#SYP2020: Educational Publishing in 2020.


The final countdown is on to our inaugural conference 2020: A Publishing Odyssey. So, we wanted to know what people thought different areas of the publishing world will (or should) be like come 2020. Rosie Howie of Bright Red Publishing looks to where educational publishing may be in the near future.

Perhaps more so than in other sectors, in educational publishing we have been hearing for a long time that printed books are on the out and that the future lies in digital products. If I had a penny for every time I’ve been asked if students really still use printed books, well, I could at least afford an overpriced hipster coffee. In many quarters we’re stripping away the term ‘publisher’ altogether and opting for the label ‘educational content provider’ instead.

So the first obvious prediction for this blog piece might be “by 2020, there will be no more printed educational books”… but it’s not, far from it!

The scope to digitise educational content is massive, and the potential is hugely exciting. But before the book format is discarded entirely – left to rot somewhere between the Betamax and the floppy disk – we need to be careful to cut through the developer speak, the imagining of formulae dancing across the page and of Bunsen burners literally lighting up our screens, and seriously consider not just what is achievable, but also what is affordable and what is really necessary.

Does every illustration in a textbook need to be animated for it to be informative? Does all text need audio read-along functionality? Will a whizz-bang tailored micro-site for each and every school subject really aid with student’s learning or is all of this just a distraction from the learning itself?

Perhaps the most important question for the educational publisher (as I still prefer to call myself) is: can the desired product be made within a reasonable timescale, and will it still be affordable for schools and students?

With the attainment gap in Scotland showing little sign of narrowing, is it not time that educational publishers focus on providing quality content in a simple, effective way? One that might be as close to ‘affordable for all’ as possible?

It is my first prediction that printed educational books will still be produced in the year 2020, and that sales will be buoyant. It is well documented that students find it harder to concentrate while reading on a screen compared with on paper. And, it is my belief that, until we actually stop teaching children to write with a pencil and a piece of paper and they learn to read and write using touch screen devices from early infancy, we will have a need for hard-copy educational books.

The advent of desktop publishing has allowed educational publishers to exploit increasingly elaborate and colourful presentation for little extra cost and that potential will only increase by 2020. Similarly, improvements in digital printing and print-on-demand technology will allow for smaller print-runs at lower costs so more marginal, niche subject areas will be able to gain representation. This support for more diverse subject areas can only lead to increased variety across the curriculum and, hopefully, an improvement in attainment across the board.

Given my 1st prediction, my 2nd one might be “digital educational products will stagnate”… but that’s not right either.

You would have to have your head stuck in the sand (and be wearing headphones playing the latest Taylor Swift album on full volume) to ignore the opportunity digital products offer.

Technology will allow for the development of attractive, accessible, digital educational products to be easier and more affordable by 2020. I, for one, can’t wait to see what this could bring. I’m using the rather clunky term ‘digital educational products’ here because I just don’t think that the e-book is the right format for education. It doesn’t work as well as its printed cousin and it is less cost effective to produce to the same standard of design. It’s been said before but, when it comes to digital publishing, educational publishers need to think “beyond the book”!

There are two key elements for digital products which I think are worth looking out for in 2020 (and likely before).

The first focus will surely be on the back-end analytics. ‘Big Data’ is a buzz word of the moment and the ability to track user interactions with a product will allow publishers to create product development loops where digital products can be responsive to user needs and constantly improved upon. Similarly, the data collected on a student’s progress through curricular outcomes will be an incredibly valuable commodity for a teacher and publishers will surely focus on how to feed this information back to teachers in increasingly clear and useful ways.

Secondly, I’m really excited by the idea of gamification in educational products and I think this will be at the forefront of digital developments by 2020. You only have to look at the impact that Minecraft have had in the last few months to feel that this might actually happen well before then. It’s not new ground, and there are lots of purely digital publishers already doing it really well, so I would certainly hope that by 2020 some traditional educational publishers will be getting in on the act too.

As long as educational publishers stay nimble and embrace digital technology – both for what it can do to improve printed products and for how it can create new and engaging resources ­– there is no reason why our sector won’t be thriving in 2020. We should be industry leaders when it comes to digital enhancements, capitalising on our market knowledge and creativity to produce the best products we can, but we should be careful not to lose focus on the backbone of our industry: educational books and the students and teachers using them!

Rosie Howie is the Development Editor at Bright Red Publishing. She has an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University. Whilst studying, she sold books in her local Waterstones and interned her way around Edinburgh’s finest publishing houses before finally landing a full time job at Bright Red.

There are still a few tickets available for our conference on March 18th. Book your place over here.


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