Electric Book Works Publishing reinvented for the digital age

Should your publications be web books?

Do you publish documents that people download? Reports, papers, catalogues, manuals, brochures, books? Most organisations provide PDF downloads, and then find themselves wondering: do people actually read them? Are they coming up in Google searches?

Those documents could be small websites instead – self-standing web publications often called ‘web books’ or ‘microsites’. As I’ll explain below, web books can be a powerful way to amplify the impact of your work.

Here are some examples:

But when should you make that leap? How do you justify the cost of learning new skills? And what return on investment will make the journey worthwhile? Here are sixteen factors that might tip the scales.

To measure your priorities, you can rate each factor from 1 to 5, from ‘Not important to us’ to ‘A real gamechanger’. (We’ve set the default for each factor to 3.)

If you score 30 or more, you’ll know it’s worth taking some concrete steps towards a simple solution. And if you score anywhere over 50, it’s worth testing higher-end solutions with bigger impact.

Web books are Google-friendly

We all want our work to appear first in people’s Google searches. But PDFs rank very low in Google’s index.

Google does not want to point its users to PDFs. Web books are a better browsing experience than PDFs, they are more likely to contain up-to-date information, and they carry extra metadata that Google can use to gauge relevance.

Well-constructed web books will quickly climb Google rankings, boosting your visitor numbers exponentially.

Web books are mobile-friendly

Roughly half the world’s web browsing happens on phones. So your publications have to be readable on screens of every imaginable size. Done right, web books adapt to stay beautiful at any screen size. For instance, on a small screen, text reflows at a sensible size, images shrink to fit, and elements that appear side-by-side on large screens stack vertically instead.

We call this responsive design. And it’s something PDFs can’t do. Reading a PDF on a phone requires lots of clumsy zooming and panning.

Importance to you

Web books can be ‘members-only’

Sometimes, you want to restrict who has access to your book. Perhaps you have paying subscribers, or you’re publishing an internal company manual. One of our clients creates open textbooks with extra guides that are only for teachers.

Unlike a PDF that can be easily shared beyond your control, a web book can require a log-in. Then you decide which books or chapters your users can read.

Importance to you

Web books can track what people like (ethically)

It’s hard to know for sure how many people have downloaded your PDFs. Beyond that, you can’t know if they ever open them, or how much time they spend reading.

With a web book, you can ethically track how people find and read your work, how long they spend on each page, and what they click next – and much more. Web analytics make it easier to know what people are really interested in; to report to partners and funders; and to make decisions about your publishing strategy.

Importance to you

Web books get shared on social media

If you already use analytics to see where your site’s traffic comes from, you’ll see a lot of it comes from places like Facebook and LinkedIn. People share links to websites all the time. They almost never share links to PDFs. PDFs are largely invisible to the biggest sources of traffic on the web.

One reason for this is that a good web page has what a social network needs to display a preview of a link to it. These previews are called social-media cards. A good card – with a striking image, catchy title and intriguing description – may be the biggest reason a person clicks on a link to your site.

PDFs have no cards.

Importance to you

Not only can you share a link to a web books – you can often link to a specific section of it. This is called deep linking, and can be enormously valuable to users.

Imagine that you want to show a colleague a case study that appears halfway down a long page. You can share a link to that case study exactly, so that when your colleague clicks the link, their browser scrolls straight to the case study. In the textbooks we produce for CORE, every heading has its own link, so that teachers can point to the exact spot that a student should focus on.

You can easily make web books interactive

In every conversation I have with a publishing team, the same need comes up: ‘we want our books to be interactive’. Interactivity might include graphics that respond to hovers and taps, self-marking quizzes, online calculators, streaming video and audio, animations, and designs that move. In this web book, for example, a map of Africa becomes a visual, clickable way to explore case studies by location.

Many of these elements are as easy to include in your pages as copy-pasting a YouTube embed code.

The most important interaction of all is the call to action. CTAs are the staple ingredient of every web design. A good design always gives the user clues about what to do next – what designers call ‘affordances’ – whether that’s an overt button or a subtle use of typography and colour. Should they contact you? Make a donation? Share the page with a friend? Read the next article?

Importance to you

You can update web books at any time

You can update the PDF on your website, but you can’t update the PDF that someone downloaded yesterday. Or your PDF that just got uploaded to a file-sharing site.

Healthcare non-profit Bettercare used to provide free PDF downloads of its acclaimed course material, in an act of generosity. But after a few years, it became clear that old versions, which might contain dangerously outdated medical advice, were still circulating online, and nothing could be done about them. Nowadays, instead, Bettercare only publishes its free material as a website, where it can be kept up to date.

Also at Bettercare, editors learn from nurses’ incorrect quiz answers, to know which sections of content to improve. If many nurses are getting the same question wrong, then the content has a problem. The editors can then make updates at any time. That’s only possible on a web book.

Importantly, if you can update a web book at any time, you can use analytics to constantly improve your calls to action, till each page becomes a visitor’s well-trained, invisible concierge.

Importance to you

Web books can update themselves in real time

Unlike PDFs, websites can be dynamic: parts of them can change, depending on things like new, real-time data, or who the user is.

For instance, you might let only logged-in users see your new video, as a members-only enhancement to a page. And we’ve built in-house websites for clients that update automatically from a simple Google Sheet in real time. Today, these systems are well within the reach of organisations with limited budgets.

While many of us recoil at the idea, this is also how advertising works: as a publisher, you can make money by letting advertising networks inject ads into your pages that are tailored (by tracking cookies) for each individual user. Some organisations might try monetising their publications this way.

Emerging technologies for invisible micropayments might soon present healthier ways to earn money from websites.

Importance to you

Web books can invite and collect qualitative feedback

It can often be valuable to collect feedback from readers. User comments can help you understand your customers, and learn more about how others engage with your subject matter. Good-quality comments can also boost the overall credibility of a page.

With a web book, you can allow users to comment publicly or privately. And you can choose whether to actively moderate contributions, which is often necessary for ensuring high-quality discussions. Comments can be gathered at the end of each page, or users can add annotations to specific points in the text.

Importance to you

Web books are voice-assistant friendly

Voice assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and others can search and read the web for you. If your web books are properly structured, they will work well here. The algorithms behind these assistants will increasingly favour voice-friendly sites in their search results.

Voice-assisted web browsing is growing worldwide at dizzying rates, so web developers are fast refining their pages to make them voice-friendly. PDFs are not cut out for a voice-assisted world.

Importance to you

Web books can switch between languages

If you’re publishing in multiple languages, users can switch languages right on the page, instead of having to find and download a PDF in their language. This is much easier for people who don’t speak the site’s primary language. They’ll feel more welcome and engaged, too, which is important if you’re trying to reach wider audiences.

And in a web-oriented system, it’s much easier to maintain translations alongside each other, switching between them at a click. With PDFs, you’re battling with completely separate source files, each with their own peculiarities.

Did you know that for many years the official PDFs of the South African constitution included major errors in certain languages? This can happen easily when the production team is maintaining disparate workflows, one for each language, and can’t fix a publication once it’s in the world. The version control, templating, and real-time updates that web books enable are crucial.

Importance to you

Web books are faster

Good web books are faster than PDFs to open. When you’re trying to please people with your content, every second they have to wait dramatically increases the chance they’ll give up or get distracted. Some big teams have entire roles devoted to speeding up websites, because this is so important.

If your readers can engage with your content within two seconds of clicking on it, you’re holding their attention. Any more and their minds are wandering already.

Importance to you

Web books are accessible to everyone

When we say that a website is accessible, we usually mean that anyone can read it, sometimes with help from machines. They might listen to a screen reader, use a high-contrast display, or zoom text to a large size (as the responsive page reflows in proportion). A screen reader can read out embedded descriptions of images, and summaries of headings and menu options.

Importance to you

Web books are pro-poor

‘Accessible’ also means that people with cheaper phones on slow, expensive connections can access your content. Providing PDF downloads, especially without any indication of their file size, is like putting up an expensive-looking paywall.

Moreover, good web developers can make pages behave intelligently for small phones and slow connections. For instance, on a phone, a website should use smaller images – not the big images that a new iMac might need – and only load the images when the user actually scrolls to them.

Importance to you

Web tools make repurposing cheaper

You may need to use the same piece of content across multiple publications. And you might decide to reuse existing content in new ways: perhaps a series of posts or podcast scripts, an app, in a new marketing campaign, or a new edition of a book.

Reusing content laid out for PDF usually means copy-pasting clumsily, sometimes back into MS Word, and then creating each new product from scratch. There are no easy ways to convert text accurately from PDFs.

A side-effect of publishing web books is that your content becomes easier for you to reuse and adapt. Digital-first publishing tools are inherently better at this than traditional page layouts. Modern publishing systems have fine-grained version control, provide easy web-based access for all team members (not only those who can afford, say, InDesign), and keep content separate from design, which lets you flow the same content into different designs. And they naturally encourage team members to think of opportunities beyond the printed page.

For instance, thousands of students use CORE Econ’s books as apps on their phones and computers, in addition to the web, ebook and printed editions. And Hands On Books’ printed directory of African publishers is also a searchable, in-house website, for quick reference and easy updating.

Importance to you

Everyone ♥ print

Still, actual paper copies of your publications remain critically important. The paper page is everyone’s favourite reading device. And nothing says ‘thought leader’ like a printed book. So, a beautiful PDF you can send to the printer will always be an important part of effective publishing.

There’s some irony here, too: once someone finds your website, interacts with it, follows your calls to action, and so on, they may want to download a PDF as a keepsake, or even buy a printed edition. Downloading a PDF is like archiving a valuable publication offline. They may never open that PDF, but you’ve given them something, and that reward helps make your publication memorable. A good website makes that experience possible.

So your workflow should be able to generate a good PDF, too, for saving or for printing. The difference with a modern workflow is that you don’t start with print. When you start by designing for print, it’s much harder and more expensive to get web books out the door. Luckily, there are good tools and processes for turning web content into good-looking PDFs automatically.

For more on this, see our visual overview of modern book production.

Taking steps

Adding up the ratings above, you scored .

If your total is 20 to 30, it’s worth taking steps towards simple solutions that are cheap to implement. For example, for your next publication try Pressbooks.com, a DIY service for producing website and PDF versions of books in a Wordpress-like editor online. Or ask us to show you how we instantly convert a Wordpress page to an elegant PDF, using a free plugin we created.

If you scored 30 to 50, you have a serious need, but may still want to take baby steps. Don’t abandon your existing workflow and send all your staff on in-depth courses, for instance. Still, you do need a service with some power and flexibility, and the ability to add functionality later. At Electric Book Works, we often produce short prototypes for clients, or small starter projects that don’t require long-term commitments. Often our clients outsource entire projects to us at the beginning, and then as their teams pick up the necessary skills from us, they handle more and more work themselves, in-house.

If you scored over 50, you’re probably leading a team in a mature organisation and investigating powerful systems. For instance, you may need team members to collaborate online, with solid version control and quality assurance. You may be looking to integrate your publications with other systems and services, like databases, learning-management systems, and social-media platforms.

For ambitious projects, start simply with a structured workshop that maps your needs to a strategy and early deliverables, like prototypes and minimum viable products.

This turns a scary prospect into something manageable and motivating. From there, you can grow your early MVPs into high-impact publications.

Arthur Attwell 3 March 2020
last updated 11 July 2023