Penguin's DK: Goodbye Books, Hello 'Flat' Content. Make Once, Use Anywhere

Dorling Kindersley, the division of Penguin that publishes children, travel and reference titles, made a strong case for how it is moving to a “flat” content model, where a printed book is only one of many output options. The digital publisher of DK also said that companies like his need to do this to be ready for the next big thing in books — whatever it is — but as is so often the case for old media industries, the change is “massive” and not easy for everyone in publishing.

Speaking at the Digital Content Monetization conference in London yesterday, Peter Buckley, digital publisher for DK, said that the company’s e-book catalog probably now numbers in the thousands — he does not keep exact count — and that the company is “almost there” in terms of having titles on offer simultaneously as e-books as well as printed books.

For a company focusing on reference books, the rise of apps has been a big deal for DK. E-reading devices like the basic Kindle, with its high emphasis on providing a good text experience, were limited as a platform for books that have more graphics than text, and with their emphasis on information and discovery, beg interactivity.

However, apps have a drawback, too: they are too expensive to produce. Buckley said that now the tide is shifting for companies like his to move away from apps to e-books.

E-books, he said, are taking on more and more functionality, and they, rather than apps, have become the go-to place for paying customers looking for publishers’ works.

“It’s not as sophisticated as an app to publish something in, for example, the iBookstore, but the technology will either catch up with e-books or something else will come along,” he said. “E-books are a lot cheaper and easier to produce. And they sell so well. [Platforms like the] Amazon/Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore are so solid for us, and people are used to paying for that content up front.”

But he also added that DK will not leave the app space altogether. It will continue to create apps for certain categories of their catalog such as travel — DK oversees the Rough Guide brand — where these benefit more from their ability to be updated and interface with web-based content.

Flat content. That assumption that “something else will come along” is also driving what Buckley calls the “flat” content model: that is, content is increasingly conceived and created with a view to it potentially getting used in a number of ways — whether as an app, an e-book, a website, or even a printed tome. What’s also interesting is that Buckley appeared less preoccupied with what “the next big platform” might be — just that his company is prepared for it, regardless.

Part of that is a culture issue, he told paidContent. “To make a full evolution to that kind of content model will take time,” he said. “It’s a massive cultural shift for some people.”

And what about that next big thing? Given that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is making what many believe to be an educational publishing announcement tomorrow, we had to ask Buckley if Pearson (NYSE: PSO), the company that owns Penguin and DK, is in on whatever it is that Apple is announcing tomorrow. Buckley — and another Pearson executive we contacted for good measure — declined to comment in any way on Apple’s announcement.

But coincidentally, Pearson and Apple have a past relationship in educational, if not reference, publishing services. In 2006, Pearson acquired a student information systems business from Apple called PowerSchool, which it now markets as part of Pearson School Systems.

PowerSchool today is a web-based information management tool for teachers, parents and school administrators and provides a centralized way of managing grades, schedules, and other kinds of school data; other divisions of Pearson School Systems develop services for students. PowerSchool works on desktop computers or via iPhone, iPad and Android apps.