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  • Writer's pictureSarah Lustig

Five steps to commissioning successful digital products

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

It can feel as though the publishing industry has been creating digital products for a long time – at least as long as I have been working in the industry. But in the industry’s long history, its experience with digital is a mere gnat on the timeline.

I think this is why commissioning digital products can still feel somewhat bewildering. There’s such a wealth of experience in commissioning traditional books. We have the processes as regimented as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. But when it comes to digital products, it can feel more improvised than standardised.

Here I’m going to share five steps you can take to ensure that your digital products are as successful as your books.

Step 1: Consider how digital resources can enhance the product’s aims

When we commission textbooks, we know exactly how that book will enhance someone’s learning. For as long as there has been writing, it has been used to pass on information.

Digital products are much more complicated because there are so many varieties. A digital asset could be an audio file, a video file, a quiz, a full learning environment that tracks students’ progress or a simple eBook to name just a few.

The first step to commissioning a successful digital product is to select the most appropriate digital offering for your product.

For example, a dictionary might include a digital version of the text which is fully searchable, so that customers can search a particular word, rather than having to flick through lots of pages. A maths course could include a quiz function, with practice tests that help students to track their own progress. A language textbook could have audio files of particular words or sections so that students can improve their listening skills.

This might seem like it goes without saying, but it is the most vitally important step in the whole process. No product can follow a template; each one must be considered on its own merits. It would be no use including audio files in your maths textbook – this would be a waste of money and useless to your customers.

Unless, of course, your maths students are learning English as a second language. Which moves us neatly on to Step 2.

Step 2: Research customers’ preferences

Now that you have some idea of what you might include with your product, carry out some market research to find out if it’s what customers want. You could ask customers about the specific ideas you have had and how useful they would find those resources.

Make sure you cover questions about what type of digital products customers prefer and what access they have to technology.

The chances are that your company will already have digital products developed that rely on certain technology. It might be that the publisher’s eBook product works better on a desktop than a tablet. It might only work if the customer has Internet access.

For this reason, it’s important to find out what sort of digital access your customers have. Do they use tablets or desktops? How reliable is their Internet access? Customers based in rural areas or overseas may not have the Internet reliability that some of us take for granted.

At the same time, ask questions about students’ ability levels or challenging aspects of the course. The answers could inform your digital offering.

You might discover that there is a particular listening task in your language course that students find especially difficult. You could help them by offering more audio files for that task, giving them plenty of opportunities to practise their skills.

This is also where you might find out that audio files are actually going to help your maths students. Knowing that a high proportion of the students are second language learners could enable you to help them in innovative ways.

Step 3: Scope out the whole product

Once you have your research results, you can make firm decisions about your digital offering. Then you need to fully scope out your product and create a budget for it.

As with a print product, in which we decide on the extent (page count) of a book, its dimensions and colourways, we need to follow a similar process for a digital product. It’s tempting to think that because the product isn’t printed, these things don’t matter. But there are still cost implications for all of these factors.

You need to decide how many quizzes you will have and how many questions they will have. You will need to decide how many audio files you need – this will inform the amount of time needed in the recording studio. You also need to know how many pages there will be in any PDF assets to determine any typesetting costs.

Don’t forget to budget for any additional assets, such as artworks or photos. A biology quiz might need to include artworks of organs or biological systems.

Make sure to budget for the digital creation of the assets and the cost of checking them. All digital assets should be checked as thoroughly as any print components.

Being as specific as possible at this stage will make Steps 4 and 5 much easier.

Step 4: Create a complete schedule

The next step is to create a schedule for your digital product. Digital schedules sometimes run concurrent with any book schedule; they sometimes begin after the book writing has been completed. Either way, you need to allow enough time for every stage of your digital product creation.

We do get a little bonus time with digital products – the time it would have taken to print and ship it. However, this time should be used to create and check the assets.

Depending on the type of product you have chosen, the checking could take very different forms. Audio files must be listened to and any errors noted. Quizzes must be edited in exactly the same way as printed content. But they also need to be checked to make sure that there is a correct response for every question and that the whole quiz works.

And, of course, you need to allow sufficient time for your author to write the content. The time needed will vary, depending on the author’s level of experience.

Step 5: Select and brief digital-savvy authors

Finally, put all of the detailed information you have collated into your author brief. There are more tips on author briefing in last month’s post.

Writing digital products is a very different skill from writing a printed book. It would be really helpful for your project if you can find an author with experience in this area. Often digital assets must be written into a template and the templates can be challenging for authors. An author who has worked in this way before will find it much easier to get started on the writing work.

You might also consider offering some author training. It is always advisable to hold an author briefing meeting to discuss the brief and go through any questions about it. For a digital product, it is beneficial to have a meeting dedicated to talking through the digital templates and how to use them.

Improving future products

Looking back over this list, it strikes me that it isn’t so very different from the process we use for book commissioning, with a few small alterations. Every commissioning editor has the skills necessary to complete this process. You just need to remember to go through every step in the same way that you would for your print products. And not to treat your digital products as a side to print’s main meal. Rather, they are the vegetarian alternative to a meat course and just as important.

One fantastic feature of digital products is that it is often possible to find out how much and how customers are using them. This should make it even easier to commission your next digital product. You can use all of that data to inform your future offerings and continue to hone your processes.


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