Even before iBooks Author took the stage in 2012, Apple offered the average Mac user a way to build basic ebooks through its word-processing software, Pages. Now, after four years of stagnation, the company has (surprisingly) started improving the app's ePub export capabilities. Here's a look at what's changed (and what still needs work).

Four years of silence

Pages originally debuted its ebook export option back in August of 2010. Like its Word export feature, Pages's ebook export could only translate certain aspects of your document into ePub format (the primary filetype used by iBooks as well as most non-Amazon readers available at the time); so, for example, certain text stylings and rich text elements might not appear correctly in the ePub. Additionally, many of those elements required very precise formatting in the Pages document in order to actually appear in the exported file. 

Apple provided interested ebook-makers with some basic guidelines and an externally-linked template in a support document on its website, but both had omissions and offered clunky workarounds in compensation for missing features. I had the privilege of experiencing most of those in my daily work: We used Pages for a full year to build our Macworld Superguides ebooks before switching to a Word/InDesign workflow, and my frustration with the software led to severalarticles and a conference talk.

After two years went by without any improvement to Pages's tools, I assumed Apple's ebook engineers were working elsewhere and when iBooks Author was released, those presumptions seemed to have been confirmed. Why would Apple focus its energy on a a limited export option that could never fully reflect the original version when it had iBooks Author to work on?

The joke's on me

Despite iBooks Author's existence, it turns out that there's at least one engineer on the iWork team still interested in ePub export. When the new version of the iWork suite was released, I discovered that someone had snuck into Pages 5.0 a bunch of fixes for some of the most glaring ebook export problems. For example, you can now manually insert page breaks into an ebook by using Pages's break tools, rather than having to use the template's "Chapter Heading" template to do so.

But that's not all: The Pages 5.2 update last week actually mentioned "improved ePub export" in its release notes, and added a few more fixes. That's right: Not only did someone take the time to improve ePub export for Pages 5.0, but they seem to actively be working on making it better with future releases.

Why restart development on Pages's ebook export tools now? My bet's on making sure there are (semi) usable tools for authors looking to publish ebooks to the iPhone. iBooks Author doesn't yet (and may never have) an iPhone export option, and given that authors can prep iBooks Author books in Pages, better tools in the word-processing program are a great way to ensure that Apple's products stay relevant in the ebook-creation game.

What you can (and can't) do for ebooks in Pages 5.2

Given that Apple's support document for ebook-making hasn't been updated since December, it's a little hard for the average user to figure out what will and won't translate when you export to ePub. Pages 5.2 does pop up a boilerplate disclaimer after ebook generation, but it's hard to know from that exactly what you're doing that's wrong.

So in a nutshell, here's what you can (and can't) expect from an ebook generated with Pages 5.2.

What you can expect ...

It's ePub 3-compliant: For those who care little about the backend of the ebook-publishing process, ePub 3 is the newest version of the standard, and lets you use more styles and tools than ePub 2. The biggest changes: It simplifies some backend code and uses HTML5 and CSS3 for ePub's XHTML standards, which means ebooks can incorporate things like video, audio, custom fonts, special CSS transitions, and more. Pages only supports export for some of these right now, but being able to generate an ePub 3 file is a huge step in the right direction.

It can have video and audio: Thanks to its ePub 3 backbone, the ebook export engine in Pages 5.2 will preserve any audio and video that you add to your document. This is another big improvement over Pages's original export, and a boon for people who don't need the flash and bang of iBooks Author but want multimedia in their books all the same.

It has Retina display-quality images: When the ebook export option first premiered in Pages, iOS devices with Retina display didn't exist; as such, when you exported an ebook, it flattened whatever image you placed to the size of the standard 8.5-by-11-inch white canvas. This worked pretty well for awhile, but when the Retina iPad was released, those 500-pixel images suddenly looked disastrously small. My interim solution was to make the canvas 20-by-20-inch, which worked for image export, but made viewing and text-editing rather a pain.

The point of this story? Pages 5.2 has gotten rid of all this nonsense. When you place and resize an image on the page, then export, the resulting ePub shrinks that image to Retina display-sized dimensions, so that no matter what device you're viewing it on, it should remain clear.

You can add in custom page breaks after paragraphs: Among the biggest irritations in earlier versions of Pages was inserting page breaks and section breaks in an original document but not having them translate when exported to ePub. This has been fixed, which means you can purposefully force your ebook to have certain text on certain pages.

You (mostly) don't need Apple's four-year-old ebook template: Because the export recognizes page breaks and section breaks, you can use those along with custom text styles to create your ebook table of contents--you don't have to download Apple's template. That said, Pages takes a shortcut here with its text styling; if you look at the code of your resulting export, all text styles come out as various CSS classes for the paragraph tag. If you want header tags, however, you'll still have to use Apple's ebook template.

Other fun stuff you can do: You can style text with small caps, use superscript or subscript, add character spacing, and indent your text; lists now render properly with list HTML tags; tables render as selectable tables, rather than images, and can be color-customized; floating images will render as static images, rather than disappearing altogether; and if you export a document that has tracked changes pending, it automatically accepts all changes when rendering.

Things that still need work

Images still disappear if you've added too many to a chapter: Known as the "Over 11MB" rule, Pages automatically removes any images over 11MB per chapter in order to keep your file size manageable. Unlike past versions, it now gives you a specific warning when this happens, but it's still annoying. I would much rather have all images in the book shrunk to lower resolution than have them disappear entirely. You can trick the exporter into "breaking" chapters by using Apple's template and pasting dummy "Chapter title" text every so often, but you'll then have to open the ePub using Sigil or a code editor to remove those blank spaces.

When in doubt, Pages converts elements to images: Despite the fact that the CSS stylings exist for adding borders, if you attempt to apply any to your images or inserted text, Pages flattens them onto the element in the export process, making a new image. It's a clunky way of handling what should be relatively simple CSS code.

CSS tricks that should work, don't: On the Web, you can add shadows and outlines to your text, put borders on your images and captions, stagger your line-spacing, keep images and captions together, make pop-up footnotes and embed custom fonts. You can do the same in a Pages document, but none of it translates when you export your ebook. I'm crossing my fingers that these slowly get addressed in future updates to the export engine--the underlying code for all this exists, it just needs to be incorporated. (Custom fonts, in particular, would be a nice improvement.)

The code is still messy, in part due to CSS handling: There aren't any major preference screens to go through when exporting your ebook, which is good for usability, but can be frustrating for mapping CSS templates accordingly. All of Pages's text styles get exported as various CSS paragraph classes, and they change on every export. The "s1" class may refer to the Pages "Title" style during one export or "Body" during another, depending on which text style comes first in your manuscript. And unless you use Apple's ebook template, you won't have any heading tags at all. It's something that could easily be remedied during the export process with an extra screen that asks you to map your text styles to HTML tags like h1, h2, h3, caption, and such.

Should you make an ebook in Pages 5.2?

Apple's ebook export tools in Pages have improved leaps and bounds since their debut in 2010, and I'm happy to see active work being done to properly map Pages's controls to the ePub 3 standard. That said, I'm hesitant about returning to the program for Macworld's ebooks projects. Our how-to books rely on images and CSS templates, and both the image limits and Pages's weird reliance on CSS paragraph class styles are limiting factors. But if these tools continue to improve, I could see us returning to Pages for the iPhone--especially considering that it's an easy hop, skip and jump from there to make an enhanced ebook in iBooks Author for the iPad, or to run the exported ePub through Kindle Previewer to make a Kindle-compatible ebook.

For those who don't rely so heavily on images or special styling, however, Pages has become a useful tool for putting together a basic ebook. If you need to build something and don't require the razzle-dazzle of iBooks Author, you might give it a try and see how it fares. If nothing else, testing your output is a lot easier thanks to the existence of iBooks for Mac.