The business relationship between BEC and Impelsys dates from October 2005, when Reycraft and Shariff met at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. Once the men had returned to New York, they began discussing ways in which their companies might collaborate. Soon thereafter, Impelsys built BEC’s consumer and sales support websites, as well as the Product Data Manager that integrates with its consumer website and enterprise resource system. "We also provided BEC with the Digital Asset Management System that warehouses all images, videos, documents, and other electronic files BEC has," Shariff adds.
By June 2006, BEC had audio recordings for 200 titles in its English Explorers and Math Explorers series and was ready to deliver that content in a more interactive fashion. Choosing a technology partner to make it happen was a no-brainer. "Based on our existing relationship, we felt Impelsys could get up-to-speed most quickly," Reycraft says of the decision, which he made in conjunction with BEC’s chief operating officer, publisher, and senior vice president of sales. Representatives from both companies spent the next 3 months collaborating on a prototype that would eventually become the template for BEC’s Talking eBooks.
Powering the process from a technical standpoint is VirtualPages, which creates the look of actual pages from a book, catalog, or newspaper while also providing a host of online features. Each virtual "page" is a mirror image of its physical counterpart but completely secure, with no printing or copying allowed. The pages run on all browsers and operating systems and can be designed to include "flipping" capabilities, read-aloud options (with corresponding text-highlighting), and multilingual support. eBooks can also be configured to generate pop-up windows with vocabulary words and definitions as the text is read aloud.
Impelsys officials are hesitant to reveal too much about the technology that makes Talking eBooks possible, but Shariff did offer this summary: It begins with BEC providing Impelsys with its print books and audio recordings. "Converting the print texts into eBooks starts with a PDF of each book," he explains. "The PDF books are then introspected for their content and structure and synced with the audio files using Impelsys’ proprietary iSync tool. Next, they’re converted into interactive Flash files with assessments, videos, and links inserted as needed. And finally, the Flash files are integrated into the VirtualPages Audio Book player and presented for online or offline delivery."
As Reycraft recalls, formalizing the eBooks’ production process proved to be especially challenging. "We’ve been developing print books for 10 years, and though the process isn’t an exact science, it is established," he explains. "What we found in developing the eBooks was that no one had really thought it through, and no one knew what to expect. The editorial department thought it was an IT project and IT thought it was an editorial project. The basic guidelines, tools, and processes we have for print books didn’t apply.
"We also had quality-control kinks and scheduling issues that had to be worked out," Reycraft continues. "It took several attempts to get it right, but now that we’ve overcome those issues, we’re just improving the product to take advantage of the format."
In January 2007, the partners completed the development of 200 Talking eBooks, at a cost of more than $100,000. The eBooks are packaged with their print counterparts on CD-ROM, with an add-on cost to the consumer of $15 each. Reycraft says the company has sold "thousands of eBooks as part of these bundled packages" and is currently "exploring different strategies" for selling them, including a possible subscription model in which paying subscribers would be able to access the content online.
Because the Explorers series were introduced in print shortly before the eBooks initiative was implemented, Reycraft doesn’t have statistics demonstrating what effect, if any, the eBooks have had on sales. But he says the customer response to date has been overwhelmingly positive, "especially for English-language learners and special-education students."
For now, BEC has no plans to transform additional titles into Talking eBooks, but a review of its backlist of books is ongoing. "If we discover titles that might be appropriate to redo as eBooks, we’ll do them," Reycraft explains. "And as we develop new materials, we’ll do eBooks if the focus of the book series makes them appropriate. We’ll continue to monitor customer demand and respond accordingly." The bottom line, he adds, is that "print books will not be going away anytime soon. But electronic products will be a growing component of teaching literacy. Developing these resources is harder, more expensive, and more time-consuming than you’d think, but it’s worth it."