Tuesday, March 08, 2011


I went to an interesting talk this morning in Oxford. OxPub2 was, as the name suggests, the second open publishing event put on by lovely people from Perera, Chandos and Osprey. It was free and there were free teas and pastries. How could I resist? But the draw for me was a talk by Ernst Kallus, digital media director for Oxford University Press. The subject was XML and the future of digital publishing. Sounds dull eh? Anything but, I assure you.

I should start by saying that I am an IT numpty. I know how to use a hammer, but I don't need to understand the physics of how it works or even how it was constructed in order to twat some nails. It's the same for me with IT. I don't understand technology. I just know how to use it to make my life easier. Therefore, anything that has superfluous bells and whistles or which doesn't progress my work is discarded. I've played with several iPads and I still can't see what one could do for me that a laptop can't. The last time I played a computer game, it was Lemmings.

Therefore, I hoped that by attending this event I'd get a greater insight into digital publishing. Thanks to Ernst, I now do.

Several important points emerged during his talk. The first was that we need to stop saying 'digital publishing' as if it's distinct from 'publishing'. It isn't. Not any more. Digital media is here to stay and the market is growing at an ever accelerating rate. We need to change the way that we view publishing; up until recently innovation has revolved around delivery - types of printing, format (hardback, paperback, magazine etc.). What's happening now in publishing is revolution rather than evolution. The paradigm has seriously shifted.

Things haven't changed much for 500 years - an author writes some words and maybe gets together some pictures and they are arranged on a page. That page is followed by another page and another and then another in a linear numerical progression. However, digital media operates on what the nerdier types call 'granular reflowable substance'; pages are no longer simple pages. Instead of linear progression, we have a network of interconnected, searchable and almost infinitely combinable pieces of data that can be arranged as we see fit. From one 'page' you could conceivably jump off in a multitude of different directions not just forwards or backwards. Instead of encyclopaedias being alphabetical lists of entries, they can be search engines.

We still tend to think of digital as a bolt-on, something we do after the print edition of the book has gone out. But the smart money is now going into commissioning e-books from the outset. The author, agent and editor triangle now becomes a working team that explores all of the possibilities for a book project rather than just print. The page is no longer the master format.

I know many of you reading this will be resistant to the change. I was too. It's hard to turn 500 years of tradition on its head. I've watched the evolution of e-books and digital media and a little voice in my head kept saying 'Flash in the pan - it'll never catch on'. But I was wrong. Sales of digital media grow exponentially while bookshops are disappearing from our High Streets. It's no good me saying 'Ah, but people will always want proper paper books'. Will they?Really? The generation that includes my grandchildren are far more comfortable with multi-media than books. Why will they want to carry a heavy bag to school when the entire works of William Shakespeare can fit easily onto a Kindle? In fact, the Bard's entire canon takes up fewer megabytes to store than one song in MP3 format. They are completely searchable; you can find the soliloquy of your choice in seconds. And you can build in critique, background historical information, music, images ...

I can understand why people like me - and publishers particularly - didn't immediately invest in e-books. Just think of the formats we've seen disappear in the past 30 years – 8 track, reel to reel, audio cassette, laserdisc, Betamax, Phillips 2000, minidisc, vinyl ... CDs now seem to be on the way out now and my local charity shop won't accept VHS tapes any more as they can't shift them. No onw wants to invest in something that could be quickly obsolete.

I was at a recording studio in the City of London a fortnight ago. It was very modern, very digital. But in one room is a vinyl lathe. This is the big and expensive machine that used to cut a master disc from which vinyl albums were cast. When it was bought, it cost a fortune. Now it's just so much scrap metal. And yet, when it was bought, people said the same about vinyl as they're now saying about paper books. No format, I'm afraid, is forever.

The one good bit of news is that format isn't likely to be a huge issue for digital publishing as XML and XHTML will probably be around for some time yet - especially as the internet is virtually built from it.

In case you don't know what XML is, it's basically a roadmap of content. Any characteristic on a 'page' can be recorded using XML code; the start and end of sentences, font size and type, colours, where graphics are placed, where tags and hyperlinks are added etc. And because XML is going to be around for a while, publishers who invest in training and expertise are futureproofing. Even if XML is surpassed by some new language, the experience gained in designing digital media with XML will give those publishers the edge.

The point really is that we can't ignore this bugger any more. Old traditionalists like me have to start thinking about how our books can benefit from the new publishing paradigm. If we don't, we'll be dinosaurs. and we all know what happened to the majority of them ...

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