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Digital Book-making Tools: A Roundup

For those of us who aren’t code slingers, what’s the easiest way to build a digital book? I’ve noticed a small but growing number of tools, ranging from big guns like those on offer from Adobe to iPad-based efforts that aim to make publishing a touch and drag affair. Below is a list I’ve been compiling over the past few weeks. Some of these solutions get you an iPad app, some get you ePub, some are for web-based books. I’ll try to keep the list current; if you know of tools worth adding, drop me a line (peter dot meyers at gmail).
  • Active Reader. PC/Mac-based authoring tool for creating motion graphic iPad apps. Operation Ajax, a visually stunning motion comics history about Iran used Active Reader to create its iPad app.
  • Push Pop Press. Forthcoming authoring tool lets publishers and other content creators generate iPhone and iPad apps.
  • Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. Lets publishers start with an InDesign-centric workflow, sprinkle on multimedia and interactivity, and output iPad and Android tablet apps.
  • Flash. Everyone knows by now that you can’t view Flash content on an iOS device. But in the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game that Apple and Adobe both probably wish would just go away, there is a loophole: Flash Professional CS5 lets you export an iOS-friendly version of whatever you create in Flash. So you use Flash to build your content and then you output an iOS app.
  • Mathematica CDF. A “coming soon” feature in the math/stats-friendly Mathematica software, the “computational document format” lets you embed reader-manipulable simulations in ebooks. Works for everything from picture puzzles to, uh, the “Complex Addition of Harmonic Motions and the Phenomenon of Beats”. A bunch of demos are available for viewing.
  • Demibooks Composer. An iPad-based authoring that lets you create iPad apps directly from the iPad. In case that last sentence didn’t contain enough mentions of the word “iPad” for ya, that’s the distinguishing feature here: you pour your content into the iPad, mix it up, and output an app….all on the tablet itself.
  • ProPublica’s TimelineSetter. Tool for creating info-rich, reader friendly HTML timelines. Sample timeline:
  • Storify. Web-based authoring tool lets you grab anything you see online (Facebook posts, photos, tweets, etc.) and weave them into storify, ready for embedding or publishing—you guessed it—online. Currently in beta, this tool’s invite-only for now.
  • The Atavist’s Periodic Technology. A web-based content management system that lets you assemble multimedia-rich stories and then output them as iOS apps and ePub/Mobi files. Created by the folks at The Atavist, who are using it to publish some of their own long-ish magazine articles. Currently in beta, more info available via
  • Book Oven. Web-based publishing tool lets authors create nicely formatted ebooks and output in multiple formats, including ePub, PDF, and InDesign-ready XML. It’s based on the familiar (to many people) WordPress system so you get a more or less author-friendly, multimedia- and web links-capable authoring tool that takes care of all the outputting work for you.
  • Electric Publisher. This isn’t a use-on-your-own publishing tool; instead, the crew at Electric Literature will take your book files and turn them into an iOS app. What you get are features similar to what they’ve built for their own short fiction publishing venture: multiple titles “inside” one app, ability to include basic audio and video enhancements, and a way to sell additional titles to anyone who’s downloaded your app.

Delighted to see how useful this post seems to be, especially among Twitter fans. Quick update here to add a few suggestions that arrived yesterday: @mranlett reminds me that Word’s XPS format can be used to create Blio-friendly files; a bunch of thumbs-up votes for Anthologize, another WordPress-based system that lets you use the popular blogging platform to output formats including ePub, PDF, and TEI; reminders from everywhere that Pages outputs ePub files; and a few shout outs for Sigil and Calibre, both open source ePub authoring tools. Thanks everyone for the suggestions!