Start with XML for Profitable 21st-Century Publishing
by Mike Shatzkin
The world we live in is changing, and XML is the key to mastering the change.
Most of us started in a book-publishing industry that was pretty single-minded. We developed content into books. When something was extracted from the book, the publisher almost never had to deal with its physical production. So we had one output that mattered, which was, early in my career, the mechanical; and then later, the film; and now the file, which we prepared to go to the printer. The printer’s job was to deliver accurately what we specified. And that was that.
Although it is early days, we can see things becoming very different. Overall sales of books from publishers may actually be diminishing; all the major U.S. book chains reported year-on-year declines in their most recent financials, although online sales are still going up. But we know—with the Web, with POD, with used books, with e-books, and with the changing habits of the younger reader—that sales of preprinted and predistributed books might very well decline.
At the same time, new revenue opportunities are springing up. But two things characterize the new opportunities: they are relatively small on a per-title basis; and taking advantage of them requires a little bit of digital massage. If the digital massage is costly, the revenue gain could be wiped out.
An XML workflow that starts with the author, or even before there is an author, is the key to cost-effectiveness.
To Begin at the Beginning
In the past few years, most publishers have learned that they need an XML-structured file of all their content to facilitate reuse in different formats. In the trade and juvenile areas, at least, most publishers are getting there with post-production XML, creating an XML-structured export from InDesign or Word or PDF when a project is complete.
That is not likely to be an adequate solution going forward, partly because so many of the new revenue opportunities will require both chunking and some content conversion to be realized. If publishers can’t find the specific chunks of content they need and deliver it in a particular ways, opportunities evaporate. And there will be many circumstances when realizing the revenue depends on reducing the costs.
A StartwithXML workflow is essential both to increase revenues and to cut costs.
The first stages of converting to StartwithXML are about learning how to do old things in new ways, and sometimes they’ll seem like harder ways.
Companies are going to have to examine their content holdings for vertical-specific critical mass. We see this awareness growing now.
Publishers will also need new understandings and processes that back right up to the author and editor.
Both editors and authors will have to learn the basics of XML and then invent procedures for identifying and developing content so that it will generate ongoing revenues.
Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media said a couple of years ago that the editor’s job is changing. It used to be all about deciding what was published. Now it is largely about anticipating how content will be discovered and reused in the future. That new role for editors needs to be developed and defined.
Design in most book-publishing companies has always been a book-by-book proposition. It won’t be in a StartwithXML house. Each book will need to be matched to an existing style sheet when at all possible. Analyzing what it will cost to build the required style sheets is something each house will need to do on its own.
Harnessing freelancers will present another challenge to publishers making this shift.
But workflow change is just the beginning of the opportunities, as well as of the work.
One great opportunity XML documents afford is the ability to embed information on content structure that travels with a document and cuts the costs of executing a new format.
The ability to embed rights information will prove very valuable too. When you go back to a chunk of content to reuse it, you won’t have to conduct separate research on whether you can include that picture on a Web site; the rights information will sit there with the picture.
Opportunities surrounding tags for discovery and reuse will require the creation of subject-specific taxonomies, building on industry work that the BISAC arm of the Book Industry Study Group has been doing (see bisg.org).
All this gives publishers an enormous amount to think about. Each company’s pain-versus-gain equation is different, depending on their list, their current processes, how much they do in-house versus how much they outsource, and how tech-savvy and open to change their management and creative teams are.
The companies that have more chunkable content have a lot more to contemplate than those with less. Of course, as they ponder and as the market for chunks grows, many companies will dig deeper and find more when they initially thought they had less.
Once the transition to a StartwithXML workflow has been made, the work of the coming decades really begins. It will never end. Taxonomies can always be improved and modified. New authors will always have to learn how to identify useful chunks, even though the tools for actually marking them can get simpler and easier. Nothing less than the redefinition of the editor’s job—and the author’s—is enabled, and will happen, once a StartwithXML workflow is in place.
Mike Shatzkin, founder and CEO of The Idea Logical Company, has been an industry consultant for three decades. His clients have included most big publishers and many of their trading partners, particularly in new technology. He has also written five books and agented and packaged many, so he has seen most big publishers from a number of vantage points. He enjoys dialog with others in the industry and can be reached at email@example.com.
Join the “StartwithXML: Why and How” Project
You are invited to participate in a StartwithXML project now under way. Its components include:
A Research Paper, which will weigh all the factors that make a StartwithXML workflow both useful and tricky. It will also include vendor profiles and case histories, and it will be built on wide-ranging interviews with publishers and industry suppliers.
A one-day Forum, to take place at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium in New York City on January 13, 2009. The forum will cover the Why of a StartwithXML workflow in the morning and the How in the afternoon.
An open conversation at startwithxml.com, where our Research Paper outline is posted for comments.
The team that is executing this project consists of Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media, who is providing the overall coordination; Ted Hill of THA Consulting and Laura Dawson of LJNDawson, who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting on the planning, writing, and interviewing; and Michael Healy, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, who will be making contributions on a regular basis. And because O’Reilly Media is publishing the Research Paper, hosting our Web activity, and organizing the Forum, we also benefit from Andrew Savikas’s full-fledged involvement.
Four major industry suppliers of XML-related services are the sponsors making this possible: codeMantra, Klopotek, Publishing Dimensions/Jouve, and Rosetta Solutions.
We’re excited about this project. Please visit startwithxml.com to be a part of it.