Friday, March 4, 2011

E-Books and retrofitting content

E-book sales have skyrocketed recently, with Amazon reporting that Kindle sales now out-sell not only hard cover books but paperbacks as well and Barnes & Noble citing record profits from its e-books for the Nook.

For us educational publishers, that's great but what have e-books done for us lately?

The answer is, not much. E-books and e-readers have pretty much bombed on college campuses across the nation. For instance, the Kindle DX was supposed to revolutionize the way college students study. Not even close.

Daniel Turner, Associate Dean, Masters Programs, at the University of Washington, explained it best, telling Businessweek last year, "It's an amazing device for recreational reading, but it's not quite ready for prime time in higher education."

E-texts haven't taken off yet for one reason, and one reason only: We publishers have been attacking the issue all wrong, and until we change, the outlook will remain the same.

Retrofitting content

What we've all been doing, pretty much, is taking our existing content and retrofitting it for an electronic medium. We publish a book as print on paper (POP). We convert the book to PDF, XML, or some other electronic format. We put the book on the market and wonder why the sales don't explode.

The problem isn't with the conversion, you see, but with the content itself. We cannot take a product that was conceptualized and then built word by word by carefully chosen word—with a POP product in mind—and then retrofit it to an interactive medium. The writing itself must start out that way.

When we write a textbook, we generally start out with a set of objectives or outcomes, cover key terms, introduce the chapter, and then build the content in a sequence and format that makes sense for the content. It's a great method for a book. Perfect, really. But it falls short for an interactive product.

Forward-fitting the content

To develop a successful e-text we need to build it the way an e-student (the human reading an e-text) would use it. That means we would begin, basically, with a summary.

Yes, a summary. We would start with the core concepts the students need to learn and embed in those concepts links or other functionality that allows the reader to explore the content in the order they’re most interested in. We would need to allow for a sequential flow of content for linear learners while also building “content clouds” that would allow flexibility in learning sequence. And of course we need to add in all the functionality that has been developed to allow the e-student to highlight, take and share notes, download content updates, look up words, phrases, and references quickly, and other similar e-reader functions.

I firmly believe that only after we publishers start to develop products with e-students in mind will the e-text market live up to its potential.