Monday, December 10, 2007

Paper or plasma? Publishers move from tree to screen.

The primary business of businesses these days seems to be change, and the publishing industry is not exempt. I've worked 15 years in varying publishing roles, and I can see that more change is coming: the move away from paper-centric publishing.

Most publishers feel the heat of this change when answering their customer's desire to receive content in new ways. Instead of just having a print product, publishers now suddenly have to provide their content via HTML, to PDAs, to eBook devices, to mobile phones, to video, to audio, and to a wide host of other formats. Many of these new formats involve bits on screen instead of ink on paper.

Most publishers grapple with this change in a similar way: by reproducing the familiar print model for these screen-based alternatives. This typically entails:

  1. Finishing the print content first (with all the familiar and accepted process trauma)
  2. Post-print manipulation of content to reflect the new output type (e.g. HTML). This often results in a partial visual redesign (from vertical layout to horizontal), as well as changes to content ("turn the page" becomes "click the next button", for example)
  3. Delayed publishing of HTML version of content, utilizing the usual "Web PDF" placeholder until the process can be improved.
  4. Avoidance of the sudden appearance of multiple versions of content and how to manage it.

All of this effort essentially doubles the time it takes to create content for two channels: print and "online". Publishing expenses go up because workers need new skills as well as assisting technology, and often someone else eventually hosts the damn thing anyway. Most publishers I've seen have yet to seriously consider output channels beyond print and the web, probably out of sheer exhaustion.

Throughout this change, publishers are still making their best effort, and some adapt quite rapidly. A few publishers produce HTML first, and then focus on print product. Some farm out content production to offshore companies, enabling legions of people to attack the problem at once. Sometimes these alternatives work. Whatever the method, publishers generally seem eager for improvement, and welcome innovative ideas.

Publishers are often surprised by innovation, with changes to publishing vocabularly occurring first. While trusted terms like 'manuscript', 'press-run', 'laser round', and 'PDF' remain, new terms begin to show up in daily conversation and re-engineering meetings: 'XML', 'automation', 'XSL-FO', 'schema', 'DTD', 'Content Management System', 'offshoring', 'nearshoring', 'knowledge process outsourcing', and so on.

I'm going to delve deeper into these things as posts progress: a multi-part series on publishing efforts in a modern age. In between posts, let me know what you are thinking.

  • Do you experience these kinds of issues?

  • Tell me a story about your publishing trauma ("The FedEx guy looked at me with a twinkle in his eye as I printed out the last pages for this evening's edition.")

  • Ask a question to validate my knowledge ("Where were you on the night of October 31?")

Until next time...

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