Setting new standards for university textbooks
The high cost of textbooks is one of the most troubling problems facing university students and instructors. Many students simply go without textbooks, or make enormous sacrifices to buy them. So when the founders of the CORE project set out to revolutionise the way that economics is taught, it was imperative that their textbook be accessible to all.
Naturally, they needed an online textbook that anyone can read for free. In itself, that is not a new idea: there are many resources online for teaching economics. But the CORE project would need something very special in addition:
- the authority and credibility of a first-class print edition,
- the ability for students to read the textbook even when they are not online, and
- the book in multiple languages, to be adopted around the world.
A printed textbook is important for many reasons: it lends gravitas, a kind of evidence to teachers that its content has been crafted and can be trusted implicitly. And many students who can afford it still choose to learn on paper.
And offline access is important because many students have very limited Internet access. Moreover, their only device might be their phone.
So CORE knew they needed:
- a web book
- a printed book, and
- an offline app.
They’d also need to be able to update all of these editions regularly – several times a year – and to work with translation teams around the world.
To make this feasible, they needed a publishing team that had the skills and technology to create the book in multiple formats and in multiple languages, and to let collaborators around the world edit it online, while maintaining the very highest publishing standards.
We were thrilled to be the team to provide this. Since 2016, we’ve worked with CORE to produce several textbooks. Among these, the flagship remains The Economy, a ground-breaking, open-access economics textbook. It is used at over 350 universities worldwide.
Our team manages the production of the book in all its formats:
- an open-access website, which currently includes English, French, Italian, Spanish and Finnish versions
- free apps for Android and Windows, also available in French (Android, Windows), and Spanish (Android, Windows)
- a free epub published on Apple Books, also available in Spanish, and
- a printed edition distributed by CORE in English, Eyrolles in French, and Antoni Bosch in Spanish.
Behind the scenes
The system behind The Economy’s multi-format, multi-language design sets new standards for textbook production. The sheer size of the book is unusual for multi-format publishing: each language contains over 500 000 words in over 1200 printed pages, over 1300 images (including over 500 interactive slides) and 230 interactive questions.
To produce this multi-format book in record time, we used our open-source Electric Book workflow. This lets us have multiple editors and designers working on the book simultaneously, editing version-controlled, single-master content files, and seeing their changes instantly in both print and screen versions.
Our process lets us generate print-ready files, a mobile-friendly website, an ebook, and apps all from the same master files. So there is no need for time-consuming post-production conversions.
And after publication, our clients can also continue to make changes to the content directly online, and release new updates of their book at any time.
Designing the books
In the page design of The Economy, our first priority was to create a beautiful book. We wanted it to look more elegant and readable than most conventional textbooks. Designer Karen Lilje conceptualised it on paper and then realised it on screen, working with developer Steve Barnett for the web edition.
The page design is simple and flexible, and includes a range of features that make the content more engaging and easier to learn from. These include sidebar features and colour-coded themes. When the printed book is closed, you can see all the colours of its themes on the page edges.
Once the design was finalised, Arthur Attwell and Steve Barnett automated the layout with CSS, the code that controls page layout for print and screen. Using CSS effectively automates 95 per cent of a traditional typesetter’s role. Our production team can then add an expert, human touch by tweaking page layout where necessary.
Creating the images
The images in the book are created in two different ways, depending on what they depict:
- about half the images are graphs generated automatically from spreadsheet data, and
- about half are illustrations, created by a designer working with the author team.
For the data-based graphs, we worked with Fathom Data to build an automated system for turning spreadsheet data into beautiful graphs instantly. The CORE team can maintain their data in Google Sheets, and we can generate graphs from that data at any time. Our system fetches the data over the web, generates the images, and saves them to our project, ready for publication.
When the book is translated, the translator only needs to translate the words in each graph, and our system automatically generates the finished graphs in their language.
For the illustrations, designer Jennifer Jacobs created vector images in Adobe Illustrator. These are exported to SVG, and automatically optimised for use in each of the book’s many published formats.
Of course, a major advantage of a browser-based book is interactivity. The web and app editions of the book include:
- embedded, streaming videos
- self-marking multiple-choice questions
- animated figures that demonstrate key concepts
- popup definitions of important terms in economics
- the ability to filter each chapter’s contents by theme
- the ability to save bookmarks to your browser
- the choice of whether to read in light or dark mode
- the ability to search the book
- and cross-references as clickable links throughout.
It’s also all mobile friendly and accessible. And we know that many students have low-bandwidth connections, so we’ve made sure to keep data consumption low. For instance, you’ll get smaller image files if you’re on a phone than if you’re on a desktop computer.
Reusing the code
All of our code is reused across many other CORE publications:
Economy, Society, and Public Policy is an adaptation of The Economy for people who are not economics majors. It’s available as:
- a free website
- a high-quality print edition
- an Android app
- a Windows app, and
- epub through Apple Books.
The fact that we can reuse the code for styles and features across CORE projects saves an enormous amount of time and money.
L’Économie pour le Lycée (‘The Economy for High School’) is a set of three books for the French high school curriculum, adapted from The Economy. We collaborated with the CORE team, Sciences Po University, the Académie de Versailles, and a team of high school teachers to adapt the content, code, styles and images that made up The Economy.
The series of three books is available as an open-access website.
Doing Economics is a supplementary text to The Economy and ESPP. It shows how to work with real data by providing step-by-step, illustrated walk-throughs. It tackles questions about real-world problems like climate change and inequality. It’s available as:
CORE Insights are self-contained resources on specific topics, available as a dedicated web book. They include interactive questions to test understanding (with feedback on correct and incorrect answers) and a variety of learning activities, including data exploration and visualization.
Experiencing Economics is a collection of experiments and games that instructors can run with students online or in the classroom. The collection is a dedicated web book. Students can get everything they need to participate from the site, and instructors that are logged into the CORE website can access step-by-step guidance on how to run each experiment.
With our team handling production, CORE are developing new publications and translations all the time, building on this strong and growing foundation.
We hope these projects set a standard for the kind of high-quality multi-format publishing that students and teachers need.
Read more about how we did this in our Thinking section.