Monday, October 7, 2013

Exploring Why Trade and Educational Publishing Business Models Are So Different

You'll see a lot of statistics concerning the percentage comparison between preference for ebooks or physical books. There is a lot of discussion about the format people prefer to read ebooks on. Heck, there is a lot of discussion about whether people ACTUALLY read books anymore. Dueling statistics across various studies and mediums seem to be somewhat contradictory. The key takeaway is fairly simple: the technology enabling ebooks to be utilized exists, and they are cheaper than physical books, so it's only a matter of time until the right combination of technology and aesthetics come together to usher in a new era of reading (whatever that might look like).

In the meantime, we still have these studies and polls that provide conflicting information about the interest in physical vs. digital format. What these studies sometimes do not take into consideration is the purpose behind the particular book, and in market it is being written for: trade or academic/educational. While it is impossible to encompass the differences, and the significance of these differences, in a blog post, here is a short taste.

For those of you that haven't spent years of your life with your nose in books, theorizing whether (*SPOILER*) Henry James meant for us to think the governess is hallucinating or actually seeing a ghost in The Turn of The Screw, trade publishing refers to what most of us think about when we think of books: Fiction, Non-Fiction (not textbooks), Poetry, Haiku's, Literary Journals, and so on. The purpose behind these books is, quite simply, to entertain. Now, before you say “but some writers want to make a statement!” or “biographies aren’t meant to entertain!” keep in mind that entertainment doesn’t necessarily mean laying down on the couch reading an engrossing book series like Game of Thrones. Some people enjoy reading books that are deep and that they can learn something profound and philosophical from (Freakonomics, for example, or a biography like Steve Jobs).

Trade publishers continue to make money from providing entertaining content in a format that people enjoy reading. Any many cases, this still means physical books. For that reason, among others, the decline of stores that rely on that kind of publishing, like Barnes & Noble, can still make a living, because the people who love to read those books are slower to change, and still enjoy reading books in their hands. Since it’s all about entertainment, anyway, it stands to reason that their format of consumption is also a matter of aesthetic and personal preference.

 Academic/Educational is, as you might expect, academic essays/papers, textbooks, technical manuals, etc. These pieces are meant to inform, provide knowledge/information, and assist in the facilitation of learning that knowledge. This could vary from things like popular Psychology textbooks like Pearson’s World of Psychology by Wood, to famous books like Gray’s Anatomy for doctors, and technical books like Whole House Repair Guide (got it from my father-in-law. Pretty useful actually). For the sake of this discussion, the purpose of educational books is what differentiates it from trade: the content is dedicated to teaching as the primary purpose of existence. As educational publishing became big business, this meant finding the most renowned educator/researcher, and utilizing their reputation/knowledge to build a product line out of. As the purpose was to provide the best information possible in order to assist educators in teaching, it seemed like a respectable commercial strategy. But, as this is no longer enough to differentiate a product to a college professor and entice them that the 11th edition of a publisher’s book really makes a difference, the business model must change. So it has.

Therefore, this difference of purpose in trade vs. educational publishing, entertain vs. teach, explains why many educational publishers are hurdling over each other to form a more perfect technology product. Contemporary teaching methods, and new understanding of human learning behaviors, has begun an integration into technology. Furthermore, there are now better methods of collecting data that doesn’t assume that sheer fact regurgitation is the sole indicator of a person’s knowledge (see: any standardized test). Learning technology makes it easier to take notes, transfer notes into a preferable format, etc. and is moving towards personalized learning; when a company can discover learning trends that are demonstrated, rather than imposed, then they, or teachers, can use that to adapt their learning technology, lending itself to the true purpose of the content’s existence: to teach.This point has already been taken by companies that seek to find more efficient ways to educate their employees; an entire industry of e-learning has already been in existence for almost two decades!

This purpose explains why educational publishing is implementing technology more rapidly: it is less expensive than printing, it assists the goal of teaching more effectively, and the content can be altered to reflect quickly changing realities. Trade publishing is mainly an entertainment and aesthetic appeal, so it has less impetus to shift.

Considering a Future in Publishing? Might Want to Read This

Based on the title, you might think that this post is about scaring people away from the publishing industry, or explaining why it’s a dying field. Quite the opposite: I want to inform you. Not only is it an exciting field, it’s one that it is being shaped by new professionals, now. Even if you have no interest in the industry (though I’m guessing you do, if you’ve read this far), you might enjoy some of my insights.

This post came into being after I was recently asked if I had any advice or insight into the publishing industry, and how to get into it. This person was asking me on behalf of his teenage daughter, who was interested in getting into “publishing.” While I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in a field as changing and dynamic as the publishing industry (which I including in my response), I know enough to understand some of the trends that appear to be unfolding. This question gave me an opportunity to consider a few inherent facts that aren’t readily obvious to people not in the industry (and even to some people in the industry).

Sometimes, it feels like this is the best way to understanding the future of publishing
Firstly, we have to consider a basic question: “What kind of publishing? Educational, trade, journalistic, etc.?” (for the purposes of this post, I’m including scientific publishing under educational. My list is far from comprehensive). This person wasn’t asking about journalism, but, rather, educational or trade. About five years ago, the advice I would offer to someone entering educational or trade publishing would have been somewhat similar. But, that has changed drastically in the past few years. Educational and trade publishing is becoming two entirely different industries (if they aren’t already).

While the distinctions between these types of publishing are numerous (and the subject of a different blog post), the main idea is the relationship to technology. Therefore, it really becomes a question about what format of content do you want to contribute to? Trade, while supporting those more able to integrate technology, still relies on traditional means of content consumption (the consistent book-reader) and training (Creative Writing and the like).

Another important question is in what capacity someone wants to engage with/support this content? There are a variety of positions in content creation: editorial, marketing, sales, IT, and so on. Each of these will require very different skill sets.

But, in answering these questions, I came to understanding that it's an interesting and changing industry, and the people best suited to succeeding in it will be those who come at it from a fresh and open-minded point of view. Knowledge and comfort with technology, with a creative mind and talent for writing and editing will be needed to succeed in the shifting landscape. Additionally, there are many fields of study that may be useful for ideally positioning oneself into the industry: Marketing, Information Technology (I had an interesting blog reference me that shows why IT background may be necessary in future digital book formats like epub), business statistics, etc. These fields, studied alongside more traditional ones - English and Creative Writing - will enable one to take advantage of the changing atmosphere and really integrate new ways of considering content creation.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Adaptive Learning and Postmodernist Literary Theory?

In April of 2013, McGraw-Hill Higher Education is releasing the first, ever, adaptive digital book: SmartBook.

While many of people may be suspicious and wary of ebooks, and their inevitable future, I am fascinated by an adaptive ebook. I studied English in college, and SmartBook is the logical extension of Post-modern literary theory. Postmodernism...I know, crazy, right? Allow me to explain. 

While I could quote to you some references to some print books that cover critical theory (say…David Richter’s The Critical Tradition 3rd edition), I know that most of you will go where most of us do, to Google, and Wikipedia. Wikipedia doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation, I feel, but I came across a decent website.

Read it for yourself, but the basic knowledge you need about Post-Modernism is that it rejects the idea of a grand narrative, of any singular definition of “Truth”. Think about it this way: have you ever told a “had to be there joke”? Well, that just proves that a story, in itself, is not, the “whole” story.

When writers began to take into account this basic understanding, storytelling became blurred with the telling of the story. They began to make blatant references to the audience; in film, this is called “breaking the fourth wall”, where the actor/actress talks directly to the audience. In the TV show, LOST, the writers killed off two characters because they were “universally despised” by the Internet fan base.

This represents a loop between creation and consumption. This constant online feedback, called “Web 2.0”, is an extension of Post-Modernism: a blatant disregard for classic conventions of story-telling.  
Anyway, back to McGraw-Hill’s SmartBook. The idea of a book interfacing directly with the audience, and adapting to them, real time, is incredibly Post-Modern. To be realistic, the purpose of reading content in a class is to learn the content, to pass the class, not to be able to spout off quotes (maybe at one time, but not anymore).

Additionally, the SmartBook disregards limiting concepts like “a visual learner.” SmartBook breaks down the idea of a singular text that all students must learn from. Adapting to the audience is an inherently Post-Modern idea, something embraced by TV shows, Movies, and Social Media. Now, it is time for one of the most basic building blocks of human knowledge to follow the trend.