Time was, when a company got a winning product (or formula), it was set for a few generations, or at least for several years. Not so today—even less so in the content or in the digital space. While the "create once, publish to many" principle of digitization holds execution is becoming ever more complex, thanks to the plethora of devices, platforms, workflows, standards, and ideas available to both the publishing and digital solution providers industries. (Simpler is in fact harder to do now.)

The Choices to Take

“Publishers are suffering from a bit of technology fatigue after facing several years of competing—and for the most part, incompatible—devices, platforms, file formats, and technologies in the mobile space,” observes John Wheeler, senior v-p for strategy and emerging technologies at SPi Global, adding that these publishers “are now looking for digital distribution models that are simple, low risk, and global, work on multiple platforms and make some economic sense.”

Increasingly, publishers are moving toward platform-independent solutions for their digital content needs and demanding more interactivity in e-books, adds CEO Subrat Mohanty of Hurix, noting that “assessments, games, and quizzes are becoming a major part of an e-book” for children. The industry, he says, is “in a state of flux, with clients looking at an XML-first workflow at one end and using tools such as iBooks Author for custom production at the other end. But everybody is definitely moving away from proprietary standards such as Flash.”

More educational publishers are also moving away from the “book model” and embracing the concept of learning objects and learning objectives as works are authored, designed, and produced, says Wheeler of SPi Global. “Such an approach, combined with consistent metadata, will allow publishers to be far more flexible in their delivery models across the digital spectrum. At the same time, the idea of treating large content repositories as Big Data is gaining traction. This is especially true in such areas as research, legal publishing, and news aggregation. The tools and repositories developed around data warehousing, discovery, and research can then be used in a number of publishing areas.”

The current focus in the education industry, adds Mohanty of Hurix, is on providing differentiated instruction to each student and ensuring that the student achieves the desired learning outcomes as efficiently as possible. “Another, certainly in k–12, is on maximizing the positive influence and effect that teachers and classmates or peers can have on a student’s learning experience. Concepts such as flipping the classroom—where traditional teaching methods are inverted, with instruction delivered outside the class and classroom time used for discussion and collaborative problem solving—are catching on, and various approaches are being tested and evaluated to increase classroom efficiencies.”

On the other hand, with more educational publishers creating e-learning content using EPub 3, “tracking and monitoring of content and learner achievement is becoming essential. Inevitably, e-reader apps supporting EPub 3 must support such features,” says senior v-p Mohammed Sadiq of AEL Data Services, whose team also focuses on devising approaches that can “pull consumer analytics from e-book purchases and e-bookstore traffic, and pass them to the e-reader applications. Now we have the books ‘reading’ the reader.”

Whatever decisions publishers make, everything is tied to content. Qbend CEO Kris Srinaath observes, “There is a major shift from focusing on formats and channels to focusing on content. Print-first digital-next is outdated. Editors now have to think about e-delivery at the manuscript stage while working with their authors. Elements such as hyperlinks, companion Web sites, and multimedia are an integral part of the current book production process.”

Content is also the focus for CEO Nizam Ahmed of DiTech Process Solution. “Now that digital reading is rapidly gaining acceptance, there is visible enthusiasm among institutions and universities to convert and, ultimately, monetize their huge repositories of print content—research papers, rare manuscripts, student theses, for instance. The digitization, involving scanning and embedding search mechanisms and other enhancements, will lead to the creation of numerous virtual libraries,” says Ahmed, effectively summarizing the factors that prompted him to create STUDYeBUDDY (see review on page 12), which addresses the lack of affordable paperback editions of international titles as well as the urgent need for such content.

But managing content is easier said than done. “Some publishers already have large XML repositories that have been built up at the back-end of the print production process. The challenge now is to build workflows to integrate these databases into a digital-first process,” says CEO Nishith Arora of MPS, pointing out that this is where several MPS offerings come into the picture: the DigiCore publishing platform that integrates with a publisher’s XML and asset databases; DigiEdit, for collaboration among authors, reviewers, and project managers; and MPSTrak, a workflow management system for project routing and tracking.

The Future on the Make

The next wave, points out COO Kaushik Sampath of Qbend, “may very well be the creative input that prepress service providers can bring to the table, because it is no longer good enough to be able to create EPub documents or animated content. In the near future, a supplier needs to be able to provide unique, interactive, and functional elements that enhance user learning coupled with exceptional visual appeal. This is especially true now that publishers have realized that they can and need to engage with consumers at levels that were not possible previously.”

Michelle Harold, v-p for global sales at Ninestars, thinks that the future is going to be dominated by digital aggregation, cloud-based apps, and content gamification. “In the last couple of years, cross-channel reader engagement has become seamless, with mobile apps becoming more sophisticated, educational content getting more engaging, and digital revenues overtaking print revenues.”

But apps, while popular, are becoming less bespoke and more templated. Most of Lapiz Online’s clients, for instance, are asking for simple activity-based apps that can be templated for a whole series in order to keep costs low. The approach, says CEO Indira Rajan, “is always to test one app first and see if more apps should be created for other titles or series.”

Over at SPi Global, Wheeler expects to see content delivery through apps starting to lose ground to mobile-enabled HTML5, which targets the multitude of devices supporting the HTML5 browser. “This will lighten the development load as publishers will no longer need to target specific devices with special formats and requirements for such content as media and interactive exercises.”

The much-touted open access will become prominent, says managing director and CEO Sriram Subramanya of Integra, “but not the dominant business model in the STM marketplace, although it may create disruptive structural changes within specific disciplines. On the trade side, self-publishing and e-book lending programs have become major challenges. We will be seeing digital-only books and journals, parallel publishing, and collaborative publishing between digital solutions providers and publishers. Supplier consolidation is certain, as publishers are looking at a single outsourcing model covering all divisions and imprints across different geographic locations.”

Practical device restrictions on video, audio, math rendering, and Unicode compliance are possibly as inhibiting to educational publishers as is the question of digital cannibalization, says Walter Walker, executive director of publishing services at codeMantra. “And whether it is EPub 3 or a multitude of alternative formats, it is the educational publishers who represent the next major demand for digital services.”

The future of education, predicts Atul Goel, senior v-p for global operations and technology at Cenveo Publisher Services, “will be e-learning, and that will break all geographical boundaries with content that is created once and then localized to meet market-specific needs.”

Subramanya of Integra adds, “With nearly 20% of the population in developed countries expected to adopt tablets or e-readers by 2015, device prices are falling even as device usability and design continue to improve. This has propelled the transition from print to digital; the biggest impact is of course on educational content delivery, which is shifting radically towards digital. But print will remain and co-exist with digital-first products for many more years to come.”