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From eBooks to communities

The curiously named “Beyond eBooks” (University College, London, April 2014) was the latest in a series of annual conferences devoted to ebooks. The title was curious, since ebooks were hardly mentioned in several of the presentations. A better title might have been “epublishing in 2014, including ebooks”. I don’t remember the keynote presentation referring to ebooks at all. Nobody seemed to mind too much that the conference was so broad, although anyone seeking details of how to implement EPUB3 would have gone away none the wiser. For me, the most interesting part of the conference was not the talks about ebook distribution (presentations from ProQuest, EBSCO), but the more general presentations about publishing and communities. So what is the state of epublishing in 2014?

Judging from this event, “community” is the uniting feature for many publishers. Both Bloomsbury and Cambridge University Press described fascinating initiatives where published content is being linked to communities. For Alastair Horne at CUP, the specific community (CambridgeEnglishTeacher.org) is English Language teachers keen to develop their professional skills. For Bloomsbury, there was a whole range of different communities, including modern drama (Drama Online), Reeds Digital Hub (for sailors), and Writers and Artists (for would-be writers), with other communities on the way. It was revealing that both presenters spoke admiringly about Osprey’s Angry Robots website, which looked to be successful not for clever technical features so much as a commitment across the site to involvement with the readers. And although Kiren Shoman of Sage Publishing didn't describe any online communities, her talk was all about understanding readers and their needs, even to the extent of sponsoring undergraduates at Sussex to gain a better idea of the way they accessed and used digital content.

My impression from these presentations is that publishing communities require a lot of involvement to work well, and it was indicative that the single community described by Alastair Horne seemed to take up a large proportion (some 50%) of his working week. Each community, he suggested, has an identified niche, and for the Cambridge English teacher community, that niche is continuing professional development. The teachers want some certification that shows they have spent their time developing their skills. Once such a motivation is revealed, it is quite easy to adjust the community to meet the users’ needs, although CUP were surprised initially that teachers wanted CPD certificates. The site itself is impressive, with the goals of the site clearly identified to users, and an excellent clear layout. As a reward for registering, new users gain access to a free online grammar course, which presumably is indicative of the other paid courses on the site. It would be good to know if the site is self-sustaining (membership of the site that gains access to content is £28.50 for individuals per year, and individual courses are £25), and if not, how the impact of the site is measured against the rest of CUP ELT activities.