On Thursday 26 November OPuS hosted it’s last event of the year. It had been a long week and as a volunteer I was there early to help set up. Despite being very tired from assignments, class and more assignments (that’s the last three weeks of the semester for you) I was very excited for this event and what the speakers would be exploring. As you know by now, digital publishing is my big passion and the last OPuS talk would see three speakers, Marcos F. Sanmamed from Oxford University Press, Al Troyano from Wiley, and Nick Barreto from digital publishing start-up Canelo, discussing the optimisation of a digital workflow in publishing.
Publishing has always been slow to the party when it comes to technology, but departments such as marketing, and even editing have to a great extent learnt to use new technologies to their favour. Production seems to be the final frontier for using digital publishing to publishers’ advantage. The answer all three of these speakers put forward is that the future of publishing production is a digital-first workflow.
Marcos started off the night by explaining the change that OUP is undergoing to create a digital-first workflow for both their frontlist and backlist titles. Marcos explained that the most important part of a digital workflow is to allow a number of people to work on one document at the same time. This saves time, however the change needs a very motivated team and a willing author. A process of content lock is implemented at OUP where authors are no longer allowed to make any changes to their work after a certain point. This makes logical sense to anyone not working in publishing and who don’t know authors, but for those of us who do, this was the point where we cringed. It is important to get your authors on your side before you implement this type of workflow, Marcos reiterated. The challenge for OUP has however been the XML-last process of digitising their backlist. Marcos and the team use an Agile approach which is used in web development as well. The aim of an Agile workflow is to have a document go through 5 iterations but adding a bit of information to the same document with each iteration. The advantage is a very well-produced book which is always changing, as digital publishing does.
The next speaker was Al Troyano focussing specifically on Journal Production Workflows. Journals have been at the forefront of the digital revolution in publishing and according to Al journals already started becoming digital in 1997. Not much has however changed for journals as the output structure, even in digital format, still resembles the print versions. The future for journals is however to place more focus on the content and less on the format and design. Al however made it clear that for him the future of publishing is the automation of certain processes. We spend our of our day answering emails, and for some people it is even a way to measure worth and productivity, but is this email reading and writing really adding any value to the publishing process? Could this time not be better used to focus on the authors (the value of authors and their role in the publishing process being a very big topic at this year’s AuthorDay). Despite the progress that journals have made Al still believes that journal publishers in the UK need to become much more efficient in journal publishing to produce more in a shorter time using XML workflows.
The final speaker was Nick Barreto who’s background is in trade publishing. Along with his tow partners they started purely digital publisher Canelo (Canelo has also just announced that they are partnering up with Booktracks to produce a new series of books, a venture I am personally very excited about). At Canelo the focus is on content not format as books are produced using a Content Management System (such as Pressbooks, which I am also a very big fan of) which is an automated process that allows the content to be input into the system, XML applied to it and any number of formats being produced, print, eBook and even website. You would think a process such as this would make publishers happy, however Nick’s comment that the format does not matter to the reader, they care about the content sparked a lot of debate in the audience.
How can you say that format and design does not matter for a textbook for example, was one audience member’s question. It was here with this question that I finally realised why publishers have not been embracing a digital-anything workflow in production, it is because they are uninformed and scared. This might be harsh but as publishers we do not like change, but I get the feeling that many people in publishing are so scared of change that they are clinging to a way of doing that will soon become obsolete. As a publishers (and as people in general) we should never stagnate and never stop learning and if a bit of effort is put into learning and understanding, not only XML (as I very much believe that it is not the be-all and end-all in digital publishing, although it is a good starting point) but also understand the structures and working behind coding in general it will become clear that any format can be made beautiful. I believe that I am one of those special hybrid publishers who knows and loves beautiful designed books, but I also appreciate the speed and efficiency that coding can give publishing. My answer to the sceptics would be to look at what can be done with CSS. Creating your own stylesheet, as you would have in InDesign, in digital format is a wonderful thing and it is so easy to use.
If as publishers we were willing to learn to use a software as complex as InDesign and Photoshop, then we can definitely learn to code and understand the ease and beauty of a digital-first workflow. I hope that publishers will climb out of their boxes and embrace digital and coding, I mean if kids are starting to learn to code as young as third grade already, why not us as well.