It's just a book, isn't it?

For all the huge successes of the ‘ebook revolution’, non-fiction publishing has proved difficult to capture. Even though the benefits of digital for non-fiction are at least as great as for fiction, the problems are significantly greater. What can we do about it?

Publishing has been digital for a long time. On floppy discs, CD-ROMs and the internet, non-fiction content has been at the forefront of the ‘digital revolution’. Which might make it surprising that no-one has found a general solution to delivering ‘digital books’ that works for complex illustrated material. The printed book has had centuries to develop and is proving surprisingly difficult to displace.

There are some excellent solutions for particular problems, and lots of enthusiasm for what ‘digital’ can offer. I spent much of the past decade creating educational materials including acclaimed apps, websites and ebook conversions. And in the course of that time, I learned a few things about converting existing print assets into digital form – whether that’s newly created content for simultaneous publication or stuff from the backlist.

It’s harder than you think

The first problem is that the standard ebook formats (EPUB and Kindle) can’t even replicate print, let alone surpass it. They’re great for text-only content, so they dominate the world of narrative publishing (fiction, memoir etc.). Non-fiction, though, often has pictures, tables and other visual elements as a crucial part of the content. We may have audio, video and interactive elements to include, too. And these are hard to convert well into digital forms.

This might be surprising, but making sure that (for example) images are tightly linked to the relevant pieces of text, without breaking up the flow, is difficult with most tools that are available for ebooks. Allowing the reader to get a high-resolution version of a diagram (that is, one that they can actually read) is often a challenge in itself because many devices force low-resolution views only.

The first thing to deal with, then, is deciding what form the new product should take.

Each choice has benefits, but each has its limitations.

Is it going onto the web, perhaps, or does it need to be sold as a static or an interactive ebook? Does it need to be a mobile app or installable software for laptops?


When converting existing materials, we have an additional problem – there are simply so many words! An exam course, for example, might easily have 600 pages or more of material in its print textbooks. And although this is usually designed to follow a particular pattern, it’s easily navigated in different ways depending on how the teacher wants to deliver a particular topic.

Print is a random-access medium – it’s easy to drop into the middle of a section, or pick out only the few paragraphs that matter right now. In most digital forms, oddly, this is difficult or impossible. They are linear, with a clear beginning and end.

The problem is one of usability, so the answer is to rethink how your reader will experience the content. A traditional table of contents and index probably won’t do the job. Perhaps you need to add new sections that lead the reader through particular stories or journeys, making specific connections into the content at each step.

Of course, this is also a key creative act that readers bring to the act of reading non-fiction, so perhaps we should also give them the means to develop these journeys themselves – which means allowing users to create links right into the content at paragraph or even word level.

Take advantage of the form

There are times, though, when the digital form is a huge liberation. I remember one coursebook I was asked to turn into a digital format (for iBooks, as it happened). The print book had been designed in double-page spreads but the authors had found it impossible to write to length, resulting in many compressed pages, small diagrams and confusing flow.

When we looked at this book, it was quickly clear that the digital version could be much better than the print book simply because we weren’t limited by the physical form any more. Artworks could pop out at full size. Maps could finally be legible. Sidebars could by moved out of the way but remain instantly accessible through links.

Digital formats (whether ebook or app) give the editor far more choices than they had in print. But this means that you actually have to make those choices. So, set aside plenty of time at the start of a project to examine and even reinvent the content. Unless you think about what you’re doing, you’ll end up with a weak product. And in a rapidly moving, enthusiastic market, your customers will notice and will call you on it.

But can you sell it?

The final point I’d make might not seem to be directed at editors, but it’s crucial when making the first decision I mentioned above – of which digital form you choose.

Can you sell it?

The reason is that each form has commercial implications. Picking an ebook means also picking the channel(s) you’ll sell through, which affects the features you’ll have to play with. Picking the web means persuading people to pay for content, so you may need to develop and bundle useful services as well.

Mobile apps are the trendy choice but have their own set of problems. You need to design for small screens and touch interfaces. Commercially, you need to accept that you’ll lose 30% of the sale price immediately and have no direct sales channel (because you must go through the relevant App Store).

This means that it’s crucial for editors, salespeople, marketing and production to talk openly about what’s needed. It’s also crucial to make sure that the management team understands what you’re doing and why. Remember, no-one knows what the ideal educational format is. This gives you freedom to experiment, but the biggest unknown is whether the customers will buy.

And dealing with that question is an issue for another day!

Posted on 1 May 2014
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.