Thursday, April 16, 2015

Kindle Textbook Creator Updated

Amazon released a major upgrade (1.5.14.0) to the fledgling Textbook Creator app this afternoon that adds two significant improvements: support for embedded audio and video (as well as popup images), and simple table of contents creation. There are also new rulers and guides to help you align the inserted content.

You can find the official announcement here, and download the updated application here. The User Guide has also been updated from edition 1.1 to 2.0, and can be downloaded from the link on the lower-right of the application page.

A quick look at the Revision Notes shows several new sections have been added to the User Guide:

Before looking at the specifics of these changes (and several others that are curiously not listed), I should point out that the files created with KTC are currently only readable on newer HDX Fire tablets, since they are by nature higher resolution fixed layout files that the older (and smaller) Kindle readers are not well suited to view without some means to magnify the text, which KTC does not yet provide - unless you use the new image pop-ups to do so; but this is cumbersome at best, as it employs a clunky icon rather than actual interactive text as in the standard KF8 fixed format. The program outputs the unique Kindle Package Format (KPF) file type, rather than the standard AZW3 or other fixed mobi formats that are supported on nearly all Kindle devices and apps. Note, however, the following detail from today's announcement:
Access to the interactive features in these textbooks...will soon be available on other free Kindle reading apps for iPhone, iPad, Android phones, and Android tablets, as well as Mac and PC computers.
Notice that they do not include any additional Kindle devices, only Kindle mobile or desktop apps. Still, this will greatly broaden the usability of these files, and bring them to the majority of screens most readers of digital textbooks are likely to use. Textbooks are, of course, the intended purpose of this file format, although in the KDP Help Topics the listing for KTC is found under the somewhat ambiguous heading Publishing Illustrated Content. Even more confusingly, this page has long had interactive content listed as available in this format, even though it has not been until today. But then, this is hardly the first time Amazon has gotten ahead of themselves: note that the KTC Beta page already states that the KPF format can be read on all of the Kindle free reading apps, which is dramatically enforced by the included promo video. Note, though, that the page still lists the app as being in Beta.

In addition to the output format issue, your source input file for the page layout can still only be PDF, either as single or multiple page files. Individual pages can be added or deleted, but you cannot change the page layout from within the program; it is solely used to compile the source files into a Kindle-compliant output format - though now, of course, you can also embed multimedia content in those pages. And that is the big news here today, as outside of reflowable ebooks in the Kindle for iOS app, this is the first time that media files have been supported on the Kindle platform. So let's take a closer look at some of those details.

1.1 Import Format

Kindle Textbook Creator now supports the addition of the following multimedia file formats:
Video: .mp4
Audio: .mp3
Images: .jpeg or .png
Images can now be embedded as "figure pop-ups" to supplement whatever graphic content is already designed into the PDF source file. These and the audio/video content are displayed as icons that can be placed wherever you would like them on them page by simple drag and drop. Tapping on the icon in the published ebook will activate an internal plug-in that will play the content. Additionally, when previewing the packaged content, the interface provides you with a preview of the currently selected file in its native plug-in. But more on this in a minute.

1.2 Export Format 

Even though it is not listed in the Revision Notes, a new paragraph has been added to this section that could use a bit more explanation. In essence, it says that you can update a KPF file on your KDP content page, so long as it was initiallyt created using KTC - presumably you would want to do this if you go back and add new interactive content to a title you have already published - but, if you create a new version of a title published in a different Kindle format you will have to publish it as a new title.

Unfortunately, that is all the information that the User Guide provides. However, if you go to the Help page for this topic you will find some additional (and rather critical) details, including a link to the KDP Customer Support contact page that you can use to have them link that new edition of your work to the previously published version, so that you do not lose accumulated reviews, etc. But as it states on the Help page, sales rankings for the two editions will still be calculated separately for each.

1.3.2.1 Rulers and Guide Lines 

As mentioned, there are now guide items to help you align your embedded content on the page. There is a Show/Hide check-box on the View menu that surrounds the Document Window with rulers, and if you hover your mouse over one of these you can click and drag out guide lines for horizontal and vertical alignment. A tool tip tells you the current position of your cursor. Units are in Points, which unfortunately I can see no way to change. Grab a guide line with your mouse and drag it to the ruler to remove it.

1.3.3 Properties Panel (Previously titled "Right Panel")

The newly renamed Properties Panel on the right is where you'll find the new option to add a page as a linked location in the Table of Contents, as well as all the functions for adding and editing your interactive content. A couple of screenshots give examples, which we'll look at further in the sections below. The panel content here changes depending on what is selected in the windows on the left.

1.4 Keyboard Shortcuts 

Rather than listing "Delete Page" as the Action for the Delete keyboard command, the new edition of the User Guide gives it as "Delete Plug-in" instead. This means you can no longer use the keyboard shortcut to delete unwanted pages from your project by highlighting them in the Pages Panel on the left and simply hitting the delete key, but must now use the option in the Edit menu drop-down instead, or right-click on the page thumbnail on the left to bring up a context menu that contains a Delete Selected Page option. In a way this is really best, since it keeps you from deleting a page by mistake when you meant to delete a plug-in that you thought was selected instead!

2.3 Building Your Table of Contents 

This new section details the fairly simple and straightforward task of adding pages to a Table of Contents. As mentioned earlier, a new check-box in the Properties Panel provides the option to "Include Page in Table of Contents" whenever a page is selected, along with a box in which you can include a Page Title label of up to 100 characters for each entry.

Bear in mind that this does not create an actual TOC page, but only produces the Kindle device menu links. These can be seen (and tested) when you preview your project by selecting a new icon at the bottom of the Inspector. Select the little device icon on the left to return to the Preview options tab.

2.7-2.11 Plug-ins 

Five new sections have been added that go into all the gritty details of adding and editing the three new media types that KPF supports. I won't go into all the specifics here, since that is the purpose of the User Guide, and it's all a fairly intuitive process. Amazon has provided new options for adding media files in a couple of places: from the Edit > Insert Plugin menu drop-down (where there is also a Delete Plug-in option), or from the Insert icon in the menu bar next to the Undo/Reco icons. As mentioned earlier, you can also delete the plug-in by selecting its icon and either hitting the delete key or right-clicking to get the option from the context menu.

When you add a media file you will get a suitable file type icon which you can drag around the page to a suitable location. In Amazon's delightfully annoying editorial style, they have provided an entire new section (2.8) of nearly a page in length to state (in four numbered steps) that you can change the location of an icon at any time if you change your mind.

Once you have added a media file icon to your page (or selected one already there), the Properties Panel on the right will provide you with a number of options, as well as a bit of info about the file, including its size. An important note on this point is that the KDP file upload size is limited to 650 MB (a restriction that was recently increased substantially from its previous 50 MB limit), and should you attempt to insert a file larger than this you will receive a warning that the file exceeds the allowed size. However, you will not receive a warning should two or more files exceed this size! It will, in fact, actually package the project and produce a file that will not be accepted for upload to the KDP portal.

Below the file info is a Replace button that allows you to exchange the current file with another, and below this there are several text entry boxes for adding a title and descriptive content to your media. Again, this is all very simple and straightforward, and does not even require reading the User Guide.

3.1 Previewing Your Book

Just a slight bit of elaboration has been added here to explain the new TOC and Device icons and their respective tabs, as mentioned above.

3.3 Uploading Your Book to KDP 

Another reiteration of the KPF file replacement protocol has been added here, which adds nothing new to what was said above. The hyperlink to the KDP webpage has been removed from the Properties Panel (as has all of the previous Help text found there) and moved to the Help drop-down menu instead. The remainder of this section is the same.

Conclusion 

While KTC is still clearly a Beta program with few frills and even fewer customization options, this first update makes a very significant leap in terms of content. The possibilities of what can be done with interactive media in a Kindle fixed format file have improved three-fold at one fell swoop, although it would be far more useful were it also available in the far more developed, and EPUB-based, KF8 format, rather than the PDF clone stamp that it is. But most average content creators don't have the time or interest in learning HTML/CSS coding, so the PDF input is a plus for them, making it easy to create print and ebook editions from a single file - one that can now quite easily have bonus content added in its digital incarnation. The icon-driven UI leaves a lot to be desired - particularly when held against the graceful interface produced by iBooks Author. KTC is clunky and old-school in many ways, but it's simple and it's easy, and for many users simple is best.