Leaders in Cloud Publishing Series: Q&A with Michael Windelspecht, McGraw-Hill Author

McGraw-Hill partnered with Inkling in 2011. In May 2014, the company announced that it would use Habitat, Inkling’s cloud-publishing platform, to build McGraw-Hill Education’s next-generation learning products. While exciting for McGraw-Hill’s authors, the process required an overhaul of their traditional publishing workflow and introduced new tools and content opportunities. In this feature post, lead author Michael Windelspecht reflects upon that process, as well as where he thinks the future of publishing is headed.


Author Bio:
As an author, Dr. Michael Windelspecht has published five reference textbooks and numerous print and online lab manuals. He is the lead author for the Mader biology series and produces one to two textbook projects per year. As an educator, Dr. Windelspecht has taught introductory biology, genetics, and human genetics in online, traditional, and hybrid environments at community colleges, comprehensive universities, and military institutions. Along with his wife, Sandra, he owns a multimedia production company, Ricochet Creative Productions, which actively develops and assesses new technologies for the science classroom.

Before Habitat, how did you edit and collaborate on projects?

As an author, I have prepared content in almost every format, from tear sheets, which were basically copies of text that were cut up and pasted to 11×14 sheets of paper, to file systems that were fundamentally word processing platforms. The common denominator between all of these methods was that only one author could work on a chapter at a time. These systems were inherently slow and not user-friendly.

What was your experience like working in this new cloud publishing environment? Was it easier or harder than anticipated?

The project that I’ve been working on is a pilot program for McGraw-Hill Education.  As part of this project, we’ve been tasked with not only authoring in the Habitat platform, but also developing a new digital workflow for a large-scale textbook publisher. This would be a complex undertaking under any circumstances, but the Habitat platform has made the authoring process remarkably easy.

With minimal training, it’s possible to rapidly begin content-authoring in Habitat. The user interface is clearly designed with the author in mind. For example, the ability to transfer content from almost any source (web, Word, pdf),  and the drag and drop use of Habitat patterns [pre-baked content styles and interactive features], allows the author to focus almost exclusively on content development.

How does Habitat help you work better with fellow authors and editors?

Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of Habitat has been its effect on my team’s interactions. Previously, I had to share or transfer files in order to consult with team members and, for large projects, this meant that dozens of files (many with multiple versions) could be active in a single project. By using Habitat, that problem has been eliminated. The entire team has access to the entire project, in its latest form, at any point in time.

The messaging system within Habitat allows lead authors, such as myself, to comment on content and recommend changes, and the history function means that all previous versions of a chapter are available immediately. This new functionality has caused us to rethink how we author content and conceptualize projects.

Where do you see the future of collaborative authoring going in 12 months? 5 years?

For years, I have been a proponent of a continuously updated textbook. This replaces the process of building and shipping a new edition every two to three years with digital text that adapts to changes in the discipline. In the sciences, for example, new discoveries are continuously being made, and in many cases texts are out of date before they are published. With Habitat, it’s now possible to develop an authoring process that allows authors to collaborate on content that requires revision based upon the audience’s needs.

Looking out further, it’s possible to imagine the complete integration of digital text within a course management system. In this environment, faculty members will not only be able to offer input about their course content needs, but also submit their edits, and any student data associated with it, directly to the authoring team. In turn, the authoring team can assess whether additional content needs to be generated, and can then interact directly with the faculty member to assess the effectiveness of these changes.

What new opportunities for productivity and creativity have you found through Habitat that weren’t available before?

My interests have always been in developing quality content to enhance the general public’s understanding of how science applies to their everyday lives. Textbooks satisfy one aspect of that process, but they are typically limited to a limited subset of the population. Habitat allows me to develop content that can be viewed by a larger audience, and hopefully on an international level.

In summary, what three words would you use to best describe Habitat?

User-friendly; innovative; adaptable

What is your advice to managing editors and authors who are thinking about new authoring tools?

My experience with Habitat has made me rethink the way that I look at content development. I am no longer as focused on the textbook as a concept, but rather on authoring content quickly to reflect changes in my discipline. For many authors, this is exactly what we have been asking for.

However, these changes will also require a significant change in workflow processes that have driven the publishing world for the past century. To be successful, editors and authors must be ready to dismantle workflows that focus on print production and instead develop revolutionary new processes that free their authors’ creative talents.