This is the final article in a series looking at a new category of online ebook production tools. The earlier reviews looked at PressBooks and Vook.

Unlike Vook and PressBooks, the Inkling Habitat online publishing platform is aimed squarely at the textbook market. It provides publishers with the tools to produce and distribute rich interactive textbooks, and similar types of consumer content such as how-to manuals and travel guides. In this regard, it resembles Apple’s iBooks Author but it takes quite a different approach from both iBooks Author (which runs on a Mac) and the other two online applications we’ve looked at.

Inkling demo

Inkling textbooks can be viewed in the Inkling app (iPad and iPhone only) or in an HTML version for the web (click to enlarge)

Textbooks as software

The difference in approach is hinted at in its statement that ‘content is treated like software’. At the heart of Inkling is its own XML-based markup system which it calls S9ML. XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is a powerful, but complex, language which is used to ‘catalogue’ every element of the book, describing its structure in a way that computer programs can understand. Once this is done, the digital textbook can be run through a program and served up in different versions and formats as well as sold as chapters or repackaged components.

An important issue for publishers using the system will be the cost of markup and the ease with which they can re-use these marked-up source files outside the Inkling system. Inkling says that it plans to make the S9ML specification public once it is mature.

User-friendly online tools

Inkling claims to provide user-friendly online tools to take away some of this behind-the-scenes complexity. The company acknowledges that some training is needed and it also partners with outsourcing firms who can help publishers with some of the work. Inkling’s approach — adding detailed markup and structure to the publication and generating the final works programmatically — adds some extra overhead in producing a digital textbook. It will also pose organisational challenges with its demands on workflow and changes to long-established ways of working.

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The payback comes from being able to use, reuse and revise the content, and from systems that can streamline the production of multiple titles. So for publishers, the issue comes down to choosing a production method that gets a one-off project done as cheaply as possible (and follows existing work practices), or one like Inkling that might cost more up-front but gets more from that content over its whole lifecycle.

Inkling’s target is the latter group and the Inkling Habitat platform is designed for large-scale use with features such as support for global teams and extensive revision control. Many larger publishers are already moving in this direction. It will be interesting to see if Inkling can extend this thinking, and the necessary tools and training, to smaller publishers too.

Free ebook production

Inkling plans to provide its tools free because they’ll take a cut of the sales that publishers make through the Inkling website and e-reading apps. [Update, 12 February 2013: Inkling opened its Habitat online service to publishers.] Publishers can also sell directly from their own websites or apps without paying Inkling a commission (unlike iBooks Author-produced works which must be sold through Apple’s iBookstore).

Inkling textbooks are output as apps (iPad and iPhone only at this stage) and HTML for the web (only supports Chrome and Safari browsers currently). This means they won’t be available through the major ebooksellers like Amazon, Kobo or Nook. That’s unlikely to be a major issue in the textbook market at this point in its development, but for consumer publishers looking at this technology, it will pose some challenges for reaching a large consumer market. Given the sophistication of Inkling’s  system, there should be no technical reason why it couldn’t generate a future EPUB3 or Kindle KF8 version (perhaps with some feature limitations) but I’ve seen no public statements on this.

Here’s a video showing the iPad and iPhone apps and an interview with Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis (15:18). You can try out an Inkling book on the web (free sign-up required, only supports Chrome and Safari browsers), or download the free iPhone or iPad apps.

Inkling Habitat is still in private testing mode (publishers can apply online to be part of an ‘early adopter program’) but Inkling plans to open it to all publishers later in 2012.  [Update, 12 February 2013Inkling opened its Habitat online service to publishers.]

Note that I haven’t had access to the Inkling production system to write this article. It’s been compiled from public sources and is not a hands-on review like the earlier PressBooks and Vook articles in this series. I’ll update it when I can access the product directly.