If publishers and readers are to get the most out of digital content, we in the industry need to think harder about embracing “modularity”—the process I outlined in my last post for creating value from flexible “chunks” of content.
Many books today, whether print or digital, are produced in a linear process from authoring to production—which reflects both the linear way in which they’re typically consumed (cover to cover) and publishing’s own manufacturing heritage (from manuscript delivery to the delivery of bound books to the warehouse).
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We now have the opportunity to structure books differently using “modules,” individual elements of text or pictures enriched with information allowing them to be reused and regrouped in many different contexts.
Anything that could formerly be structured in databases (like reference works) is now easy to turn into a module. A recipe book, for example, readily lends itself to modularity. Each recipe can be enriched with a wealth of information—such as “vegetarian,” “low fat” or tagged by country of origin or even by individual ingredients—enabling new books organized by different criteria to be created virtually at the click of a button.
Even some linear fiction titles can become good candidates for a modular approach.
For example, if the illustrations in a picture book are turned into modules and enriched with information about their subject matter, where they’re used in the text, their copyright information and more, they can be easily re-bundled into new digital products. This might lead to offering new ways of navigating the content by presenting the pictures first, or automatically replacing illustrations with interactive versions depending on the target platform.
Modularity also makes it easier for marketers to build communities of engaged readers and push the boundaries of social e-reading, in some cases gaining a toehold in markets publishers seldom tread.
Related: How Authors Can Build Content Communities
For instance, if hotels listed in a travel guide are based on modules, user communities can form around them to rate them and leave comments. In addition, the information in the hotel modules can be updated by the hotels themselves, and what was once a static product instead becomes a dynamic travel guide that updates itself; rather than bringing out an entire new edition at regular intervals, a publisher simply needs to keep an editor’s eye on the updates.
In the production process, modularity may also improve efficiency, since editors can work separately (and, of course, remotely) on different modules that can be regrouped into a publication and then optimized for any given platform.
What all this means is no less than a mental shift away from linear content (cover to cover) to flexible modules carrying rich information that be regrouped into different products at any time. The challenge then becomes deciding how granular to be when defining these modules.
Moving away from book-centric thinking also stands to offer more flexibility in the ways publishers create value for readers, not to mention opening the door wider for future innovation in digital content.
All this, of course, leaves many questions: how to bring modules back into publications efficiently; how to make InDesign files from modules; how best to organize workflow between editing modules and publishing the modular products as books, ebooks, apps etc. to the requisite delivery dates.
I’ll explore answers to these questions in future posts, but let me know in the comments section other ways you foresee modularity taking hold in the publishing industry and what obstacles might need to be surmounted first.