FAQ: Book Publishing Workflow

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

In late November, we held a webcast in which we discussed the finer points of publishing workflow for a high-tech publishing operation. There were many questions on the webcast that went unanswered. Here they are below, with answers. Some of the questions have been edited slightly to give context.

For the entire webcast, including answers to all the other audience questions, can be found here.

Q: Should production retraining be necessary to “reconstruct” the workflow process? We are still used to paper edits.

A: It all depends on how you “reconstruct” the process. If you are using freelancers to edit on paper, then yes, if you choose to have them edit in a structured/styled Word manner as I was advocating, they’d need to be trained to some extent. (Ditto for in-house.) But if you are using vendors or an editorial service, very little training should be necessary; you just need to be sure they’re using your template properly, but they should take responsibility for training the individual editors that they hire.


Q: Can you speak to ways of implementing new editorial and production workflows, including strategies for moving from traditional silos to a more optimized workflow?

A: There are three basic strategies: (1) form an internal team to work on it, (2) rely on a vendor to help you do it, or (3) hire a consultant to help you figure it out. I have a bit of a bias for (3) since that’s what I do, but I want to point out that it is the most objective, not skewed to how the vendor wants to work (as in 2) and not biased by present practices (as in 1). Often it is really a combination of the three that works best. A consultant should first spend time with your staff to understand your current processes, and should understand who your important vendors/partners are, and also how much of that is “on the table” so to speak, vs. “don’t go there.”


Q: How does one actually incorporate XML into one’s editorial and production workflow? Are there instructional videos? I understand the purpose of it but we don’t physically know how. For example, what XML tags does one use?

A: It all depends on the processes and technologies and partners you choose to use. Ideally you want to incorporate the XML — or at least the vocabulary and structure that you want for your XML, which is what the Word-based editing strategy does — at the earliest stage that it’s practical for your particular situation. Sometimes that’s all the way upstream in copyediting (if you use the structured/styled approach I talked about in the webinar, which can then generate XML), sometimes it’s just best to get XML as a deliverable from your typesetter. And your question about “what XML” is a REALLY good one! I always advise clients to start with the vocabulary, actually: what are the components of your content, and what do you call them? Once you understand what you need to manage, and how you expect to use your XML, the you can better determine what XML model to use. I have been a big advocate of an XHTML-based strategy, but I by no means always recommend that; a current client expected me to recommend that but I recommended a different model instead because it was a better fit for them, for how they operate and how they’ll use their XML. But yes, you need to understand that first before just plowing ahead and getting “XML” in an undefined sense, which is almost always a bad idea.


Q: What about tools to efficiently produce interactive EPUB3?

A: I answered this in the webcast, but so fast you may not have been able to take them down, so for the record what I mentioned was Apple’s iBooks Author (if the exclusively Apple platform works for you), Inkling’s Habitat, Metrodigi’s Chaucer, and Apex’s Podium. Plus I mentioned that the IDPF is developing a set of open source widgets (very early stages, but it will happen).


Q: What do you see as the future role for editorial directors?

A: I see them as being crucially important. They have very intimate knowledge of the publications (and the semantics used in them) and the market (what users need and want, and what they call things, which is the semantics again!). I have always thought that editors and indexers have the most intimate, detailed, granular understanding of the publications so they are actually the most valuable people to make sure digital publications get implemented in the best ways for the organization. Too often they think “that’s not my job,” but then decisions get made by folks who don’t understand the publications as well. A good editorial director can help lead the development of digital products in an optimal way, in my opinion.


Q: How do you recommend a design team is staffed? In house, freelance, out of country?

A: The fundamental point of the webcast was that all of those options are completely appropriate in the right context, for the right organization. Sorry for the “it depends,” but it depends! However, one thing I will point out is that today it is increasingly important that “the design team” be structured and staffed to “design for digital.” When design is just for print and then the digital products are designed as an afterthought, after print production (which is the most common today), the digital products and the processes are suboptimal. Increasingly, publishers are realizing that they need to factor in the digital aspects at the start. This can range from “we’ve got a video for that, what image should we use in digital products and in print to correspond to it?” to “this image is grayscale in print but we want to be sure we have the color version for digital products.” You will find that involving the digital design up front can really help things, and can even influence how you do your print design in a good way.


Q: By “consistent styling structure” in the Word document, do you specifically mean using Word style tools? Or can it be using consistent tags?

A: I strongly recommend using well-designed styles (with well-thought-out style names) rather than embedding tags in Word documents. The latter was common a decade ago but it is really unreliable, and a pain for the copyeditor.


Q: Often one of the reasons why publishers don’t introduce XML into the document early on in the workflow is to avoid having to re-tag; often text changes are still being made until right before the file is released to the printer. Can you talk about how to deal with this?

A: This is exactly why you need to look at your entire workflow rather than just “plugging in XML” at an arbitrary point. It is critically important to understand when in the workflow it is appropriate to introduce XML. In the workflows we commonly use (and commonly advise clients to use), the XML is preserved through the production process, which means that when those text changes are made, any tagging changes (or, in the case of InDesign workflows, style changes) are made at the same time. You definitely want to avoid a workflow that makes you have to retag after proof cycles; you want a workflow that accommodates those proof cycles.


Q: How do you see the convergence of hardware standards being implemented — timescales?

A: There are two sides to this. If you are talking about IT hardware (the computers and peripherals you use), these are getting more interoperable all the time; in my work, I rarely find hardware questions as central, with one exception: the use of the cloud instead of (or, more often, supplementing) in-house servers. Even systems as complex as Content Management Systems are converging on open standards like CMIS (Content Management Interoperability Services) and CFIS (Common Internet File System). If you are talking about Reading System hardware (e-reading devices, etc.) the answer is similar, and really a software question: Those devices are increasingly based on browser platforms or technologies and so are converging on the Open Web Platform (OWP). The most important development on that side is Readium; the new Readium SDK is on a fast track, probably delivering usable open source code in a few months and virtually complete for EPUB within a year.

Listen to the entire webcast on ebook workflow here