Developing ebooks for ELT – 10 questions to ask before you begin

In my post on e-textbooks recently, I highlighted the fact that ebooks are fast becoming something that ELT publishers simply have to be able to deliver in a world that’s lurching towards the paperless classroom. However, moving from print to ebooks is much easier said than done, especially if you’re adapting an existing (and possibly old) print book, and there a number of hurdles which might not be immediately obvious. Here’s my starter for 10. Each of these is a whole topic in itself, and I’ve raised more questions than answers, so let’s consider this just a starting point! I was going to title this post “Why ebooks are a minefield”, but thought that sounded unnecessarily negative when discussing an area so rich with possibilities and opportunities. Read on to see if you think I was right to change the title.

1. Which formats should I go for?

download (2)App or ebook file? If an ebook file, which format? ePub? Kindle? Or maybe go for an all-in-one proprietary platform, such as YUDU? Do schools and universities even know what they need or want? Are students going to be using iPads, Android tablets, Windows tablets? Which formats will work on those? And will the same format of ebook look the same or work the same across all of those devices? If you go down the app route, the world’s your oyster in terms of features and functionality, but you’re potentially limiting the devices your content will work on and you’re definitely limiting where you can sell them. Ebook formats generally produce less slick and feature-rich products but, in theory, are more widely supported (and maybe cheaper to produce, but even that’s not a certainty).

2. What’s the file size going to be?

One of the main benefits of ebooks over print is the variety of media that can be included: audio, video, animation. However, especially once video is involved, you may find your ebook’s file size has ballooned to such an extent that some people will struggle to even download it, and others won’t have space on their tablet to accommodate it. Asking people with 16GB iPads to download a 2GB ebook isn’t very friendly. Get ready to compromise.

3. Should I go for fixed layout or re-flowable?

You do know that there’s a big distinction between fixed layout and re-flowable, yes? If not, go and find out about this before doing anything ebook-related.

OK, all clear on that? Now, do you want complete control over how each page looks, pixel-perfect design, and page numbers that match the print book? And do you want teachers and students to able to re-size the text or change the font? Unfortunately, these two things are mutually exclusive.

If you go for a re-flowable ebook, you’re accepting that content will appear in a single column, with all sorts of possibilities for weird text wrapping, pictures and text not appearing together, exercise instructions not on the same page as the actual exercise.

If you choose fixed layout, you know how your book will look (more or less), and you can specify the page layout. But you’re denying your readers the ability to do basic things like re-size text. And in some formats (iBook format for iPad, for example), some features don’t work – yet – with fixed layout books – text highlighting and annotation, for example.

4. Keep the book design or go for a new design?

How important is ‘page fidelity’? Do you want an ebook to look like a) its print equivalent, or b) something completely different and optimised for the tablet screen? The easy and practical answer is a), of course. But the correct answer for the long term is b), of course. At the very least, you’re not just going to cram an entire A4 book page onto an 8” iPad Mini screen and expect people to be able to read it without zooming in, are you? And how are you going to cope with providing one book that’ll work well on both a 7” tablet and a full-size one?

5. Where do I need to be able to sell it?

Where do you want people to be able to buy and download your ebook? The options are numerous and bewildering. Apple’s iBookstore? OK, but make sure your ebook is in iBook format, and you’re not worried about the fact that, in most of the world, institutions can’t bulk-purchase on behalf of their students. What about services like CourseSmart and VitalSource Bookshelf? They solve some problems while adding others – again, we’re looking at format restrictions, some features added, others taken away. And then there’s Amazon’s Kindle store, of course. Different format again.

And, if you’re a publisher, what about existing distributors – where do they fit in?

6. Can I use the same artwork and photos as in the print version?

Many  books only have permission to use their artwork and photos in print form. How about re-clearing all of these permissions for digital use, and paying all over again? Or having to replace them? Nice.

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7. Can I use the same fonts?

Does your ebook use fonts? Are you allowed the use the same fonts as in the print equivalent? Maybe not. You might need to change all of the fonts. Gulp.

8. Do my contracts cover ebooks?

Lots of the contracts underpinning a book (including author contracts) are specifically for print. Others may mention ebooks, but in vague or unsatisfactory ways. That’ll need sorting out, then.

9. Do I need to bundle my ebook with other products?

Want to sell an ebook bundled with something else (a print book, an online course etc) ? How exactly will that work if you’re selling the ebook in lots of different places? Complicated.

10. Have I got a plan to cope with software updates?

Could you imagine a situation where Apple release a software update which instantly renders all of your ebooks broken? If you’ve ever worked in digital publishing, then the answer is of course “Yes!”. I still have painful memories of what the release of Windows Vista did to a swathe of CD-ROMs for which I was responsible a few years ago. This could happen with any platform through which people buy and use your ebooks. Chances are, you’ll get no advance warning, so you just have to be on the look-out and, if the worst happens, be able to drop everything and get a fix done before your business is toast. Fun times.

11. Can I match user expectations? (I said 10 questions – this is a bonus!)

This is the big one. Can you keep up when people are increasingly accustomed to very sophisticated design and functionality in very cheap apps? We’re moving into an era in ELT where demands are higher in terms of design and overall user experience. ELT publishing is far more than a content industry these days.

 

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/melenita/

15 thoughts on “Developing ebooks for ELT – 10 questions to ask before you begin”

  1. Another great article. I think another issue revolves?around which course component are you going to convert, and in what context will it be used? Publishing the students book as an app, eBook or whatever else has ramifications for the teacher and classroom management. The format of your digital product is not the only thing that needs consideration, but the content too.

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  2. Great article and lots of very good points to think about. For what they’re worth here are some of my thoughts:

    Whilst it is great to hear that ELT Publishers are starting to think about getting content onto mobile devices, I fear that there is going to be a rush in getting the epub version of the printed material converted quickly and uploaded to an LMS or other platform. Just so that they can say here’ sour digital offering. An epub conversion of the printed student book is not practical, for many reasons, but mainly because they are two very different beasts, and should be treated differently too. Same goes for ibook versions of the printed book.
    What ELT publishers are still doing is starting with the printed components and then trying to decide what digital “thing” they can add on at the end. I understand that a large course can take 3 years to develop so logically leaving the digital component to the end means they’ll be up-to-date (certainly not ahead) with technology, but to have not considered how the digital component functions amongst the other material is neglectful. The technology or end format may change slightly throughout the development time but the fact that it will be on a mobile device and will need to perform certain functions won’t.
    If ELT publishers really want to develop first class mobile learning materials for language learners they are going to need to re-think the whole production process as well as the authoring process. OK, so maybe starting with the digital component is a step too far but certainly developing it at the same time as the core course components has now surely become a necessity. By doing this you’ll avoid many of the problems mentioned in the article such as having to re-clear licenses and use the right fonts from the beginning (ensuring visual consistency and co-hesion).
    One of the things that also doesn’t help is having the separate departments within publishers working on the different components of the materials – digital units Vs production – all Vs editorial. So working more closely together at the start of projects and maintaining dialogue throughout is essential. It goes back to the Agile methodology that Nick wrote about a few weeks ago.

    It is certainly not a simple task and so the solutions won’t be either!

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    • All good points, Sophie! The key thing is the need to conceptualise digital and print together, and not just create digital as an add-on or afterthought. ELT publishers have been *saying* this for as long as I’ve worked in ELT publishing (10 years), but it’s still not really happening much. That is starting to change, but not fast enough. If you can actually make this happen, then you don’t need to worry about a lot of the questions I listed.

      I also totally agree about the strict separation of departments – really not helpful any more. Especially if it means separating digital from print teams, with print teams in the ‘lead’ role (because it’s still print books that make most of the money).

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  3. I think minefield was right. It’s no wonder that publishers are finding it challenging to determine the correct long-term digital strategy. With content, one thing that needs to be addressed is to brief authors to write for a more interactive experience and find authors who can do that. And the nature of these products, to my mind, seems to suggest a more self-study format rather than classroom based material and how do publishers get to those users when their distribution is more business to business than B2C?
    One more optimistic viewpoint is that once publishers are nearer to developing digital products that fit more coherently with existing courses, then integrating those in terms of design and branding with other course components will be crucial. And by that time software will enable more designers to develop the more content rich digital products without recourse to expensive developers and thus bring production costs down.

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    • Interesting point about B2C. Are these products really intrinsically more suited to self-study, or is it just that no-one’s really put enough thought yet into how to create ELT digital products specifically designed for classroom use (with the obvious exception of IWB software) ?

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  4. I think minefield was right. It’s no wonder that publishers are finding it challenging to determine the correct long-term digital strategy. With content, one thing that needs to be addressed is to brief authors to write for a more interactive experience and find authors who can do that. And the nature of these products, to my mind, seems to suggest a more self-study format rather than classroom based material and how do publishers get to those users when their distribution is more business to business than B2C?
    One more optimistic viewpoint is that once publishers are nearer to developing digital products that fit more coherently with existing courses, then integrating those in terms of design and branding with other course components will be crucial. And by that time software will enable more designers to develop the more content rich digital products without recourse to expensive developers and thus bring production costs down.

    Reply
  5. Mike has a good point on briefing authors and finding authors who can write for digital. There are problems at both ends of the continuum – good authors writing ‘direct-to-digital’ can be held back by the limitations of the technology or from failing to understand how to write for the technology, especially if they aren’t provided with up-to-date templates and clear working examples (often the case because ‘the latest version is not ready yet’). But good existing print material can be lost because it doesn’t fit the technology. We generally say that just converting old print is not the way to go, but we’re still building technology that doesn’t quite do what ELT materials (and teachers) want and need to do.

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    • Hi Lyn – yes, if the tech would only stop changing all the time, we’d be on firmer ground when it comes to developing the content! It’s incredibly difficult to develop content and tech together – but if you always relied the tech being ‘finished’ before developing the content, then you’d never publish anything. Or publish products with out of date tech. That’s where agile ought to come in, since I think it assumes you should be developing content and tech in unison, which should therefore mean the content is just right for the tech and vice versa. That doesn’t really help much when you’re grappling with the uneven support for ePub3 etc, though, since a lot of the key tech is out of your hands.

      If you have a valuable asset in the form of a print book, then it’s unpalatable to consider not re-using it all when a digital product is required. But doing so without properly optimising for the medium and thinking carefully about how it will be used is a recipe for mediocrity. And willingness to put up with mediocre digital products in ELT is shrinking.

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    • I think the concept of a ‘good author’ is one that needs unpacking a little, especially when it comes to the ability to contribute content for a digital platform. A ’21st Cent’ author shouldn’t be attempting to work their material into templates or applications after the fact but should be approaching the writing stage with the digital delivery of the product very much in the forefront of their minds. The trick would be being able to pre-empt the developments/versioning that the tech is yet to undergo and to write towards that point. Authors that are unable or unwilling to do that will be holding the publisher back.

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  6. Mike has a good point on briefing authors and finding authors who can write for digital. There are problems at both ends of the continuum – good authors writing ‘direct-to-digital’ can be held back by the limitations of the technology or from failing to understand how to write for the technology, especially if they aren’t provided with up-to-date templates and clear working examples (often the case because ‘the latest version is not ready yet’). But good existing print material can be lost because it doesn’t fit the technology. We generally say that just converting old print is not the way to go, but we’re still building technology that doesn’t quite do what ELT materials (and teachers) want and need to do.

    Reply

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