Technical Difficulties

Like a normal tech podcast, but broken.

David Sparks joins Gabe and Erik to talk about why he switched from writing paper books to writing iBooks. Along the way they touch on ideas, tools, inspiration, collaboration, and Star Wars.

Guest Spotlight: David Sparks

David Sparks

David Sparks likely needs no introduction here, but it may be easy to forget how accomplished he is. As is so often the case, David probably says it best on his own “about” page, “David Sparks is an Orange County, California business attorney and a geek. David is also a podcaster, blogger, and author who writes about finding the best tools, hardware, and workflows for using Apple products to get work done. David also writes for Macworld magazine and speaks about technology.”

He has taught a lot of geeks many things, but what brings him here today is the “author” part of his bio. He is a published author of “dead tree” books, iPad at Work and Mac at Work, and eBooks, MacSparky Field Guides. There are currently six books in the series, and thankfully there are even more on the way.

Why not Paper?

“The man is very large and very busy”

Many of us lovingly associate the smell of a new paperback or old library book with childhood and adolescence, so an eBook has a lot of nostalgia to overcome in order to win our loyalty. For many of us, they have done just that, being infinitely portable, often cheaper, and easily searchable.


I can’t remember the last time I bought a book for personal-use that was printed on paper, but I still have boxes filled with novels, and nothing gets my imagination going more than rooms lined with heavily-laden bookshelves. The heart wants what the heart wants.

“Not every ePub is created equal”

There is a difference between working on a book that will be collaterally published electronically and writing an eBook. As David points out, not all eBooks are created equal. The old trope that a picture is worth a thousand words holds true in many cases, and this is particularly the case when trying to teach people how to do unfamiliar things using technology. Unfortunately, pictures add a lot of cost to traditional publishers, and the meager allowance that the author of a technical book receives makes life very challenging.


I’m a little bit intimidated by the idea of an army of geeks ready to step in to replace an intransigent author, but I already knew that “respect” isn’t the right word to describe a big publisher’s side of the relationship.

In David’s case, this is best illustrated by the time he wanted to explain how to create an encrypted disk image on a Mac. Screenshots are nice in this case, but this is an ideal use case for a screencast. Screencasts can teach a true beginner how to do complex things on a computer, but you can’t put video into a book.

Why Choose iBooks Over Alternative Bookstores?

In January of 2012, David’s behind-the-scenes book writing found a better outlet, when Apple announced iBooks 2 and iBooks Author. The snarky Apple opinionators panned this (as always) but David immediately knew the tools could help him produce a better book.


Maybe I should have made that “opinionators” bit an aside…

Already convinced that the “Apple Experience” was better and knowing that his target audience was already on Apple devices, David still had other reasons to commit to the iBooks Store.

The other big contender for David’s first solo eBook was Amazon, but the economics of the then wrong-way 70/30 revenue split was a problem, and beyond that, Amazon’s download fee is based on file size, and that meant that he would again have to ration his multimedia. Not the right direction to be going.

The iBooks Store is of course not perfect. Many potential international customers would have no access to the the book were it only sold through that venue, and some of the target audience didn’t own an iPad. iBooks author provided a solution at this point too: PDF export, including the media. While the PDF specification allows for a full multimedia document, David chose to package it all in a folder, maximizing flexibility.

How Do You Put an iBook Together?

With an end goal in mind, now came the trivial step of producing the book. Begining life as a title in an nvALT text file, David’s books pass through many different stages.

Starting With the Outline

Like Gabe, David likes to order his thoughts and create an outline in MindNode or iThoughts.


We won’t touch on the religious war between these two systems other than to point out that Gabe loves both of his children. As David puts it, he “cooks on” these outlines for a month, and this is a lesson that many authors could stand to learn. He is really just setting up a skeleton here in bullet points, focusing on structure rather than narrative. Once a sound foundation is built, it is time to move on to a writing platform.

Moving to Scrivener

David’s usual way to begin writing is to export his mindmap as OPML to Scrivener, although he once wrote a book in Pages, “for a giggle.” One of the real benefits of Pages here is reliable sync across devices and locations. This is not a reality using Scrivener, since it doesn’t currently have an iPad app, and the only way to approach “sync” is by being disciplined in having only one instance of Scrivener open at any one time.

Churning out the words

In the audio, David relates a great anecdote about Sam Maloof that sums up a great mindset towards one’s tools: you use what works. Dictating into Draft while sitting in a car is a perfect example of that. Unless you possess the preternatural touch-screen typing of a teenager, dication might be a great tool for you on the go. Additionally, this may provide your work with a more conversational style that is even more welcome in the case of a technical subject.

David’s Creation

Another great point here is that setting writing goals can be helpful, but it can be more useful to focus on blocking out your time “lunch pail style,” because you may become frustrated trying to meet word-count goals when work or children intrude into your workflow. Even worse, you may meet your quota of words by volume and not quantity.

Working with Others

Because the challenge of writing a book was not enough, David decided to expand his work to include co-authors. Fortunately, he had the luxury of working with authors he chose himself, and each of his two co-authored books has its own unique feel.

60 Mountain Lion Tips

First was the screencast-focused 60 Mountain Lion Tips written with Brett Terpstra, which was designed to re-create the magic show effect that their Macworld panel with Merlin Mann “40 Tips in 40 Minutes” on January 27, 2012 had. David and Brett divided up the tips into screencasts, so it had a unique feel for a book.


David’s book about Markdown offered a more conventional approach, and was written with Eddie Smith. The major collaboration for it was done in a shared Google Doc, and one of the new challenges here was for the book to have a unified voice.

Working with an Editor and Typesetting in iBooks

Whether Cortés actually burned his ships or not (probably not), the metaphor remains useful to anyone who considers one phase complete and then moves on. In this case, David burns his outline when moving into Scrivener, and he also burns his version in Scrivener when he moves on to working with his editor. Working with an editor seems like a stage reserved for working with a big publishing house, but as David tells us, anyone can hire an editor. He also points out how vital this is to achieving a professional result. Besides the obvious function of cleaning up grammar and spelling, an editor ensures a technical book utilizes the same convention throughout its length when referring to common terms such as the “control” key (or is it the “alt” key?)

When making this transition, Pages offers some nice benefits, such as wider familiarity and a “track changes” feature. The hosts of this show might care to point out that there are, however, plain text alternatives to this last bit.

Now nearing the point of sales, it comes time to worry about tweaks to style and format. In keeping with Apple’s sensibilities, there are many good templates included with iBooks Author, but like most self-respecting nerds, he decided to “monkey” about with the templates a little. Having previously enjoyed building Craftsman-style furniture, David sought to invoke this feeling, while having a continuity of style within the MacSparky Field Guides.

Paperless 60 Mountain Lion Tips Markdown Email

Another unique addition to the MacSparky Field Guides is the inclusion of interviews, which David selected to broaden the book’s perspective beyond his own experience. An example of this need is how Paperless reads for those who have Evernote as an integral part of their workflow.

Choosing Topics and Getting Help

Choosing topics can be a challenge, but if you start with what you know, you’ll have a ready list to begin working with.

The process of getting into the iBooks Store turns out to be a relatively easy proposition. They even provide an 800 number that authors can call (!) if there are problems with the process. There is some automation that can reject a submission pretty opaquely, so the ability to have some help from Apple in working through this is a big help.

The Future of the iBooks Format and Publishing for Yourself

When you commit to one store, the lack of redundancy doesn’t leave many options if problems arise here. In David’s case, he is confident that the iBooks Store isn’t going anywhere and that it is in fact something that Apple needs to make work. Even with his in mind, there is some lock-in protection provided by the ease of producing a PDF.

If you don’t intend to create for the store, you will likely want to export to PDF and separately archive your media files, but the iBooks ePub format is very good for distribution to family through usual means such as email.

Since David saw the potentional for this tool so early, he had to learn a lot himself. The WWDC videos are a good resource in many cases, but David had already bumped into solutions himself by the time the videos were released.

While the iBooks Author tool is great in so many ways, there is certainly room for improvement:

  • Keybooard shortcuts
  • Template customization
  • Track changes
  • Enhanced support for video
  • Better support for larger file sizes

“It’s kind of the love child of iWeb, Keynote, and Pages”

Tell Us about Something You Like

Launch Center Pro

Launch Center Pro for iPhone is a great app for creating shortcuts to other apps. It relies on URL schemes but has quite a few benefits if you you do similar tasks a lot.

Launch Center Pro for iPad was recently released and is very similar to the iPhone version. You can sync actions between the two versions too.


HipChat is a part of Atlassian’s greater development suite, which also includes JIRA, BitBucket and other popular collaborative tools.

Despite competition from the popular new upstart Slack, HipChat offers a solid cross-platform discussion tool, with desktop, mobile and web clients, group and individual chat threads, a decent API for integrating other services, and a reliable notification back-end.

It’s free for teams of up to five, and is worth a look if you’re in the market for a small-team chat service.

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman is about as good as it gets for fantasy writing. I’ve never been interested in dragons and knights. Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book falls into his classic “fairy tale for adults” genre.

It’s a story of an infant that is raised by a graveyard of ghosts. The story follows the character through puberty, all the while building on various subplots as only a master like Gaiman can do. One of my particular, favorite quirks of Gaiman’s writing is how he plays on words for character names. It twists the mundane into the fantastic by slight changes in pronunciation.

If you’re a fan of Gaiman, then you do not want to miss the Audible version which is read by Neil himself. This isn’t the case of an egomaniac writer wanting the spotlight on the audio book. Neil is the perfect voice for his stories and he captures each character with subtle accents unique inflections. The Graveyard Book

The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni is the debut novel by Hellene Wecker. I came across it from the Incomparable podcast and it was a very fun introduction to an entirely new (to me) genre. It pulls together mythology from various middle eastern cultures and plunks it down in the early 1900’s of New York.

As with most books, I experienced the Golem and the Jinni as an Audible book and it was terrific. The voice acting helped keep the myriad character straight through the almost 20 hrs of audio. George Guidall voiced the story and delivered a typically superlative performance. It’s like a one-man radio drama. The Golem and the Jinni

Proper Star Wars

Most old-school Star Wars fans refuse to acknowledge the existence of Episodes I-III. However, if you have a little kid, they will certainly enjoy episode I the most. Kids love to watch other little kids. It’s hard to resist, but I forced my daughter to start with A New Hope and progress through Empire and Return of the Jedi. After that set it, I then tolerated a viewing of the unmentionable episodes.

The Star Trek trading cards documented many on-screen and behind the scenes aspects of the show. If you had the complete collection, it was like having a tiny cardboard version of a wiki.

Check out Darth Plagueis on Wookiepedia (warning: spoilers) for a detailed outline. You can buy the book on Amazon in a variety of formats. The Audible version is also outstanding

For the uninitiated, Philip K. Dick is a legendary science fiction writer that created and elaborated many tropes we all take for granted today. Several of his books and short stories have become cult classic films, including Blade Runner and Total Recall. I particularly enjoyed Time Out of Joint and Ubik

Making of Empire Strikes Back

I distinctly remember covetously fondling a Star Wars “movie magazine” as an eight-year-old. It was awesome with pictures of C3PO with his face mask off … and there was a man inside. He looked like a really old man to eight-year-old me but was, nonetheless, a man. At that point in my life my wealth was measured in packs of baseball cards, which cost 20 cents. The $10 magazine was a bridge too far for me but I remembered and 38 years later bought this iBook. My life is complete now.


I can’t hear about Gabe and Erik’s erstwhile attempts at revenge upon their foes without thinking about the Vadering meme from last Spring. Now they just sub-tweet.


Things We Don’t Like

The future if Jobs had bought LucasArts instead of Pixar?

  • Even the prequel deserts were too clean

Until next week

Well, that’s it for this week. If you have anything that you’d like to add to or correct in the show notes you can find me on Twitter @potatowire or feel free to send an email to me at potatowire dot com.