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Portraits of an Industry in Flux

by Brett Sandusky
7 min read
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The advent of eBooks has pushed the publishing industry to adopt software and UX design practices.

Recently, the book publishing industry has been the subject of much attention as it integrates digital publishing with print publishing. Most publishing houses hastily pushed content into the digital space, securing a place in the marketplace with little regard to quality, reader experience, and basically no consideration for format-specific advantages and deficiencies. This approach lacks the necessary emphasis on readers (who are the customers), and their needs as software users on their devices of choice.

My company’s transition from a print-only model to one where we’re about to publish more digital products than print ones in 2011 was difficult in many respects. The growing pains of uncertainty and unmapped terrain, of new endeavors, of new skills, of new product models, all touched our organization at every level. Having made it out on the other end alive, I came to realize that there had been a guide for us all along: user experience.

It’s important to realize that in publishing, the print business is something we all know very well. It’s an assembly line, and the ins and outs of greenlighting, creating, producing, manufacturing, selling, and marketing a print book is a process we’re accustomed to. Having been through this same process hundreds of times, it is almost second nature. The give and take, the push and pull of creating a printed book is clear and comfortable, but this is not yet the case with eBooks.

Not long ago, I had a conversation concerning spine size of a printed book—how the weight of the paper used for printing can aggrandize or diminish the spine of a book, leading to a different perception of the book’s value as related to the product’s price point. The level of granularity of thought has yet to extend to our digital products.

But these types of considerations, whether about print or digital books, are concerned with how users perceive and interact with the products we put into the marketplace. This is user experience.

Acquiring new skills is never easy. Changing an entire organization is incredibly difficult.

Several months ago, the president of my company tweeted about how she let all of her book industry association memberships run out without renewing them. The next day, she signed up as a member of the Software and Information Industry Association. And that was that. We were now a digital company.

As such, new skills, processes, strategies, and methodologies were (and continue to be) explored. We started holding Scrum-like meetings for eBooks, creating small task groups with representative from each of the traditional departments (editorial, marketing, design, production), and floated some operations and product development people in and out of most projects. We replaced our editorial board meeting with a “product strategy meeting,” opting for more of an ideation period rather than a yea/nay acquisitions meeting. Our book proposals look nothing like book proposals. In fact, each day they resemble functional specs documentation more and more.

We’ve become intra-departmental. The traditional publishing cycle was much like a relay race—one person would complete work on a project and then hand off to the next in the series. In this new paradigm, we are working like a soccer team, passing the work back and forth to different team members and advancing together. We’ve let design, marketing, and editorial inform each other. We’ve replaced a lineal production process with a clustered one consisting of small pods of talent working collaboratively on projects, owning them, seeing them through, and advocating for them.

And, most importantly, we’ve done all of this with our customers in mind. Almost mind-numbingly, the book publishing industry has a history of creating product for a “customer” that they never speak to, speak of, see, interact with, or consider. In fact, many publishing houses could consider their authors to be their primary customers, with author services being one of the major components of the business.

The poor regard that is actually paid to readers, to customers, to actual book consumers, is embarrassing inadequate. In fact, most of the traditional process of book publishing is insulated from the outside world in a way that never allows anyone not from within to have direct contact with those on the inside. This system of buffers and padding has lead to an almost catastrophic denial of usability, and near complete impotence with issues related to customer satisfaction. If it works, it works. If not, too bad. Print another book and move on.

The publishing industry currently does not understand the language of UX. We lack a means to describe how users interact with our content, as the only gauge we’ve used for so long is that of sales figures (i.e., point of purchase performance in the retail landscape).

As an organization that is striving to be primarily digital, to deliver quality content to our customers, and to innovate and learn along the way, we’ve found that the glue that holds our processes together is the user. While traditional indicators like market research and hard sales data still play a role in product development, they are not the only considerations. The more we delve into the digital landscape, the more we realize that we must constantly be taking that necessary step back and asking ourselves about the who, where, and how of our customers.

These days, there is a debate going on about the value of the publisher in the larger scheme of things. Facilitated by the Internet, and the vast amount of easy-to-use tools at everyone’s disposal, everyone can be a publisher. So, why do we need publishing houses to buy content, produce it, manufacture it, and sell it? What, at the fundamental level, does a publisher do that is worth the money they take off the top? Shouldn’t the content creator reap all the financial benefits of their work?

One response to this debate is that a publisher is a curator. While true in some respects, I don’t think this is the ultimate response. In fact, the role of the publisher has a larger scope than simply curation. Content curation is only one aspect of the role that the publishing entity plays. In a digital landscape, our role is to provide the best UX possible to our customers.

And to do that well, we need to know our customers very well. To know what they read, how they read, where they read.

Several months ago, we piloted a program to deliver digital course materials to students enrolled in a select group of medical test prep programs.  These students were evaluated at the end of their courses to determine how using digital course materials affected their learning experiences, as well as how they felt about using the materials. Actual usage data was also collected and compared. We learned that for the large majority of the time, these students were using the digital versions of their course materials as quick reference tools. The most used feature was search, favored over other features such as note taking, highlighting, bookmarking, sharing, and others. The context in which students used the products most often was the classroom. Not online, not on the bus, nor in the subway. They were listening to a lecture and were using these eBooks to quickly look up terms and formulas and reinforce the lecture in a context.

This pilot program represented a real turning point for us. We were both surprised and excited about the data we collected, and also by the real insight we had gained into what our customers were doing, what their needs were, and what they wanted us to provide to them. While the data is different product to product, we did learn what to measure and how to listen.

In the world of software application development, UX designers and researchers physically watch people using an application and determine information about them and their needs through observation. In the eBook world, the ability to track usage data, feature adoption, and time spent with each product has meant that we have a whole new world open to us, and a new way of conceiving of and talking about our products and product development.

Digital products have brought the customer back into the equation.

Book publisher. Software developer. eBook producer.

These days, the publisher is all of these things. In fact, ePub (the file format used for eBooks) is HTML-based. While our product is different than a website designer’s or application developer’s, what brings us together is a need to please and offer an intuitive experience. And every product represents an opportunity to provide an experience to a user using a combination of content, design, interface, and some elbow grease.

In that vein, as we move into a highly digital landscape in which the print business is dying faster than most will admit (and it is), I think we’ll see more and more publishers start to experiment with ePub. In doing so, we will inevitably learn the limitations of this format and begin to push the envelope on what type of reading experiences can be delivered via eReading devices. The true potential of the so-called “enhanced eBook” is not just in the addition of separate media such as video or audio for the sake of additional media. Rather, it is use of the technology to create beautiful products that serve a purpose and delight our readers.

In the print business, after having seen a concept, then an acquisition, then a proposal, then a manuscript, then a stack of papers in production, then blue sheets, then a proof, one learns to appreciate the beauty of a finished book. No matter how many books you’ve produced or seen through production, there are always times when you can’t help but remark on how beautiful a book looks when holding it in your hands for the first time.

The same thing happened to me for the first time with an eBook just the other day.

post authorBrett Sandusky

Brett Sandusky,

Brett Sandusky is Product Manager at Macmillan New Ventures where he oversees user experience design, agile development of new digital products, eCommerce, research and data analysis, and mobile applications. Formerly Director of Product Innovation for Kaplan Publishing, Brett’s expertise also includes digital strategy, product usability, content integration cross-platforms, and digital marketing. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be found at various locations online.

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