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The agile upside of XML

Anna von Veh and Mike McNamara on the benefits of XML and the tech-driven future of publishing.

In a recent interview, Anna von Veh, a consultant at Say Books, and Mike McNamara, managing director at Araman Consulting Ltd & Outsell-Gilbane UK Affiliate, talked about the role of XML, the state of ebook design, and the tech-driven future of the publishing industry.

McNamara and von Veh will expand on these ideas in their presentation at TOC Frankfurt next week.

Our interview follows.

Why should publishers adopt XML?

mikemcnamara.jpgMike McNamara: There are many benefits to be gained from implementing XML in a production workflow. However, it really depends on what the publisher wants to do. For example, journal publishers probably want to reuse their content in a number of different ways for differing products and specific target markets. XML can deliver this flexibility and reusability.

A UK Legal publisher I worked with wanted to enrich its online content deliverables to its clients. The publisher added more metadata to its XML content, allowing its new search environment to deliver more accurate and focused results to clients. A fiction book publisher, on the other hand, might want to produce simple ebooks from original Microsoft Word source files and might not see any real business or technical benefit to using XML (however, I do think this will change in the future). A simple XHTML-to-ebook process might be a better option for this type of publisher.

Anna_von_Veh.jpgAnna von Veh: The very term “XML” can cause many people to run for the hills, so it’s sometimes helpful to look at it differently. Do publishers want to ensure that their content is searchable and reusable for a variety of formats, in a variety of ways, for a variety of devices and even for devices that haven’t yet been invented? Do they want to be able to deliver customized content to customers? If so, XML — and I include XHTML in this — is the way.

There are a number of issues. One is the value of putting legacy content into XML to make it more usable, discoverable and valuable to the publisher. The second is incorporating XML into the workflow for the front list. And then, of course, there is the question of when to incorporate XML into the workflow — at the authoring stage, editing, typesetting, post-final, etc.

While the format-centered model that most publishers are familiar with produces beautiful products, it is not one that is likely to flourish in the new world of digital publishing. Digital requires a much more rapid, flexible and agile response. Using XML, though, doesn’t mean that design or creativity is dead. The hope is that it will help automate work that is being done manually over and over again, and allow publishers the freedom to focus on great ideas and creative use of their content.

What is the best way to integrate XML into an existing workflow?

Mike McNamara: I don’t believe there is one “best” way. Again, it’s down to what is the best way that suits that particular publisher. “XML first,” “XML last” and “XML in the middle” all have their own costs, implementation requirements and benefits. I tend to favor the XML-first option, as I believe it delivers more benefits for the publisher. Though it would probably introduce more change for an organization than the other options (XML last and XML in the middle).

Anna von Veh: If you’re a large publishing company with a bigger budget and lots of legacy content, then you might want to move to a full content management system (CMS) with an XML-first workflow. But a smaller publisher may want to focus on a digital-friendly Word and InDesign workflow that makes “XML last” easier. However, incorporating XML early into the workflow certainly has benefits. The challenges revolve around changing how you think about producing, editing and designing content and managing the change process.

How future-proof is XML? Will it be supplanted at some point by something like JSON?

Mike McNamara: XML is a very future-proof method for ensuring long-term protection of content. It is the format chosen by many digital archives and national libraries. True, JSON has become very popular of late, but it is mainly used today for API development, financial transactions, and messaging — and by web developers. I think JSON has a long way to go before it supplants XML — as we know and use it today — as a structured content format for use in publishing.

TOC Frankfurt 2011 — Being held on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, TOC Frankfurt will feature a full day of cutting-edge keynotes and panel discussions by key figures in the worlds of publishing and technology.

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Is ebook design in a rut?

Mike McNamara: No, it’s still developing. More thought needs to be put into adding value to the content before it gets to the ebook. Take travel guides, for example. If I want a travel book to use in the field, say on a hiking holiday, I don’t want to have to carry the print product. I want the same content reconfigured as an ebook with a GPS/Wi-Fi environment added to use on my smartphone, with everything referenced from the same map that I saw in the print version.

Publishers need to get smarter with the data they have, and then deliver it in the different ways that users need.

Anna von Veh: Many current ebooks are conversions from printed books, either scanned from the printed copy or converted from PDFs. These ebooks weren’t designed or planned as ebooks, and in addition, quality control was lacking after they’d been made into ebooks — and these are very bad advertisements for ebook design. Many new ebooks (i.e. those in the front list) are much better designed. However, most are still based on the idea of the print book.

A key thing is to focus on is the fact that a screen is not contained in the same way that a printed book is, and that it is an entirely different format (see Peter Meyers’ great A New Kind of Book blog, and upcoming “Breaking the Page” book). I think of ebook design as being much more akin to website design, which is why I advocate hiring web designers. I like the idea of starting with the web and going to print from there. It seems right for the digital age. Also, I think anyone working in book production today — both editors and designers — should learn some web skills. Hand coding simple EPUBs is a good way to practice, and it is relevant, too.

How will digital publishing change over the next five years? Are we headed toward a world where books are URLs?

Mike McNamara: More and more content will continue to be published online. Many reference publishers are already looking to add more value to content through metadata. This would allow clients to find the right content for their immediate context via sophisticated search engines. Some publishers already allow clients to build their own licensed versions of publications from the publishers’ content repositories, with automatic updates being applied as and when needed.

Consequently, publishers will continue to move toward having even smaller, more focused chunks of XML data, allowing easy assembly into virtual publications. These will all be available to download and read on multiple devices, focusing on smartphones and tablets.

The combination of smarter XML (with multimedia information), smarter search engines and smarter reading devices will define how content is created and delivered over the coming years.

Anna von Veh: In answer to the first part of the question, it depends on what we understand “digital publishing” to mean. I like to think of it as the process of publishing — i.e. the workflow itself rather than the format. In terms of the process, yes, I think the web will have a big role to play (see PressBooks), but once again, it depends on how open publishers are to change.

Much will depend, too, on exactly who the publishers are in the next five years. I think it is highly likely that tech startups will make up a large piece of the publishing pie, though they may be bought up by larger publishers and tech companies. Some of the big vendors that hold much of the current knowledge of digital publishing (and therefore, perhaps, power) may move into publishing. There are also the smaller indie and self publishers that aren’t hampered so much by legacy issues. On the other hand, big publishers have financial muscle and experience in content creation, design and editorial. It’s an exciting time.

As for the format, I wouldn’t bet against the web there, either. I’m a fan of the web in general (my favorite ebook reader is the browser-based Ibis Reader). In mainstream publishing, a lot of educational content is migrating to the web and learning management systems (LMS).

Even if books become URLs, what is needed is a cheap and easy print-on-demand (POD) home printer and bookbinder, or print “ATM,” like the Espresso Book Machine. There are many situations where printed books are still required, not the least of which are countries in poorer parts of the world where the web is a luxury. Arthur Attwell’s startup Paperight is a great POD idea designed for developing countries, and it also provides publishers with income. Mobile phones, too, are gaining ground in developing countries, and they’re being used for a variety of innovative businesses. Smartphones could well become the main way to read content all over the world, whether that content is contained in ebooks, website books, or other forms.

But this just looks at the technology side of things. People bond emotionally with books and stories, with the authors who create them, and with other readers who share their interests. Potentially, connections could be built between readers and the editors and designers who shape the books. In this digitally connected but often physically separated world, all these connections are becoming both easier and more important, irrespective of what form the content takes or where it lives.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo on home and category pages: XML_logo by Jmh2o, on Wikimedia Commons

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  • http://polyglotprogramming.com Dean Wampler

    As a writer of two books (for O’Reilly) and a serious user of XML in past programming tasks, I can appreciate the attraction of XML as a data format, but I also dread the prospect of using it. The editors that support XML are too unproductive for my tastes (and Word is too buggy).

    So, I wrote both my books using Asciidoc, a wiki-style markup language, which can output Docbook, PDF, and XML.

    I also do almost all my other writing using Multimarkdown and great tools like Byword for the Mac, which also export to different formats, etc.

    In other words, the successful use of XML needs to be absolute invisible and handled by a variety of different alternative tools for writing.

  • http://www.psdtohtmlshop.com PSD to HTML

    I’m really an advocat of the use of xml. It has a lot of advantages which can’t be left in the dark!

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