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Kindle Textbook Creator (Amazon’s little time waster)

Where was I?

I had just been converted to being a big fan of Apple’s ecosystem. Why?

Because it’s relatively simple and coding for any ecosystem outside of the fence of Eden is relatively complex. Of course, relative to days before computers, even Apple’s protected garden is mind-bogglingly complex. It’s a fragile ecosystem where the existence of one small bug might cause walls to crumble and whole sections of the garden to crash. Finding those bugs has always been difficult.

Thomas Edison probably invented the word ‘bug’ when things were much simpler. It was on an occasion when one of his machines wasn’t working properly and he’d checked all the parts and gone back over his designs. All was working as it should, yet the machine continued to break down. Exasperated, he meticulously checked every component in the machine again and discovered the reason for the problem. An insect was crawling over the delicate electronic parts causing the signals to fail. This might be apocryphal, but what is true is that Edison was the first person to use the term ‘bug’ in a technical sense to refer to problems with his machines.

Thomas Edison’s machines, although brilliant and remarkably complex for their time, were much simpler than our modern computers. Modern computers and the internet that influences our lives today could only be made through many layers of work building upon layers of work by many men and women. Each of these layers are complex and bugs within these layers are endemic. Bad code is within all systems and costs software companies up to USD3 trillion per year. No wonder, when the internet is an anarchic ecosystem where competing systems, languages and cultures meet and clash. Coders need to understand not just the programming languages, but the history of the protocols and the interplay between different coding language. Coders sometimes spend hours trying to sort out their coding syntax only to discover that one protocol out of several required a semi-colon to work instead of a comma.

Most app designers I know prefer to write iOS apps and then to convert their apps into Android. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is this: with iOS you’re writing using code made by one company for a few devices, with Android there are many codes on the backend because there are many different manufacturers using Android to power their devices. Because of this, a programer needs to spend 2-3 times the time debugging for Android than for Apple. Worse, because the uptake of updates is slower on Android, it’s unlikely that they ever get their apps working on all the Android devices running the many different outdated versions of the Android operating system. I know this now. I know this because I’ve been asking my app designer friends if they could explain to me why Amazon took over a month of tinkering with my submitted book to figure out that Kindle Textbook Creator [KTC] doesn’t work.

KTC is a program that Amazon recommends we use if the book we’re converting has a high emphasis on graphics and includes videos. This program attempts to convert a Portable Document Format [PDF] into a multimedia textbook that works on Amazon Fire HDX, iOS devices, mac computers, Windows computers, and the multitude of Android tablets and phones made by various competing companies. Considering the difficulties that app designers have getting apps to work on all the Android platforms, it’s not surprising that the Amazon techies failed to get it working.

Except they set the bar pretty low. This is not an app; it’s a book. And it’s based on PDF, which is the simplest, most universal format for sharing documents on and off the webosphere. PDF has been the common format for documents since 1993 – that’s a few years before the internet took off. All modern computers can read PDF documents and all KTC does is takes a PDF and attaches larger images, video or audio to it. KTC doesn’t allow a poster image of the image or video that will click through to a larger image or play the video, rather it applies a naff icon that the user has to tap to open the referenced image or video (see image below). And that’s pretty much it. It does allow the user to create a very simple Table of Contents [ToC] – but considering that it strips out the ToC from the original PDF, that’s the least it could do.

Kindle Textbook Creator's video icon
Clicking on the poster image doesn’t achieve anything but frustration. To get the video to play, tap on the tiny video image circled in orange.

Considering that I have never designed an application, I could be more lenient on the program that I used to convert the iBook. After all, I wrote no code in my attempt to convert this book. But, indulge me a smidgeon here. Amazon is the World’s largest retailer. They have websites that sell better than anything ever invented in the history of commerce. They have a business called Amazon Games Studios that makes excellent, immersive, imaginative games.  They have working models of a system to deliver packages using drones to your front garden within 30 minutes of you clicking ‘buy’. They built their company selling books online and are the World’s largest retailer of books. And textbooks are traditionally one of the highest earners for publishers. Why then, after working on the book every day for a month did they come back to tell me that they can get the book to work solely on Kindle Fire HDX?

If you don’t know what a Fire HDX is, that’s a very good reason to conclude that I’d wasted my time using this program. Fire tablets are the range of tablets that Amazon make, which sells only in the fourth quarter, which means that most Fire owners never wanted to be Fire owner, but got theirs after thanking Aunt Beatrice, removing the Christmas wrapping paper and hiding their disappointment with another slurp of the glüwein.

I don’t expect Amazon to be competing with Apple in developing software focussed on users. I don’t expect KTC to create anything close to the fireworks display that is possible with iBooks Author. Amazon didn’t even promise much on their download page. But it did promise that it’d make an interactive book that works on Android devices, which is why I used it. When the program requires that you fed it a PDF and what it spits out is something inferior to the PDF that you put in and it doesn’t work on Android – the Kindle Firecracker is a dud. Whizz, phut!

From the KTC download page Frequently Asked Questions (my underlining):

“Q2: Which devices support books created with Kindle Textbook Creator?
A2: Books created with Kindle Textbook Creator can be read on Fire tablets and free Kindle reading apps for iPad, iPhone, Android phones, Android tablets, PC and Mac. Interactive features like audio, video, and image pop-ups are currently only available on 3rd generation or newer Fire tablets and on free Kindle reading apps for Android phones, Android tablets. Books created with Kindle Textbook Creator are not made available on Kindle eInk readers.”

According to Kindle support, I misinterpreted this answer to mean that interactive features would work on new Fire tablets and on free Kindle reading apps for Android phones and Android tablets. My mistake.

To be fair to Amazon, among the many cut and paste support emails that I received, I also received emails from a person called Alexis, who seemed to genuinely want to help. However, the final email from Kindle support was just signed ‘Kindle Direct Publishing’ and informed me:

“As mentioned in our FAQ,

* Books created with Kindle Textbook Creator can be read on:

Fire tablets
Free Kindle reading apps for iPad, iPhone, Android phones, Android tablets, PC and Mac.

* But, Interactive features like audio, video, hyperlinks and image pop-ups are currently only available on 3rd generation or newer Fire tablets. At present these features are not present in iOS and Android devices.”

For me, the whole point of using KTC was to make the interactive book available to Android users and to sell on the World’s largest marketplace for books. Unfortunately this KTC is a Swiss Army knife without the knife, or the scissors, or the screwdriver, or even the bloody tweezers. It’s just got the toothpick.

Thwarted, I realised that I couldn’t use KTC to create multimedia textbooks for Android devices, but I could still use it to create a book that has hyperlinks to videos stored online and could be read by any device – almost as good as a PDF. However, although PDF is universal, it is fixed-format. This means that the text is unadjustable and makes reading on a phone quite difficult. Moreover, there’s the aspect of aspect.

Most devices have an aspect ratio of 16:9, but not the iPad. The iPad, for various speculated reasons, is the same format as those massive cathode ray televisions that now make great casings for fish tanks. iBooks Author is designed to produce books for the iPad, which means that the PDF that I exported from iBooks Author fits perfectly on iPads and fish tanks, but is slightly too large to fit on the screen of any computer (including macs), or phone (including iPhones), or Android tablets – in fact, anything that isn’t an iPad. Android users can still read the whole of the PDF, but they have to scroll to see the very little bit that doesn’t fit (see the following two images showing the preview using an Android tablet followed by the preview with an iPad). iPad users can see the whole of the PDF without rubbing off their Touch ID fingerprint, but then they could also use the iBooks version, which is capable of showing both the fixed-format version and a ‘scrolling view’ (flowable text) version for those who want to change the text size or want to read on a phone. Moreover, it includes videos, expanding images, animated widgets and interactive quizzes. Yeah, nah. iPad users should just stick to the superior iBooks version.

The fixed-format book on a Kindle Fire HDX. Aspect ratio 16:10.
The fixed-format book on an iPad. Aspect ratio 4:3.

Perhaps, you may think, this is my fault for using a document made for iPad to produce a product that would mostly sit on the 16:10 aspect ratio of Samsung tablets or on computers that are all also widescreen sitting at around 16:10. However, PDF documents aren’t made for the cinema and are nearly always A4 in size, which sit much better on the iPad. See the two tablets below for an illustration.

A4 android tablet
A4 on a 16:10 aspect ratio tablet.
A4 ipad
A4 on an iPad.

I could have used iBooks Author to laboriously change the aspect ratio and then the layout of all 435 pages of the book, but if I’m going to put in that much effort, I’m not going to create a PDF when there’s a much better option that has taken around the same time. By starting again in iBooks Author with a new format, I created a book that has flowable text, readable at any aspect ratio, which can enlarge the text so that the book can be read on phones, can be read on any computer, tablet or reader and, best of all, it doesn’t need KTC to convert it for sale on Amazon. Thankfully, iBooks Author also makes and exports EPUB.

EPUB3 is the new electronic book format. It should include video, but annoyingly, and despite standards agreements, EPUB3 doesn’t always play the video, depending on the device you use. So, I’ve gone for EPUB2 and put videos and images too large for phones on media storage sites. EPUB is also great because it converts very well into MOBI, Amazon’s proprietary format. Which would be great if I were still going to use Amazon, the World’s largest retailer of books. But I’m not. If you’re curious to know why, I’ll tell you in the next post.

Cheers,

Michael

P.S. If you’ve found these posts useful/interesting then they might by useful/interesting to your friends. Please forward them this post or send them to: http://ac-cent-tchu-ate.com/blog/

If you haven’t found them interesting, my name is Mathew Ian Perger and I milk my own cows.

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