Easing into ebooks

Easing into ebooks

Print is dead, or so the headlines tell us. The ebook market is growing rapidly and gets lots of good headlines. We’d all like a share of that, but how do you get in?

I work for an educational and academic publisher, and our team is in the business of educating school students and supporting teachers. Traditionally, we gave them textbooks, and over the years there’ve been audio tapes, OHP transparencies, CD-ROMs, websites and all that jazz. Still, though, the business has fundamentally been about selling books to schools for their students, because that’s what they need – a course that will let them pass their exams.

All the buzz about ebooks has brought questions, however. Why aren’t we doing it? Is it just a passing fad? What is an ebook anyway? The most important question, though, is: who would buy an educational ebook?

Our problem is that the headlines about ebook sales relate to fiction. And even if fiction ebook sales in the USA are over 8% of the total market, what does that mean for education? Textbooks are quite different to a racy novel – they’re used for years, users scribble in the margins and, most of all, they’re usually bought by schools and then loaned to students.

So, when we decided to create an ebook program, we first needed hard data about the customer. Market research is all very well but it often tells you only what you already knew. In this case, that some people are very interested in ebooks, other people aren’t and they would all like ebooks for free, thanks very much.

To get the missing data, we decided to create a few ebooks, put some marketing behind them and see what happens. We chose two titles. The first (Physics for the IB Diploma by Andreas Tsokos) has sold well for many years and is in its fifth edition; the second (Economics for the IB Diploma by Ellie Tragakes) is a relative newcomer in its first edition. Both, however, are due for replacement within the next two years and, crucially, neither had extensive permissions costs. This meant that the conversions would be relatively cheap and that any ill-effects of the ebook experiment should be limited. Both considerations were important in getting the project through business approval!

We had the advantage that other parts of Cambridge University Press have done a lot of ebook work (notably the Academic Books and Journals groups). However, our ebooks needed to be much more attractive and approachable than a typical academic title, so we couldn’t just follow the existing patterns. We had to spend time finding out the existing procedures, discovering how to get digital ISBNs, working out how to get the right files to the right people at the right time.

One early decision was which formats to use, and we picked PDF, EPUB and MOBI. PDF is good for customers who want fidelity to the printed product; for illustrated textbooks, this may be a serious consideration. EPUB is good for people who just want to read the book, and especially for those with small screens. MOBI is the basis for Amazon’s Kindle format and is an established, if antiquated, format in its own right.

Originally, we had planned to convert first to XML, then to EPUB and finally to MOBI. Accordingly, we checked our content and found an existing DTD that would work with only a little tweaking. (The DTD is the definition of a particular flavour of XML, and you need to pick one before you can do any XML work.) However, when we started getting quotes, we found that going via XML was going to cost a lot more and so we decided to convert straight to EPUB. XML would be useful for a larger ebook program (it makes subsequent re-versioning much easier) but, with both of these titles due for replacement, that isn’t such a concern for now.

The actual conversion process was relatively straightforward. For Economics, we used a supplier familiar with ebook work who worked from the original InDesign files to convert the 750 pages of the book and CD-ROM to an ebook. Physics, however, had originally been produced in Quark using special Maths plugins, and so we asked the original typesetter to convert it to EPUB and MOBI, and a specialist to handle the PDF. Inevitably, this made this book rather more expensive than normal, especially given its extent of 850 pages. Despite this, the total cost for converting both titles was under £1000 – a lot less than running a market-research campaign!

Neither supplier had much problem dealing with the complex artworks and mathematical expressions in our content, nor with adding the internal linking that adds so much usefulness to digital formats. However, we did spend a lot of time getting the designs right. Textbooks are complicated beasts, and ensuring that we had styles in the EPUB files that looked vaguely like the printed book while still being clear and usable on screen took some work. In addition, some of the features (like borders to mark higher-tier material) caused layout issues in some software that had to be sorted.

Despite the complications, we went through the whole process in only a couple of months. The ebooks have just gone on sale through ebooks.com and will shortly be available elsewhere. Now, we just wait and see – is the secondary education market ready for ebooks.



John Pettigrew is the Managing Editor of the Education Group at Cambridge University Press.