Proms Digital Guide

Publications Editor

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I’m Laura Davis, publications editor for the BBC Proms. One of my responsibilities is to manage the production of the annual BBC Proms Guide, a book that contains full concert listings for the Proms season along with newly commissioned editorial articles and supplementary information.

When I took over my role in January 2012 the Proms Guide had previously only been produced in a printed format so I set about investigating how we could also produce the content digitally for the 2012 season.

The Proms Digital Guide - Opening page with thumbnail images of contents within that chapter

This was a great opportunity to appeal to a different audience, a younger, tuned-in and demanding audience, while providing an alternative reading experience for our established Guide audience.

Tablets sit at the heart of the Proms’ digital strategy. During the 2012 season over 40% of visits to the Proms website were from mobile phones and tablets. This along with the continuing upward trend in ebook sales figures across the publishing industry shows that consumers are keen to consume information in this way. It is both portable and convenient and on a tablet device the book sits alongside all of the user’s other media.

At this point there were only limited options for converting highly designed picture books like the Guide into ebooks so I decided to dip the Proms toes in the water first by producing just the concert listings section and some complementary bits and pieces as an ePub.

Opening page for Wagner article including table of contents and thumbnails of the pages in the article

As the ePub format is flexible, optimising the display of information according to the device on which it’s viewed, it can reach the largest number of people across the widest range of mobile devices. However, it is really only suitable for text-based content rather than our attractive and image-filled Proms Guide.

This, along with a version for Kindle e-reader (which doesn’t support ePub), garnered a few hundred downloads and showed the appetite among Proms fans to access Guide content in this way.

I wanted to increase our ambition for the 2013 Guide, making use of my talented and eager in-house designer Christie to produce something just as attractive as the printed Guide but fully optimised for digital devices.

I had dismissed the idea of making an app (too expensive and overlapping with the functions of the Proms website) or producing a series of ebooks optimised to various devices (far too expensive!) when a colleague in BBC Research and Development contacted me regarding the possibility of publishing Proms material using iBooks Author (IBA).

The guide features day by day concert listings with one screen per concert and a direct link through to the booking site

He had been playing around with the software and thought that the Proms would be a good fit for it given our access to a wealth of written editorial content, images, audio and video. This would be the first time the BBC had used IBA to produce a product which is being sold.

IBA is a free piece of software for creating ebooks on iPads. Although this means we are limited to the iOS market, we felt that using it this year offered the best way to utilise BBC resources and reach the single largest tablet ownership market.

We will look at developing for different devices next year and, with support from the distributor, this year we have also been able to create a Kindle version. While not optimised for the device in the way the IBA version is, it will still allow us to reach another new audience and increase our presence on tablet devices.

Now all Christie and I had to do was teach ourselves how to use a new piece of software and produce a re-designed and fully optimised ebook in the two weeks available to us after we had signed off the printed version!

Editing and scaling images in iBooks Author with paragraph and character styling

The biggest problem we faced was creating a design that worked effectively in both landscape and portrait modes. The landscape orientation is the most natural fit for the Guide, the screen-by-screen layout offering some level of consistency with the spread-based layout of the printed product.

The scrolling text layout of portrait mode meant Christie had to amend text spacing and adapt certain design elements such as quote mark images that sat behind displayed quotes as they popped up in the most unlikely positions.

It was a case of constant, rigorous testing to design the layout in landscape mode and edit it in portrait mode. This commitment to scrutiny was important to us to guarantee the best level of user experience: we didn’t want to have to resort to locking the orientation in landscape mode.

We also had to amend the font for chapter titles from our beloved Gill Sans (the standard BBC Proms publications font) to Futura. This was because, even though IBA has a provision to embed custom fonts, Gill Sans took a second to resolve itself into focus when a page opened, something that doesn’t happen with the installed fonts. This would have looked like an error to the user and compromised the user experience.

Inserting audio treatments into the publication

However, the finished Guide is not just a book that happens to work on tablets but is a book for tablets, thus demonstrating the BBC’s commitment to optimising content for emerging platforms.

We included image galleries showcasing the lovely pictures that didn’t make it into the printed Guide because of space limitations, and links directly from each concert listing to the ticket-booking webpage, thus ensuring a smooth user journey from information to action and ultimately to the Prom!

There are many avenues we could explore for future digital versions of the Proms Guide and I will certainly be focussing my efforts on including audio and video, a perfect fit for this product. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the road we’ve taken so far and how we could develop the ebook further.

Laura Davis is publications editor for the BBC Proms.

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