While the launch of Apple’s iBooks 2, its new multimedia textbook format, and iBooks Author, the free authoring tool Apple has produced to create them, may indeed “reinvent the textbook,” there are a lot of questions to be answered before it does. That doesn’t mean that Apple didn’t put on quite a show last week. In addition to debuting its own digital textbook format as well as an easy-to-use authoring tool, Apple also seemed to be ratcheting up the appeal of the iBookstore as a self-publishing platform. And iBooks 2 textbooks (or whatever else is produced using iBooks Author) will be priced at $14.99 or less.

Phillip Schiller, Apple senior v-p of worldwide marketing, welcomed the audience into the presentation (held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City) by announcing, “Education is in our DNA,” referring to Apple and its longtime interest and support of education. He cited a litany of dismal statistics about American education and its ranking internationally (17th in reading, 31st in math, 23rd in science) before asserting, “We can help with student engagement, especially when the iPad is integrated into the curriculum.” While the presentation was a bit self-serving, who would argue with the statement that “the iPad is #1 on most teens’ wish list.” Apple even unveiled a series of iBooks 2 high school digital texts by Apple partners Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DK ready to go at launch, as well as an exclusive deal to release for free the first two chapters of a new biology textbook by acclaimed Harvard professor E.O. Wilson, with for-pay chapters to come.

A typically impressive series of Apple-produced videos and demos followed Schiller’s introduction, detailing how iBooks2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U will work. They also outlined both iBooks 2’s promise and implied its likely pitfalls.

After a series of conversations with publishers and other digital vendors, PW collected a lot of questions, among them, why did Apple choose to launch with high school textbooks? Is it a sustainable business model to sell $15 e-textbooks directly to students every year instead of selling $70 print texts to school districts for five-year adoptions? (Asked by the technology blog TechCrunch how a publisher makes money selling $15 e-texts, McGraw-Hill CEO Terry McGraw replied, “volume”). And who’s going to supply iPads to all those students (HMH spokesperson Josef Blumenfeld said there are 50 million students in U.S. schools)? Probably not cash-strapped school districts. “We’re agnostic about devices,” Blumenfeld said, a comment repeated by a number of publishers. “We love the iPad, but will every student have one? That’s the question.”

Can iBooks Author dramatically reduce the costs of producing digital textbooks, or must publishers now produce for three formats—ePub, Kindle, and now iBooks2—when the industry is praying for standardization? Schiller emphasized that iBooks Author can be used to create any kind of book—“anyone can create interactive books, from cookbooks to comic books”—and sell them anywhere in the iBookstore, but Apple also requires that content created using iBooks Author be sold exclusively via the iBooks store (although it can be given away for free at other venues).

“Congratulations to Apple,” said Matt Cavnar, head of product and acquisitions at multimedia e-book developer Vook. “It’s a beautiful tool, but it’s also a new proprietary format that locks you into the Apple channel.”

Asked if iBooks 2 will affect his business, Eric Frank, cofounder of Flatworld Knowledge, a digital college textbook company that offers its texts for free online while selling chunks of them in a variety of downloadable forms, said, “No, in the short term, since it’s k–12. If they move to higher ed, then yes.” If the format becomes popular, Frank said, he would want FK texts to be available in the iBookstore. But he cautioned that the business model seemed unsustainable. Frank noted the problem of publishers having to produce yet another format, but he also pointed to the potential impact of iBooks Author on self-published categories outside of education, even calling iBooks 2, “Lulu on steroids. It’s a tool that can really feed creativity, and it offers easy distribution.” (Not wasting any time, Lulu CEO Bob Young issued a release stating that content created anywhere, including Apple, can be uploaded to Lulu to self-publish print or e-books, although it’s not clear if that would violate Apple’s exclusivity requirement.)

Lots of promise, lots of potential problems, but most of the publishers PW contacted were quick to say that iBooks 2 and iBooks Author will help speed the transition from print to digital. “These books break new ground in digital and mobile publishing,” said Genevieve Shore, Pearson CIO and director of digital strategy, and an Apple partner. “We see enormous potential to create these kinds of programs for more subjects, more stages of learning and more geographic markets.” Bill Rieders, executive v-p, global strategy and business development for Cengage Learning, called iBooks 2 “exciting” and said: “It validates our own business strategy. Apple’s announcement will help to hasten the digital transformation across the industry.”