Friday, 8 February 2013

PSP 2013: The Professional Book: Past Its Sell-By Date?

Shanahan, MacInnis, Usatine and Grillo
Carrying on the theme from Harrison Coerver's 'are associations dead?' session on day one, Scott Grillo, Vice President and Group Publisher at McGraw-Hill Medical chaired a session asking are professional books due for extinction?

Unsurprisingly, the answer was no. Well, sort of, but you have to think about all devices or technologies now, not just print.

James F. Shanahan, Editor-in-Chief and Associate Publisher at McGraw-Hill Professional feels you have to take into account the evolution of print products. Medical reference information has evolved from monographs, textbooks and list summaries to the shelf bending tome of the 90s and 00s, through to concise print reference, then in the present, comprehensive databases delivering quick answers at point of care married to workflow resources.

If you think hard about how best to solve a problem, you can be rewarded - even in print, although it's not so sexy these days. There is a changing value proposition for medical content and the future will be based around the issue of problem solving. Print does remain viable, but you may find that for business reasons (i.e. profit margin, subs renewal rate) you might find it being dropped.

Professionals face the same problems: time, money, patient safety, quality and outcomes, documentation of procedural skills, licensure and certification. But they also face newer problems: documenting competency training, figuring out how to relate income to outcomes, and filtering the overwhelming amount of new content that has no structure or borders. Publishers also need to consider where folks go to solve their problems: Google, Wikipedia, PubMed, social media, viral media, associations, lecture capture systems, as well as faculty with time and gadgets.

The future of medical content is digital. Anyone who thinks it isn't is fooling themselves. Content in context of everyday work is essential. Medical content will be increasingly oriented towards institutional customers as they move towards institutional or large group practice. The future of medical content is also multi-platform and re-usable. If the title of a new book proposal sounds like a Google search result, it will probably struggle to stand out in the market.

Key questions to consider are:

  • Are we talking literally about print books, or about content that is book length but delivered digitally?
  • Is medical print increasingly archaic, a thing of the past? Is it truly 'past its sell-by date?'
  • Do publishers want to keep investing in medical print?
  • What do they lose if they conclude that print is past its sell-by date?
  • Do health professional want to keep using medical print?
  • Do technology partners replace medical print, or add to to?

Dr. Richard Usatine, a Family and Community Health Professor, VP of a media app company, and Editor-in-Chief of Family Medicine Digital Resources Library has a strong attachment to print books. He contrasted their survival to the demise of vinyl. While he clearly holds a traditional view of the value of print, he also acknowledged that there is a time and a place for all different types of medical content, ultimately coming across as platform agnostic. He cited Epocrates as the number one application driving doctors to the smart phone. He's a user of it and finds dosing of drug interactions quicker than he could on the internet or in a book.

Usatine observed that students are now given a selection of electronic books from a selection company for their course. They like that they are light, on a laptop, ipad or tablet. They don't necessarily know the names of the authorities when they first some in to the school, that is something they pick up through their course. They want quick access to information and if they are given a lot of books as part of the fees, it still means the book has value, but no longer has (literal) weight. A variable set of media is being used. Pedagogy is the art and science of education. People will always grab the best tool for the job. Even if it is digital, it doesn't mean print will go away. You can build better tools, but still there is a value of the paper for the look, feel and browsability.

Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling, a digital text tech company, was more forthright: he doesn't care if the book is in demise. Remember what publishers do: they curate and produce quality content. The reality is that whatever device you select to communicate with a subject expert, you have to make it trusted. Consider if the reader is looking for a specific answer to a question or if they want to peruse? The book may be a better device for a particular question or problem, in which case, go ahead and keep printing them.

Things are going to continue to change. Get used to it. Talking about an ebook is silly. Go online, look at an ebook and ask yourself why is it ebook incapable of doing a table? We need a whole new set of methods for this new medium. Ebooks will evolve and develop to become a richer experience. InDesign still asks you to confirm inches and margins when you go to 'new'. Trust and usability has to happen across new platforms. His recommendation to editors is whatever the discipline, be really honest with yourself about what problem you are solving and define it by what that person is trying to do. Then think about format. Be more creative and more aggressive about how the platform you choose solves these problems.

Grillo observed that people often point to pedagogy and authority, and that has meant books continue to survive. He asked does that still hold true? Do students now say 'it's a good answer because I found it in a book?' or do they say 'It's a good enough answer because I found it on wikipedia?' Shanahan disagreed with the idea that pedagogy will keep the book alive. He believes it is third or fourth on the list. Authority is the key thing. When Grillo asked is pedagogy a sub-set of usability? (It's not so much the death of the book, but redefining the book), MacInnis responded by saying that the pedagogy thing is not so much a decision on moving from book to digital, it's more about the technology hasn't moved on a bit.

MacInnis made a powerful closing point: it's dangerous to think in context of print to transition to digital. This is a transition from only thinking about one kind of media, to thinking about many different types. It's a transition in thinking, not a transition from print to digital.

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