Digital Directions: Redefining Content Creation
The advent of digital media has long threatened publishing's most fundamental processes, as publishers grapple with delivering their offerings in multiple formats and to multiple devices, simultaneously and with equal quality. Now, after years of delay and procrastination, publishers are beginning this process of fundamental change.
Since the late Jurassic Period, books have been created with more or less the same process: A manuscript is developed, composed and designed for the printed page, and finally converted to a camera-ready or print-ready form. All that was well and good until pesky customers developed the audacity to ask for titles via new, digital channels—specifically the Web, e-readers and mobile devices. And, like it or not, this is beginning to require us to completely rethink the manner in which books are designed or constructed.
Many have long denied the need to change: We could just create a digital copy of the print title. You want to read a book in your Internet browser? No problem: Just use the print file's Web-ready PDF version. (Nevermind that the book is portrait orientation, and your screen is landscape.)
You want to read a book on a mobile reader that does not support color or even the page's visual rendering? No problem: We can extract the content and put it into the styleless data format that e-readers use. (Nevermind that we throw away the book's visual experience—a source of engagement, utility and differentiation.)
Who were we kidding? For a product to be engaging and successful, it must be designed and produced to provide an optimal experience on any delivery vehicle. We cannot merely automatically convert a print-ready file to a digital delivery format and expect a successful offering.
Optimally supporting multiple delivery platforms involves many challenges. Let's take a look at three issues that arise:
1. Device-Specific Design
Optimal visual and information design for print is not the same for a mobile device. Good print designers tweak their creations with an awareness of the technical specifications for which the design is intended—trim size, paper stock, etc. The same is true with designers for digital output.
Luckily, a good model exists for supporting parallel designs: digitally maintaining content data distinct from design data. Content is maintained in a "design-agnostic" or "device-agnostic" format, such as XML, and in separate files such as InDesign templates for print, or Cascading Style Sheets for the Web. The same XML content can be merged with different style sheets to make an optimized version for each device or platform.
I know many of you have heard this all before—banging the old XML drum. But how many of us have actually implemented such a system?
Page numbers are a cornerstone of print design, and a key mechanism with which readers navigate content. Digital delivery's very nature challenges the use of this fundamental product feature.
E-books that are mere PDF versions of printed pages still display page numbers, but this is far from optimal. Some screens can hold more words (or pictures) than others, often requiring users to scroll both horizontally and vertically around a PDF version—but at least you have a page number once you scroll down to it!
E-readers have eliminated page- numbering. E-books paginate material dynamically, based on the font the user selects. The good news is that the word count is optimized for any screen. The bad news is that there are, therefore, no fixed page numbers—making navigation a nightmare. "Bookmarks" do not, by any means, provide the same utility.
Finding an alternative, elegant solution to page numbering is critical in the digital-delivery evolution.
Chunking refers to logical content segmentation. "Chunks" can be sold a la carte or in a variety of configurations—a single chapter or article from a larger work.
One oft-cited example is the ability to sell a single textbook chapter. This sounds logical until one actually extracts a single chapter from a textbook. The chapter typically does not stand on its own, created as it was within a larger pedagogical sequence, rife with references to materials outside of that chapter. Pulling apart sections of a previously created work and expecting to yield independently salable components is difficult. Planning ahead is essential.
The Re-architecture of Publishing
Solving issues like these requires nothing less than the re-architecture of publishing —development, design and production. The reward is realizing new opportunities with new audiences and new product formats. The consequences of failure are lost revenue and marginalization.
We have been living on borrowed time, postponing inevitable challenges of change. First, we waited for proof of digital-delivery's revenue potential. Then, we pretended we could merely convert our InDesign files into e-reader formats. No such luck. Profound change is, in fact, required. And so the work begins. Let's get started.
Andrew Brenneman is founder and president of Finitiv, a provider of digital content solutions. He has been leading digital media initiatives at major media and technology organizations for more than 20 years. Contact him at Andrew@Finitiv.com.