Multi-Channel Publishing: A Case Study
Over the last year, XML Press and The Content Wrangler, a content strategy consultancy, have been producing a series of books about content strategy. The series currently includes five titles, which range in subject from authoring in content management systems to creating content audits to building an enterprise content strategy. Each title is authored by an expert in that field, but the series shares a common vision and content strategy.
That vision is best exemplified by the first book in the series, The Language of Content Strategy, which is a glossary of terms that define a vocabulary for this emerging discipline. Each of the fifty-two terms in this book was authored by a leading authority. Each of the fifty-two authors provided a one-line definition, an importance statement, and an essay explaining why that term is important for content strategists.
Developing the series raised challenges in authoring and publication. This article will look at the publication effort and the way that multi-channel publishing formed an indispensable part of our content strategy.
What is Multi-Channel Publishing?
At the most basic level, multi-channel publishing takes a single piece of content and delivers it through multiple output channels (web, print, ebooks, mobile, etc.). In practice, multi-channel publishing goes way beyond this simplistic application. Effective multi-channel publishing marries structure-intelligent content-with sophisticated software that enables organizations to configure a unified body of content-a single source-to meet a wide variety of output needs.
Technical writers already use these capabilities to create documentation for a series of products in multiple output media, creating a unique reference for each product model using only the information specific to that model. Many organizations further customize content for specific audiences, removing or adding content depending on the interests and skill level of each audience.
Multi-channel publishing is the basis of the vision for The Content Wrangler book series. From the beginning, we planned the series to take full advantage of the capabilities of multi-channel publishing using intelligent content and single-sourcing. Following are two ways in which the series leveraged these capabilities.
Output in Multiple Media
Each of the books in the series is published in print form and as an ebook in three formats (PDF, EPUB, and Kindle). The base markup for all of the books is DocBook XML (while DocBook, or even XML, is not required for multi-channel publishing, it simplified reuse and reconfiguration), and all output formats were generated from one, single body of content. A set of open-source tools made those transformations possible, and they also made it possible for us to create an attractive format for each output.
By using structured, intelligent content, these tools can do much more than just create acceptable content for each output format-they can optimize for the strengths of each medium. For example, it becomes much easier to use higher resolution graphics for print output or make live links in online output.
Output in Different Configurations
In addition to the four formats mentioned above, the single-source content for the initial book in the series, The Language of Content Strategy, formed the basis for generating a website, a deck of cards, audio, and a database of terms that other books in the series can draw upon.
Every output form for this book uses different parts of the source content in different ways. For example, the print version of the book displays the basic parts of each entry in a different order from the ebook version. In print, the sections are: term, definition, importance statement, author bio, and essay, in that order. In the ebook, the author bio is moved to the end. We did this because it made the layout more appropriate for each medium. On the website, we include a reference section for each term that has links to further reading. We omitted that section from the print and ebook versions.
Since we had just created an extensive glossary, we created a database of terms and definitions. Authors of other books in the series draw on that glossary to create their own back-of-book glossaries. All they need to do is flag a term in their book as a glossary term, and the software grabs that term and definition from the database and adds it to the glossary for that book.
The methods we used to support multi-channel publishing yield benefits in several dimensions. For us, the primary benefit came from the repeatability of our processes. Now that we have produced stylesheets to create PDFs and ebooks that have our desired look and feel, we can apply those same stylesheets to new content with no additional effort. In fact, the most recent book in the series, Kevin Nichols' Enterprise Content Strategy: A Project Guide, required no extra stylesheet development; the production process was turnkey.
The larger the scale of your operation, the greater the cost benefits with this approach. We plan to apply our entire production process to a new series, which will further leverage the productivity gains from The Language of Content Strategy and the Content Wrangler book series. And if we add a new output format for the new series, we can easily go back and create deliverables for that format from the content for the original series.
The other important benefit came from the shared elements in the series. In addition to the glossary described earlier, we shared other elements including boilerplate text on the copyright page and common text such as the Colophon and an information page about the book series.
Looking at the overall project, there is no question that we could not have accomplished what we did without these multi-channel publishing techniques. For us, as for many publishers, there really isn't a choice. The market demands a multi-channel approach, and the combination of intelligent content and single-source publishing are the current, and only practical, approaches for implementing that approach.
These uses of intelligent content and single-source publishing just scratch the surface of what is possible. The key is to make sure that the content your organization develops is well-structured and accessible in a content management system and, even more important, that you develop and follow a comprehensive content strategy.
Scott Abel is a content management strategist, owner of The Content Wrangler and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information.
Richard L. Hamilton is founder and CEO of XML Press, which produces publications for technical communicators, managers, marketers, content strategists, and engineers.
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