Transcript: What Students Can Teach Textbook Authors

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Interview with Michael Greer

For podcast release Monday, November 19, 2012

KENNEALLY: Today’s readers have high expectations of e-books and other digital media. Ever-evolving technology for tablets and e-readers makes the race to keep up a daunting one for publishers and authors. The leap from printed page to pixeled screen demands new strategies for content development.

Welcome, everyone, to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally, your host for Beyond the Book. Joining me at the PubWest 2012 conference in Keystone, Colorado, to help explain why publishers can no longer afford simply to output pages as e-pub is Michael Greer, senior development editor for English for Pearson Education. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Michael.

GREER: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

KENNEALLY: It’s great to have you back, because you were a guest with Beyond the Book again at a PubWest conference in 2010, two years ago. You spoke then on usability studies in textbook designs. We’ll link to that earlier program on this one. But we should remind people that you noted then that students interact with Web sites, with apps, and with various kinds of information products in ways that are both like and unlike books. And your work at that time sought to address what you called a fundamental disconnect between the literacy that teachers practice in the classroom and the literacy that students have grown up with.

So I suppose to start, for publishers and authors to approach best the development, design, and delivery of content in this new age, I suppose they have to recognize and accept this truth that today’s students are learning differently from previous generations.

GREER: That’s very true, and we need to learn more about how students are learning, and how they’re interacting with various kinds of content. And so one of the mantras that I try to talk about and to preach to people is to learn as much as you can about your use

And so what we were just talking about in our session today was to always start with users, understand their needs, and understand how they’re engaging with your content. Now the comment about it’s no longer enough to simply output an e-pub file, is that people expect a different kind of experience when they’re on a mobile device. Whether that’s a phone or an iPod, it’s not just the experience of straight text. People want to learn and engage with content in a variety of different kinds of ways.

KENNEALLY: So the principle is that you can’t simply slam that text file into an app, or into some kind of e-reader-friendly file, and that’s enough. You’ve got to do much more.

GREER: You do, and that’s the problem that many publishers are facing, and what we’ve been talking about quite a bit at this conference, is what do you have to do? Let’s say you’re a publisher that has a legacy backlist of a couple hundred print titles. You want to make those available in a new format on an iPod. How do you do that?

Well, you begin by thinking modularly, and breaking content into smaller, more manageable chunks, and then you think about your users, and the kind of pathway, or navigation, or learning style – how are they going to engage that content? What do they need from it? How are they going to get from piece to piece, unit to unit?

There are a lot of possibilities inherent in digital media that are not possible in a print book. A print book has a kind of given structure. It’s a linear structure. Readers don’t, of course, have to read it in order, but an iPod, or even a Web site, is a much more nonlinear structure. People can choose their own path — choose their own adventure — as they move through the content in the way that suits t

KENNEALLY: Again, the point here is to not think of things in the old ways, but to accept that we live in a new world, and that what was called in that old world editorial is now content development. A lot of the language that you used in your presentation here at PubWest, but just generally speaking, is the language of Web design. So maybe you want to give the listeners a better idea of why thinking like a Web designer is a more appropriate way to approach all this.

GREER: Well, I think the reason for that is that Web designers have had to wrestle with these issues for a long time, and they have solutions for them. In the Web design world, they don’t have editors so much as they have what they call content strategists. Content strategy is a relatively new field within Web design, and there’s actually a magazine simply called Contents magazine. And there are a group of people thinking of what they call new-school editorial work, which is the combination of Web design and editorial work. Some of these people have a print background; some of them have a Web design background. But they understand how users engage with content.

And so I think print publishers can learn from the kinds of work that has been done in usability studies, user experience design, user interface design, and content strategy, to think about people use content, how they engage it, what they’re going to do with it, and what their needs are.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A lot of this work has already been done. We need to think, as print publishers, how to apply this kind of thinking and these kinds of strategies to the work that we do, whether it’s print, mobile, or both.

KENNEALLY: Right. So here we are at PubWest, and the membership here runs the spectrum from more traditional publishers – we’ll call them that – to independents that are born yesterday, practically, and they’re what they, I suppose, qualify as digital natives. How well do you think generally the competition and the colleagues that you work with are handling all this? Do they grasp this point that usability is the key?

GREER: I think they’re beginning to. I think what’s interesting is when I asked people in the session today, well, how do you interact with content? And I always ask people to reflect on their own use of content, because I was looking out across the audience, and almost everyone had some kind of a tablet or a mobile phone in front of them. So they are digital users of content. They just sometimes don’t – it’s hard to make the connection between the work that they publish professionally and the work that they’re engaging with, the content they’re engaging with, on their own devices.

So I suggest people begin with themselves and think about, what apps do I like? Why do I like this one better than that one? Why do I find this Web site effective and the other one hard to use? What is it about these things that is making me get stuck, or is giving me a successful, and happy, and effective learning experience, and then how do I build that into the products that I design and deliver as an editor, as a publisher?

KENNEALLY: So in a way, they can use their own expectations of the medium to inform how they go about content development for their books.

GREER: Yeah, exactly. That’s a really good way to put it, to think about their own expectations – what they tend to use their iPhones for, how they use a phone differently from an iPod. Why would you choose to go to one site on one device and one site on another? What is it about the type of content that you’re interacting with that would help you to make that particular kind of choice?

Many apps, or many publications, are of course available on both. Is it more fun to read it on your phone? The advantage of the phone is that you always have it with you. You may or may not always have your laptop or your iPod with you. So if you’re publishing something like a travel guide, it might be best to have it on the phone. Because if people are on the road, they’re going to have their phone in their pocket. The laptop might be in the trunk.

So you think about the use scenario, or the user – in what situation is this person interacting with your content? That might be a determining factor in the way you choose to deliver it to them.

KENNEALLY: Right. And back to the discussion about Web design, and relating that to this new world of content development, there’s some terminology – even some jargon – that perhaps is worth talking about in more detail. You’ve mentioned content chunking. You might tell us a bit more about how that helps inform this process. But what about layering and storyboarding – otherwise, I guess, called wireframing? Why is that sort of approach helpful?

GREER: I think that sort of approach is helpful because you really need to think about the content and the design and the delivery all at the same time. The theme of this year’s conference is the new model of publishing, or publishing’s new model. And I think the new model is not linear anymore. In the old days, you would develop the content, and then you would hand it to a designer and say, make it pretty. And then the designer would hand it to production to output the page proofs and the page files.

Now, we need to do all of that at the same time, in a recursive, iterative process. So a wireframe, or a mockup, is something that you can put together very quickly at low cost to begin to test with users, to find out how they’re interacting with the content. Where are they getting lost? Is it working the way that they expect it to? Again, wireframing and rapid prototyping are concepts that we have borrowed from the Web development/Web design world. They can be applied quite effectively to other kinds of publishing that might be print or digital or hybrid.

KENNEALLY: One of the things that happens with technology is that it’s a constantly evolving scene, and devices that we talk about today, sort of in an offhand fashion, are only a couple of years old. I still marvel at the fact the iPod, I guess, is approaching its third birthday. It’s really a very new device in that world of devices.

So what do you say to publishers – to authors, even – thinking about this sort of problem? How can they handle the challenge, the onslaught, of change? Do they always have to constantly be picking up the new device? Is it a race to keep up? Or can they pick the devices that they think are best for the work they have and the audience they’re trying to serve?

GREER: Well, it’s certainly easy to get caught up in the race to keep up, and every time Apple announces a new product, it sends shockwaves across the industry, and people are trying to figure out, well, what was the screen resolution on the new iPod? And now that they have the iPod mini, is that 1024 by – so there’s this anxiety and this inertia, this energy, around keeping up with the technology.

But what I say to people is that’s really not what it’s about. It’s about creating an effective and engaging experience for your user. Keep your eye on that core experience, and don’t get caught up in screen size and pixel resolution. There are other people that are really good at that.

But if you’re in editorial or if you’re in content development, you’re thinking about, how do I present my ideas in a way that resonates with my audience? It’s the same editorial skills, the same authorial skills that have always been important in publishing. Those are not going to be obsolete.

So I think there is a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear, and many small presses and many publishers wondering about, is my business going away? Is print publishing dead? I don’t know. I don’t think it is. I don’t think publishing is dead at all. I don’t think print publishing is dead. I think that many of these things will continue.

But I think the important thing is to think about what are the core skills, and how do you connect with and engage an audience? That’s more important than knowing every nuance of the technology and the software that’s running on that technology.

KENNEALLY: And certainly, it’s not about pitting one form against another, or for that matter, print against digital.

GREER: It’s not at all anymore. I think at one point, there was a conception that it was either/or. I think people are recognizing now that we’re in this new model of multiplatform, multiple devices. An example that I use is there was a cycling race in Colorado last summer, the USA Pro Challenge, and Velo News magazine and VeloPress worked with the Denver Post and some app developers. They published a print supplement to the newspaper, they published an iPod app and an iPhone app, all that were designed to present the same content in different ways to people who wanted to understand and experience this bicycle race.

I’m a newbie to bicycle racing – I didn’t know that much about it – but I was interested, because it was here in our backyard, and I wanted to follow and learn about racing. And I found that I could use my phone, or the print supplement, or the iPod, to kind of follow the race and learn more about bicycle racing and learn more about the athletes, as well as follow who was in the lead.

So I got this really exciting experience with the content of the USA Pro Challenge cycle race through all these different devices, and they all worked together. None of them was an either/or. It was all part of the experience that I had of learning about that race.

KENNEALLY: And finally, learning – if it’s going to be effective – is about that kind of engagement, I would imagine. So satisfying people’s needs for information of different kinds is probably going to be more successful in achieving that engagement.

GREER: I think so, too. And to bring it back to the world of educational publishing, we now have an opportunity to reach learners and students that we haven’t been able to reach in the past. Most of higher education has been about verbal aptitude and verbal literacy, and visual, and kinesthetic, and audio, and other learning styles have been marginalized. But this new technology makes it possible to create learning experiences that appeal to visual learners and to hands-on learners.

And my hope and my sense of possibility and optimism for the future is that we can use these technologies to open up the learning experience to other kinds of literacy and other kinds of students, who may not have been well-served by the existing paradigm.

KENNEALLY: Michael Greer, senior development editor for English for Pearson Education. Thanks for joining us again on Beyond the Book.

GREER: Thanks very much. It’s a great conversation, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as now images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at the Copyright Clearance Center Web site, copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.