Producing a biblical-themed illustrated English alphabet book is nothing new. But outsourcing its production to the largely Hindu India, where vendors are known for their prowess in the SSTM segment, is something else. It shows how much the Indian content services industry has expanded over the years, moving from the technical to the more creative side of the business.

For Thomson Digital, producing the alphabet book is a balancing act: creating characters and illustrations that appeal emotionally to kids on the one hand while maintaining the sanctity of the subject matter and keeping in mind religious sensitivity on the other. “Injecting the right dose of aesthetics into an emotional context is important in creative work. Creativity is fundamentally intangible, and it is a dimension that has to take into consideration the client’s expectations, which may be diverse and complex,” says executive director Vinay Singh. Standardization of processes at the content creation, production, and reproduction stages does help in meeting client needs, “but the most important factor is understanding client expectations. There are simply no cut-and-dried solutions to a creative project. Every time we have a challenging project, we stay connected with our client, think through the solutions and get constant feedback.”

Thomson Digital’s creative services division (staffed by around 100 people) has been working on trade titles for over 25 years now, and the segment has been steadily changing over the years. “When we first started, trade titles were text-heavy, with minimal graphics and essentially black-and-white inside pages. Today, these books are colorful both inside and out, with more design elements to make the content visually appealing and engaging.”

The revenue model for trade books has changed as well. “Digital revenues now form an integral part of most publishers’ business plans, especially now that trade e-books are experiencing rapid growth. Publishers are rushing to create e-books that are compatible with most of the e-reading devices out there. At the same time, e-books have also shifted from the regular black-and-white Kindle format to enhanced e-books with embedded audio, video, interactivity, and animation.”

In the earlier years, creative services were also confined to onshore resources. Publishers were reluctant to send their creative projects thousands of miles away to India. “Now that offshore resources are readily available and capable of meeting client expectations, appreciating cultural nuances, and adapting to the styles of overseas markets, more publishers are going offshore. Cost-wise, it makes perfect sense,” says Singh.

A manga-style comic book, for example, presented Thomson Digital with the challenge of adhering to the popular Japanese art style while adapting it to suit American taste. The illustrators had to create 250 drawings in a style that is completely new to them and also produce the comic captions. Currently, they are developing a 3D animation based on the book in a project that calls for storyboarding, instruction design, visual design, illustration skills, and programming expertise. Another project, an 88-page children’s storybook with 120 illustrations, required the team to conceptualize and design pages with favorite childhood recipes from more than 50 celebrities. “Putting recipes into a children’s storybook is unusual, and it needs a lot of planning and creativity to make the pages fun and appealing. Our experience in producing children’s titles and illustrated cookbooks has served us well in this project.”

Creative projects at Thomson Digital are not limited to children’s books or cookbooks. “We create immersive e-learning modules for all segments—STM, k–12 and higher-ed—that are either stand-alone projects or an extension of the print version,” adds Singh, whose team has also produced learning modules for mobile phones (appropriately called m-learning). “Such applications are designed to take care of specific user needs while providing an engaging and stimulating knowledge environment.”

Both e-learning and m-learning modules require different processes and workflows than those for print products. Adds Singh, “For a print product, the manuscript is flowed through a recommended pagination platform. But for an e-deliverable, the manuscript is converted into a client-specified markup language and then the marked-up content is delivered to different handheld devices through different applications. Limited interoperability of different formats on different devices is a big problem. At times, a client’s digital strategy also is not completely defined, which is not unusual given that most publishers have just begun their digital transition. So the project initiation stage sometimes involves assisting the client in determining product features and the appropriate workflow.”

Different markets also have different requirements when it comes to creative context. “We have subject matter experts who delve into the cultural background of various issues. Sometimes, they apply Hofstede’s model on organizational culture to determine the most appropriate creative approach. For the most parts, we have to pay extra attention to the ethnic composition, local religious sentiments, food habits, etiquette, dress codes, and color choices.”

Singh sees rich media and digital intervention dominating creative services in the next five years. “The interoperability of delivery formats shall be the driving force. Personalized interaction during usage will further enrich the experience, and therefore add value to the creative segment.”