Apple on Thursday launched iBooks Author, a free Mac app designed to let authors and publishers easily create multimedia-rich e-books for the company's updated iBooks 2 app for iOS devices.

Although digitial textbooks were the focus of Thursday’s Apple event, Phil Schiller, the company’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, noted that iBooks Author could be used to create other media-intensive offerings, such as cookbooks and travel guides, for Apple’s iPad. It could also be used for children's picture books, dynamic illustrated novels and even comics.

The app itself is a WYSIWYG editor with a user interface similar to Apple's iWork product line, which includes Pages, Keynote, and Numbers. Text can be dragged directly from Pages or Microsoft Word into the editor; the app uses the document’s styles to automatically create sections, headers, and layout. Keynote presentations can also be automatically inserted into textbooks, giving the final document more interactivity than a traditional publication.

Images can also be dragged into the text; iBooks Author uses live alignment guides to flow text around the picture as it is placed in the correct spot. A “widgets” feature allows users to create image galleries that can also be dragged into the book, then easily resized. The app can also connect to Internet databases to present numerical information without cutting-and-pasting.

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Another feature of iBooks Author is a new glossary creator. If an author clicks a word in the text, that word appears in a new Glossary listing; users click “Add Term” to create definitions and add images.

The app also offers a preview mode: If your iPad is connected to your Mac, the app builds the book live and sends it across the wire to be previewed on the tablet.

iBooks Author is in the Mac App Store now. It requires Mac OS X 10.7.2 or later.