Is a DIY Program or Full-Service App Developer Right for You?

SEPTEMBER 24, 2012

By Larry Dobrow

In the ever-evolving landscape that is self-publishing, photo e-books and iPad apps remain largely a do-it-yourself proposition. While several companies offer e-book and iPad app design and development, they vary wildly in competence and experience. Similarly, though DIY services keep costs low, less technically inclined users might have trouble navigating in and around the “easy” interfaces.

To that end, here are a handful of recommendations—some do-it-yourself, some here-you-do-it—for photographers hoping to publish e-books and iPad apps. Our top picks: Blurb if you’re DIY and proud of it; Wind River Creative if you need a hand; Wix if you’re big on sharp visuals and next-gen tech infrastructure; Apple’s iBooks Author if, like many photographers, you’re an Apple lifer; and Baker Framework if you’re tech savvy and want to save money.

The best reason for would-be self-publishers of photo books to use Blurb’s do-it-yourself tools is the most simple one: Blurb was founded to serve would-be self-publishers of photo books and them alone. And now Blurb has gotten into the e-book space, which has prompted a few tweaks to the company’s traditional print-book products. Though the e-book service only debuted this summer, it has generated user enthusiasm for the same reason Blurb’s printed books have: The product looks good and just about anyone who can successfully turn on a computer should have no problem using it. Indeed, asked to explain Blurb’s appeal, CEO Eileen Gittins responds, simply, that, “Blurb can be easily understood and used by all types of people with varied knowledge of publishing.”

Gittins touts a handful of basic tools, among them easy-to-use templates and a range of customization options. She also stresses the creative control that Blurb users have over the product. Though Blurb offers some basic level of support, it’s not going to hold users’ hands throughout the process; some less experienced users could take issue with this.

Pricing starts anywhere between $4 and $50, depending on the book’s physical dimensions. Print and e-books with higher page counts, not surprisingly, cost more.

Price: Starting at $4

Wind River Creative
To hear founder/guru Bob Smith tell it, the idea for Wind River Creative’s iPad app service was borne out of frustration. When Steve Jobs announced the debut of the iPad, Smith heard the news from several continents away: He was on an Antarctica expedition, which he hoped to document on the new tablet. Smith didn’t anticipate that the task would be a simple one, however, owing to the limitations of the ePub e-book format, which is an industry standard e-book code that can be read on multiple devices such as the iPad and Nook. “It became apparent that I would have to design it myself, rather than use something off the shelf,” he recalls.

Several years later, Wind River Creative ranks as one of the most highly regarded companies that create and publish photo apps for the iPad. In addition to scoring high marks for customer service, Wind River Creative offers a range of features that only the most sophisticated do-it-yourselfers can add on their own: everything from interactive mapping and involved image galleries to keyword sorting and Web interfaces.

Workflow proceeds with relative ease. First, the photographer uploads images to Wind River’s Web interface, which extracts the necessary data and tags. Then, users who wish to add Web links can do so before Wind River generates what Smith calls a “test version” of the e-book or iPad app. Assuming the user gives this version a thumbs-up, all that’s left to do is add a cover page image or graphic. Then Wind River submits it to Apple’s app store, inputting the information required under Apple’s guidelines (description, sample images, etc.).
As for the aforementioned customer service, Wind River isn’t a multinational conglomerate. Rather, its small team works fast and solicits user feedback at every stage in the design and production process. While Wind River’s design and experience experts don’t come cheap—pricing is set at $2,500 for an iPad app, and the programming costs that come with customizable options run $200 per hour—the company provides bang for the buck. “You are not placed in a queue where you wait to be contacted,” Smith says. He acknowledges that cost could prove an issue for some people: “Authors are generally not well funded themselves.”

But based on its current offering and other features likely to be added in months ahead—new graphics and a streamlined interface, among others—Wind River may be the best deal out there. Look for the company to add iBooks Author tools (see below) to its kit, which would allow Wind River to give users the choice between its current app or an iBooks Author interface with customized widgets.

Price: $2,500 for the iPad app; programming customizable options is $200 per hour

Wix is first and foremost a platform for building Web sites. Founded six years ago by a pair of brothers and a friend, it was inspired by their desire to make a challenging task (the development of complex yet visually sophisticated Web sites) easier and less expensive for individuals who lack coding and/or related technical proficiency.

At the same time, the company’s forward-minded embrace of HTML5 makes it a valued partner for photographers hoping to create e-books or optimize the viewing of their work on tablets and other devices. Wix claims to be the only provider of do-it-yourself HTML5 building tools, having launched its offering in March. In its first 90 days, the HTML5 tool was used to create more than one million sites, tilted heavily towards offerings by photographers, artists and designers.

The good news is that Wix operates on a so-called “freemium” basis, allowing users to build a site from scratch or employ any of hundreds of pre-set templates (these templates, in turn, are customizable). The slightly-less-than-good news is that to take full advantage of the Wix platform—to optimize the site for the iPad and other tablets, to link the site to a specific domain name, to add e-commerce functions, etc.—users have to pay for Premium upgrades. They’re not costly, especially compared to what one would pay a tablet, Web or e-book designer, but they’re important for users hoping to take full advantage of what the Wix platform has to offer.

Free; Premium plans start at $4.95 per month

Apple iBooks Author
Here’s why so many photographers of varying skill and experience use Apple’s iBooks Author service for their e-book and iPad app creation needs: Because Apple devices have become an integral part of their daily existence.

It doesn’t hurt that iBooks Author is a thing of uncommon grace and elegance. Like other template-based programs, it breaks down the e-book/app creation process into a series of incremental, easy steps. And when you work with Apple software on an Apple computer or iPad, you never have to worry about compatibility issues or extensive upload or conversion processes. IBooks Author just about runs itself.

For the iPad, users can create what Apple calls “Multi-Touch” e-books, rich with video, three-dimensional objects and interactive diagrams. Tables, charts, images and text are added with an easy click-and-drag, while slightly more complicated graphic (shadows, reflections) and audio-visual (animation, voiceovers) flourishes are simple to add for any photographer with even a passing knowledge of the Apple way.

That, actually, is the one drawback cited by photographers who aren’t sold on iBooks Author: Generally, it’s the Apple way or the highway. For non-Mac-users, the process can get slightly wonky and frustrating. That said, the way Apple generates quick iPad previews of unfinished books and automates the sales/submission processes is a little miracle of convenience.


Baker Framework
Davide “Folletto” Casali, product designer of the Baker e-Book Framework, is blunt when asked what motivated him to co-create his open-source, HTML5 publishing tool: a dissatisfaction with the publishing tools for the then-new iPad. Describing the iPad as something that “represented the opening of a whole new world,” Casali recalls being keenly disappointed with the Adobe and Apple products that—in theory—were to be used in the development of photo e-books. When he and his collaborators decided to convert an old travel journal for iPad display and perusal, the Baker Framework was born.

The open-source tool borrows from existing products and services (“Apple provides a simple and pre-packaged component to render Web pages, so we just included it in our app, saving years of development with a few lines of code,” Casali says). But he adds that the Baker team took pains to eliminate problems that he and other users had with that component, like memory management. After several more tweaks, Baker had approached its ultimate goal: To allow photographers, writers and anyone else to publish books on the iPad, easily and free of charge.

The Baker framework comes with a catch or two. Casali himself admits that “the workflow isn’t exactly simple—but neither are other solutions out there.” The task of book building requires some basic knowledge of HTML5, and publishing an e-book requires users to jump through the usual App Store hoops. That said, for those with the technical knowledge, the open-source nature of the platform gives users nearly unlimited control over their creations.

Up next: further tweaking the framework to make it easier for non-technophiles to use. “In the end, we’d love to reach a point where the current ecosystem and community can be even bigger, and provide a service for both amateurs and professionals,” Casali says.


Related Articles:

Anatomy of an iPad App: A Photo Book and Memoir as App
Anatomy of an iPad App: An App as a Living Document
Anatomy of an iPad App: A Photo Archive That’s Also an App

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