Proms Digital Guide

Friday 19 April 2013, 14:34

Laura Davis Laura Davis 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.

proms_open_1024.jpg 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.

proms_ring_1024.jpg 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).

proms_book_now_1024.jpg 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!

polish_1024.jpg 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.

proms_open_workings_1024.jpg 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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    Comment number 1.

    Having bought the printed book in previous years, I was delighted to see the iPad eBook. The presentation is lovely, and the high-resolution screen does the pictures justice. The advantage over the website of having the material available offline from the reader's POV, and the BBCs of being able to charge for it and therefore being able to produce a good end product certainly justify it.

    In the end though I was left rather disappointed, because it doesn't do much more than a printed book would do. I think we're really very much at the infancy of eBooks and haven't exploited, even really started exploiting, anywhere near the potential of this new platform. I appreciate you have budget limitations, but probably an app would have given you more scope.

    While you can jump around to some extent, the presentation is essentially linear. The listings, which is the bulk of the book, are only really accessible in date order, or by Apple's built in word search. The non-linear potential though could have allowed approaching this in many different directions, by composer, calendar, performer, time of day, period; and not just a text index, but interaction suitable to the method (yes, I know the articles cross referenced relevant concerts).

    Prosaically, the many links between pages are helpful, but let down by the lack of a back button. If you follow a link, say from an article to a relevant concert, returning to read the rest of the article was painful. Also, moving between chapters seems to have problems: in portrait, I couldn't do this at all, and in landscape it required an extra hard 'pull' to get into the next chapter. It also crashed once.

    But what made it just a sophisticated reproduction of the book was that it was just text and pictures. On a platform that excels in audio and video, this was a great shame, and I think from your last paragraph above you recognise this. There is something of a problem here, of course, in that the concerts haven't been played yet, and using someone else's interpretation of a piece wouldn't really be appropriate to illustrate a particular prom. However, it would have been so nice to be able to hear the 2011 or Sir Andrew Davis last night speeches, rather than just a picture of him giving it; or watch an interview with Nigel Kennedy and his cello rather than the printed page. The broadcasting pages could have shown what was happening, not just described it.And you must surely have a library of more than fifty years of past proms to draw from when discussing past performances.

    There is another dimension which you could exploit, that of time. As a book it is published and done, but as a multimedia publication it can evolve over time. Simple (presentationally, I mean - I know implementation isn't necessarily simple) things like indicating how near booked up or whether sold out a concert is would be useful (I know you can find this out on the website, but it devalues the guide to have to go elsewhere - why not just have a website by that argument). But much more valuable would be to develop the publication as the concerts happen, so that it becomes a record of the events, with permanent clips and photos of the concerts, listen/watch again built in, reviews, interval interviews and so on.

    Your article alludes to 'overlapping with the web site'. It seems to me that actually, it needs to do that more, not less; to work from a common, dynamic base (including the paper version), than a set of dividing pieces of content aimed at a particular platform. While you might get more in a paid-for version, its a shame to have to go elsewhere for the other bits - including the actual radio and TV presentations.

    In conclusion, I'm pleased I bought it, it's a step forward from the paper copy and it is a beautiful example of an eBook, just as the paper one has been an excellent example of printed works, and something for you to be proud of and build on, to move from two dimensions now to four or five dimensions in the future.

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    Comment number 2.

    what about those of us with tablets that are not iPad?

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    Comment number 3.

    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, David, and I’m delighted to hear that you’re so pleased with the presentation of the ebook, as this was a really important consideration for us. In terms of your suggestions, you and I seem to be much on the same page (as it were!) as I considered and, for various reasons, rejected or postponed most of the things you mention, but hopefully we will be able to incorporate more next year.

    It’s interesting that you mention the linear presentation and the benefits that an app would bring to a user in being able to customise how they filter the content. However, I do feel that the navigation of the ebook isn’t strictly linear, given that the user is able to hop about between chapters and follow links from articles to listings and, ultimately, the booking webpage.

    There are certain elements of functionality that are built into the device and that we can’t control, including the lack of a back button and the long drag between chapters. I actually find the latter quite satisfying and for the former you can always click on the bookmark icon in the toolbar pop-up and just go back to your most recently viewed page. However, it’s always worth passing your feedback on to Apple.

    Audio and video is definitely at the top of my wish list for 2014, and your idea of an evolving multimedia publication is very interesting. This is a rather complicated area and involves months of preparation and resource, primarily to clear rights (even for BBC recordings) so this year, by focussing on a beautiful reproduction of the printed Guide, we are able to gauge the appetite for supplementary content and decide where our efforts are best focussed.

    I hope you’ll keep an eye out for future publications, and thank you for your support.

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    Comment number 4.

    Hi sogalitno. As mentioned in the post, a version for Kindle is due shortly so keep your eyes peeled!


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