When Publishing Technology Attacks

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Remember that part in the zombie movie when one of the good-guy heroes turns into a zombie and you’re like, “oh no! I thought he was one of the good guys”?

Substitute zombies with publishing technology and we might be in for a bloodbath.

According to the blogosphere, The New Yorker’s iPad edition is having problems with the new iPad’s retina display: “The first few text selectable articles look great and fully take advantage of the retina screen…. But the rest of the magazine looks completely low res.”

The problem? The suite of tools The New Yorker and all Conde Nast publications are using to produce iPad editions. The emergence of new technology – in this case, a device used for distribution of content – has made an investment that Conde Nast made years ago seem like a mistake now.

“Publishers wake up every morning between a rock and a hard place. If they back a technology that does not achieve widespread acceptance in the marketplace, they are in trouble. If they hold back to see which platforms will get established, they are accused of being technophobic or worse,” said Bay Area management consultant Joe Esposito regarding the issue on a digital publishing list-serve.

Publishers have always had to choose between backing various technologies, making calculations about how they would scale and how long they would continue to be effective, and then living with the results. With each passing month, a technology could become obsolete, zombified.

Earlier this week, at the Publishing Business Conference, Flipboard’s editorial director Josh Quittner argued that publishing companies should not be software companies, that they should rely on technology vendors to keep up with the latest innovations and should focus on creating and distributing content.

David Carr of the New York Times, who was interviewing Quittner on stage, disagreed, citing that the New York Times had made smart, selective investments in technology and that its survival would depend on it continuing to do so. It remains to be seen whether those investments will stand the test of time.

Book publishers are in exactly the same boat, except their choices are much more difficult. It’s not about whether to use a certain Web-development toolkit over another; it’s about which of four or five e-book formats to use, which of a dozen devices to develop for, and which of hundreds of booksellers and readers to distribute to – and how to do it all.

A big investment in technology that looks smart today could look stupid tomorrow. The good-guy scientist who is this close to a cure for the zombie disease in one scene could eat your brains in the next.

Zombie photo via Shutterstock

3 thoughts on “When Publishing Technology Attacks

  1. Laura Dawson

    If book publishers store their content in XML repositories, then it can be configured to whatever format comes down the pike. The point is not to develop to a platform, but to have content ready to be deployed as flexibly as possible. The problem is that this front-loads the work – requiring more on the part of editors and production staff – and changing that workflow is gut-wrenching. The zombies are calling from inside the house.

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  2. Ron Martinez

    Technology decisions are rarely made solely on the technical merits and in the absence of other considerations. Competitive issues, time-to-market, internal company dynamics, things like budget, schedule, and even bonuses figure into these decisions.

    Whether you realize it or not, you’re always making a provisional decision when choosing technology, because all tech is like fruit. There is a shelf life. (Check the back of your junk draw for your once-beloved Palm Treo. Go ahead. I’ll wait.).

    I won’t defend a decision to take snapshots of magazine pages at low res and calling that an app. But I’m certain the decision seemed inevitable at the time, particularly if the choice was to skip the launch and trash work done to date, the kind of thing people lose jobs for.

    Having said all that, building a native digital book using InDesign is like tweeting in Latin. If there’s anything that publishers might learn from this episode is that “repurposing” and the soft landing of conversion will not get you very far when it comes to illustrated, layout-heavy content like that found in magazines. It’s nearly a no-brainer to format a re-flowable, text-centric book as an ePub, but not so for books like these. And responsive layouts will also only take you part of the way. It’s guaranteed there will be a lot of decisions that say, in effect, we support two aspect ratios (iPad Fire/Nook/Kobo), Retina resolution, either portrait or landscape but not both. Period).

    Once you make such simplifying assumptions, you get to build (using lightweight tools that do exactly what you need, and not horrific print/digital Swiss Army knives from hell) and ship. A few years from now pundits may get to call you a bonehead. But you will have been in the market, figuring out what works with customers for a few years.

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  3. John Myers

    The New Yorker uses Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) which does indeed produce its pages as images for the most part – I suspect that the pages where the blogger was able to select text in the article were made using HTML5 tools which can be used in Adobe DPS. The reason why the New Yorker looks low res on the new iPad is that Apple did not release the developer tools for the new iPad until about one week before the device was released. This gave little time for developers to update their apps. I am sure Adobe is working on putting out updates to their DPS tools just like the other magazines are scrambling to include higher resolution images. Adobe does need to do something about the text as image problem – I suppose it was a simple workaround so that the magazines did not become overloaded with too many fonts (not just the magazine’s fonts, but all of the ads too). Not being able to share the text is a key element missing from DPS and I hope they find a solution.

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