that seems vague:

    “Created with Adobe InDesign CS5 and additional Adobe publishing technologies, the WIRED Reader is the first in a series of steps for Adobe to enable magazine publishers and retail catalogers to deliver groundbreaking experiences across tablets, smartphones and other devices”

  7. I’ve done a fair amount of ebook work in the past two years. It is clear to me beyond all doubt that — for those of us who care about graphic design and good typography — the ONLY worthwhile ebook technology is PDF. All other approaches are just variations on HTML/CSS, which inevitably means crapola design & type.

  8. i have sat the whole day trying to find a way to ‘convert a pdf document’ into an ebook. i was even downloading calibre, and then, i saw the light…and your article…and since im constantly on indesign (you learn something new everyday) i couldnt believe my luck! this has turned out to be the best little resource for me to be able to display my design portfolios/presentations in ‘book format’ to my clients on my ipad! so so so amazed. and a massive THANK YOU all the way from south africa! the graphics show up great as far as im concerned for a quick read, and it was so simple-even your instructions on how to change the book cover! absolutely astounded and full of thanks!

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