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iBook Lessons: Traditional publishers react to new trends

iBook Lessons is a continuing series about ebook writing and publishing.

A year ago, traditional publishers seemed hopelessly left behind as a new world of instant-pub media emerged. Self-publishing, specifically via services and tools like those provided by Apple's iBookstore/iBooks Author and Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, provided a way for independent authors to challenge the marketplace.

Independent authors could write, publish and distribute short works that followed closely on trends as they happened. As new technology was announced, writers could immediately address that market. Apple might introduce a new OS bump or deliver a new tablet. Indie authors could develop and deliver materials on a new kind of timeline, often just weeks after an announcement.

Last year, Apple launched the iPhone 4S in early October, a device offering the new Siri virtual assistant. By the end of October, Steve Sande and I had written and self-published "Talking to Siri", a guide to the new technology. If we had worked with traditional publishing at that point, it would likely have taken at least four to six months to get that same book out.

In the end, we were able to leverage the success of our self-published efforts to create a deal with Que, one of Pearson's (Addison Wesley) technical imprints to bring "Talking to Siri" to the printed page. The book was printed in the Winter of 2012, months after Siri launched and has sold consistently well in traditional bookstores like Barnes & Noble, as well as on the virtual shelves of Amazon and the iBookstore. We both feel our early launch was a key player in this success.

Fast forward a year, and the world has begun to turn upside down. Traditional publishers are now tentatively exploring the frontier of rapid publishing. It's not an easy change. A lot of work goes into delivering a professionally produced book. Production, digital conversion, marketing, business and web site support teams all have to come together to make this happen.

Pearson just launched an Early Edition program to offer readers advanced access to new, timely topics. Early Editions provide early peeks at books during the production process. It allows readers to buy-in much sooner, to get access to relevant materials -- even in a somewhat unfinished state. It trades off this rapid delivery to its audience against the time-intensive process that ensures high quality published editions.

The fact is this: The tech world moves quickly. Apple typically updates its hardware and software on a yearly basis. A book that takes six months to produce may offer an unreasonably shortened shelf life.

Consider developer-specific topics, for example. Taking Apple's no-pub Nondisclosure Agreement periods (NDAs) into account, where material cannot be publicly discussed, each year may offer at best nine months of sales availability. Cutting off a third to a half of this time due to publishing delays puts huge pressures on authors and publishers. The quicker publishers can move materials into the public, the longer each book's shelf life can be, and the more possible sales it can offer.

I was fortunate to be part of Pearson's first Early Edition push. My Core iOS 6 Developer's Cookbook went live the day after the iOS 6 NDA dropped. In exchange for basically working non-stop since WWDC, Pearson was able to accelerate editing and technical review. Readers can now purchase a volume that although not perfectly polished, offers time-sensitive content that's useful for immediate iOS 6 development needs. For me, from an author's point of view, it's a huge step forward.

Moving to a world of quick pub turn-around didn't come easily. Development editors Chris Zahn and Dayna Isley spearheaded the Pearson initiative, with strong encouragement from management. An in-house group titled "Digital Only / Digital First" helped imagine their digital strategy. The digital task force included a cross section of editorial, production, conversion and marketing folks.

The team brainstormed how to publish e-formats before print versions came out. They decided on a group of books to focus on (the iOS 6 series) and chose to move content into ePub, Mobi, and PDF formats right after copy edit. This is right before manuscripts would traditionally go into the composition process and then eventually to the printer.

The harder issues weren't authoring and editing content; it was paperwork. "As a group, we had to figure out how to get out of our own way," Zahn explained. "We had to decide how to enter products into our business systems, how to present them for sale on our site and how to market them. We got marketing, the InformIT folks and production on board. Somehow it all came together, and we ended up with a successful rollout of the Early Edition program this October."

Today, I had a chance to sit down with Paul Boger, Vice-President and Publisher at Pearson Technology Group. He's the man who gave the green light to the Early Editions program. He took some time to talk about the evolution of the book, about the program itself, and where traditional publishers need to move when looking to the future.

TUAW: Tell me about the Early Edition program.

PB: We, here at Pearson, have a number of people here who are intensely interested in figuring out how to break the mold of the physical book. We're exploring how to move beyond the constraints of the physical production process to provide critical information to people as fast as we possibly can. The Early Edition program is part of that vision.

We have a number of people in our group -- Dana Isley, Chris Zahn, Trina MacDonald, Stephanie Nakib -- who believed that we could, with tweaks to our process, publish weeks ahead of the physical book if were able to bend the process a little bit. So that group of people got together to do this with our line of iOS 6 books (including the Core iOS 6 Developer's Cookbook, Learning Objective-C 2.0, and Programming in Objective-C) for the new Early Editions. In the process, we're learning a lot. It's helping make our readers and authors really happy by getting ideas and expertise out even faster.

TUAW: What were some of the challenges you've encountered?

PB: A lot of the challenges are cultural rather than physical. We're book publishers by professional training. We're used to thinking that content needs to look a certain way, be presented a certain way, be finished to a certain level. We're trying really hard to put those assumptions away. We're learning to disregard those knee-jerk opinions about when something is "finished" and "usable" and when it's not.

One of the concepts we haven't cracked yet is how and when can we create "books" (I use air quotes there) that are never really finished. How do you create new books that are alive all the time? We're not there yet but we're working on that problem really hard.

TUAW: What does it mean to be a "book" -- I'll use the air quotes, too -- in the world of electronic publishing?

PB: I think the word "book" is changing to mean something printed on paper, contained between two covers, and sold as a unit. Ebooks mean something different.

Ebooks are developing their own set of commercial expectations -- whether it's the author or reader who has set those expectations. Plus, we think there's something else we haven't named yet in the mix. We use the catchphrase "content" but it's something quite different.

For example, what does it mean to "buy" a book when it's something that can be updated? Tech publishers have played around with the subscription model, with Wiki-based books, and so forth. We at Pearson publish content with Safari Books Online. It's a purely digital delivery platform with no physical component.

When someone buys a printed book, I think increasingly they're buying the physical manifestation of content at a certain point in time. When they buy an ebook, I think that expectations at least for tech consumers is that that content will continue changing.

More and more our customers expect when they buy that ebook they'll receive updates. When technology changes or there are new techniques, consumers expect the content to change in real time. Publishers have to catch up with that expectation and they really haven't yet.

TUAW: What are consumers looking for in electronic books? And how can these books remain current and fresh?

At some level, what you're buying is the author's expertise and the question remains: How does the publication vehicle help an author deliver that expertise in a way that is efficient for everyone?

Obviously, authors can't spend 24/7 updating just one product -- there are a whole family of products to attend to, plus blog plus other things [that an author might be involved in]. Publishers have to make it easy for authors to interact with customers and update content.

And we have other challenges. In my group, for instance in Sams Publishing, we publish a lot of open source texts that change all the time. When have we compiled enough changes to justify releasing a new edition of an 800 or 1000 page "book"? That's the physical challenge, namely when have there been enough changes to have customer buy a new book versus how do we deliver new info for people who've bought existing books?

Ebook updates may be one way to do that -- but we all feel there's a better way, we just haven't discovered it yet.

TUAW: How does publishing have to change?

PB: Traditional publishers are being forced to examine the value and services that they create for authors and for end-users. Maybe I should use the word readers here, instead, but we have for a long time considered them end-users. We're lucky to work at a place like Pearson where there's pressure on us to innovate and think outside the box.

It's an exciting and terrifying time to be a publisher because you're not just competing with other publishers but also with app developers, websites that help answer specific questions, and even with people who send alerts to someone's phone.

We're now working with schools who deliver their courses online and adapting to the whole phenomenon of "MOOCs," massively open online courses. I've never experienced this much change in my entire career, when it comes to teaching people how to do things.

We're trying to explore every opportunity and still pay the light bill.

TUAW: What would an ideal book look like?

PB: My ideal would involve a digital content presentation that allows interactivity where appropriate, where it adds value rather than just representing a distraction with bells and whistles. The ideal book could be regularly updated based on customer feedback collected either within the book itself or provided by readers/customers via a direct relationship with the author and the publisher. The ideal book could be printed and provided to physical bookstores, when it was efficient or necessary to do that. But I think we'd start with a digital presentation of the information and then add value to that experience.

TUAW: What kinds of test programs are you working with now?

PB: One of our groups is experimenting with iBooks and ePub. They're trying to figure out how to create better ebook experiences. Then there's the early edition program and some work we're developing on interactive learning.

In another part of our business, we're developing simulation software for certification students. We're moving our certification content to a digital learning platform called "My Labs." Pearson developed this for the education market to provide assessment and remediation. It includes video and simulation content, and is intended for use in labs setting. We sell that to the education market primarily.

And, we have a longstanding video training program that we're currently expanding. We sell these on our website and through Safari Books Online. Plus we've got all kinds of other stuff going on as well.

All of these depend on our authors. Open minded authors are still the primary component of our success. Nothing good happens if we're not willing to try sailing on new seas every once in a while. Our Early Editions program wouldn't be available if authors like you weren't willing to experiment with us. It's a really exciting time.

You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pboger.



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iBook Lessons is a continuing series about ebook writing and publishing. A year ago, traditional publishers seemed hopelessly left...