Apple recently updated its Pages app to support ePub files. Support? No, no. That word implies that the app can do an Export… on your document and spit out a copy that can be read in iBooks or any other ebook reader or app.

Actually, the update turns Pages into a credible ePub authoring and publishing tool. Pages can now spit out an ebook with polished, professional formatting and a fully indexed navigation system. It works whether the document in question is a 17-page report that would be handy to have on your iPhone, or your 383-page novel that you believe could be a commercial hit, despite rejections from 19 agents and 17 publishers, plus a court order prohibiting you from writing anything else that implies David Tennant would have sex with any of the other former Dr Whos.

New convert
It was a timely release. ePub had been much on my mind. I’d definitely turned a corner in my relationship with ebooks in 2010. In the three years since I reviewed the first Kindle and pronounced it a fairly lame way to read books but an interesting way to get a mobile browser with free mobile internet for life, I’ve become a convert. It’s no longer enough that I only buy a paper edition after I’ve failed to find an ebook version of the title. Now, I’m likely to shrug and wait and then probably buy a different ebook that I’ll like just as well.

This summer, however, I started turning a hungry eye towards my favourite books. The ones whose spines are as cracked and rough as old tree bark. Where years of food stains from innumerable lunches serve as bookmarks. Books that have been lovingly rebound by hand, with no less permanent a binding medium than duct tape. More to the point: books that I wasn’t dipping into nearly as frequently as I once did. I’d been broken of the habit of rooting through shelves and boxes for books, and carrying this extra bit of timber around with me. I felt a distance stretching between me and my favourite books. Could I work at it a little and keep these beloveds in my life?

I converted my first title into an ebook mostly as an experiment and as a way to learn the software and the techniques. I expected it to be a tedious, fiddly, and exasperating process and, by God, I wasn’t disappointed. But it was clear that there were ways to streamline the operation. By the time I converted my third, it was as simple as punching out car fenders on an assembly line.

Step One: Imaging. You need images of every page of the book. I experimented with a few techniques that were Very Clever but not Very Efficient. In the end, the right tool for the job wasn’t a scanner but a cheap piece of clear plexiglass from my local DIY store. I plug a wired remote release into my camera, lay it on the floor between two lights, and then hover the plexiglass over the lens (supported by a couple of milk crates). 

I lay the book on the glass, tap the shutter release button, turn the page, and repeat until the whole book has been captured to the memory card. It’s dull work, but it’s like crochet. I fall into a muscle rhythm that isn’t interrupted by my interest in the movie I put on when I started imaging. I can easily finish shooting the whole book before the end credits.

Step Two: Convert to text. Some other day, I put on another movie and crank up the OCR software. My fave Mac app for converting a folder of sequentially numbered image files to text is ABBYY FineReader Express. It’s another repetitive operation. FineReader analyses the pages and correctly separates the story text from headers and footnote 98 per cent of the time. That 2 per cent is the reason why you check every page.

Step Three: Formatting. Finally, I open the Word file that FineReader created. I correct spelling and apply special formatting to certain sections (like quoted text and special graphics).

It’s not as easy as ripping a CD into a folder of MP3s but the process is free of frustration and drama. And with a beloved book, it’s totally worth it. I’ve converted about a dozen out-of-print books this way. Whenever I see PG Wodehouse’s Performing Flea on my iPad, my iBooks library looks less like a pile of books I’ve just bought recently and more like the personal library that I’ve been adding to and moving from house to house since I was 18.

Inspired idea
So I’m very grateful that Apple has added such swell ePub support to Pages. I just wish I knew why. It’s hard enough convincing some to read ebooks, let alone create them. As a solution to making a personal document readable on an iPhone or iPad, ePub conversion is overkill. The built-in readers in iOS can display the native document as-is.

I suspect that it was just one of those ideas that made sense to someone and which found no opposition when it was proposed. ePub support was a quiet update instead of a bullet-chart new feature of an anticipated 2011 edition of iWork. Plus, ePub is already the world standard in ebooks. Apple is making a smart move by infecting other desktop apps with it.

I don’t think I’m going too far in suggesting that support for ePub is an extension of one of Apple’s better philosophies. Apple’s competitors frustrate me when they release a dozen different products that seemed to have been produced by different branches of the company that had no idea what the other branches were up to. Apple, on the other hand, will offhandedly release a feature to one product that makes another product more useful. 

It’s why buying Apple things rarely feels like dumping all of your money into a pile and cheerfully setting fire to it.