Are Publishers Too Old To Design/Create Effective eBooks?

Wolters Kluwer tweeted a link about a middle school class creating the top selling enhanced ebook on iTunes. The book,  “Creatures, Plants and More! A Kid’s Guide to Northwest Florida,” is interactive and contains pictures, videos and text related to the wildlife found in Northwest Florida.  It was published by a seventh grade class at Woodlawn Beach Middle school, based on a student assignment to create multimedia content around the local gulf-coast wildlife.

Now the book is free, so I am sure that helps keep it at the top of the best “seller” list.  One could argue the press surrounding the creation of an ibook by middle schoolers helps drive the “buys” as well.  However, the book was just published April 26, 2012 and according to a May 1st  article (earliest report on the ebook I could find) on the Woodlawn Beach Middle School’s web page, the book was already the top ranking free book. So, while the press coverage might add to the popularity, the book itself started out strong.

Why is this important, especially on a blog about medical librarianship?  

Maybe I got up on a different side of the bed today, but this report got me thinking about the design of ebooks and whether publishers are just too old, to “get it.”  Are the powers that be and structure within publishing  too steeped in the traditional concept of a paper book to really understand the idea of an interactive ebook?  to further explain this let me draw upon my grade school experiences with computers. (Yes I can remember back that far.)

When I was a kid (2nd or 3rd grade) everyone seemed to be rushing to get computers in school and I remember an old room converted to a computer lab stuffed with Apple IIe’s.  Time in the computer lab was supposed to be important, but since the whole grade school had to share 10 computers, we didn’t visit the lab very often.  The only time I remember visiting the computer lab was for math class, specifically plotting graph equations on the computer.  We would spend the whole math hour inputting coordinates into the computer and at the end, if we did it right, we were “treated” to a green line or triangle.  Booooorring.  I got nothing out of that.  I actually dreaded computer lab time.

In grade school we never used the computers for anything other than that section in the math curriculum.  Yet everyone spoke about technology in the classroom, using computers in education, and teachers were asked to teach with computers.  However the problem was the teachers were using old traditional concepts and marrying them to computers.  They really didn’t adapt the lessons or concepts at all.  The tool of the computer was little more than complicated graphing paper.  They were forcing a square peg into a round hole but not realizing they were even doing that. 

Now the computer has been around for long time and we now have the Internet.  Many teachers today grew up with computers (or at least remember sitting in front of those old Apple II’s).  Their minds no longer think of the computer as a technology, it is a part of their life, a tool for other things.  It is integrated better into the curriculum because it is already integrated into their (and their students) lives.  It is now as common as other things in the classroom like reference books, smartboards (no more banging chalk out of erasers), desks, etc. 

The interactive ebook is the Apple IIe, we don’t know how to create or use it effectively.  The vast majority of us have been programmed with the linear thinking of traditional books.  Many of us talk about converting medical texts into ebooks but we (including publishers) think of the book as a linear progression; start, middle, end.  We throw in movies, pictures and sound but those are positioned in a linear way; within chapters.  Often the ebook is the paper book with multimedia and perhaps added chapters.  But it is usually pretty straight forward.  It is the paper juiced up on steroids, but it is still the paper.

So while the middle schooler’s ebook is still more in line with traditional books it was created only as an electronic product therefore it is free of some of the contraints from already printed version.  Perhaps as tablet devices evolve and people grow up with them and begin to think of them as an everyday thing, our ebooks will begin to evolve beyond the print model.  My 5 yr old or my 1 yr old will be thinking of something totally different regarding an ebook when they are adults.  They will be the ones to see how to publish and distribute content that was once in paper.

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