Mind the Gap
I've been thinking a lot lately about the future. I find that so much more actionable than thinking about the past. The problem is, to quote the great wordsmith Yogi Berra, "The future ain't what is used to be."
I'll get to that. But first …
Anyone who has traveled the London subway system knows what this headline means—it is the very polite British way of saying, "Hey pinhead, don't trip on the space between the train and the platform." Mind the gap just sounds so much nicer.
But the "gap" I've been thinking about lately is the gap between the way things *are* in publishing and the way things *need to be* in the future, lest we all go the way of the dodo bird. You know what I'm talking about, right? It's not as simple as saying "the industry is in a state of transformative change from paper to digital." (Side Note: Can we all please agree to stop using the phrase "transformative change?" What kind of change is not transformative, exactly?) Actually, saying the industry is in a "state of change" is quite easy to say, but what it means to publishing is the hard part, isn't it?
So the gap I've been thinking about lately is really all about how we do things today knowing full well that we need to change in the future, but darn it, certain things are necessary today. Sometimes things are even counter-intuitive (usually converting from one dead-end format to another), but change in the industry is moving so fast that you sometimes have no other choice. OK, I'm being a little abstract, so let me give some specific examples.
I talk a lot of trash about XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and content management. In a perfect world, authors would be working with XML and they would be adding all sorts of extra "knowledge" (in the form of tags) to their manuscripts— book monographs, journal articles, textbook chapters, etc.—with wonderful tools provided to them by publishers. Also in that perfect world, these richly-tagged files would move through a wonderful content management system, and every time they were required for publication (even in a different format), it would be a matter of a few mouse clicks, and "voila!"
However, in the real world, we are simply not there yet. We are making tangible progress, and the dream is still very much within reach and worth pursuing. But trust me, every publisher has a different ending to the sentence, "We fully believe in an XML-based workflow, but …"
And that's ok. Sort of. The unfortunate thing is that the pace of change in our market expectations and in the technological possibilities of outputs has outstripped the pace of change in the back office. Hence the gap.
So what does that mean? Well, because we don't live in a world where we can just snap our fingers and adopt new technologies (trust me, I've tried, and my fingers really hurt), you need to do a lot of hard work to move things forward. And most of the advances in publishing technology are not technology per se, but have more to do with the people and processes that have been in place for generations, if not longer. This is no small thing, but it often gets overlooked, especially by people who should know better.
I told you I would give a specific example, so here it is:
Let's take the devices (please) that are supposedly going to "save" publishing. Most publishers are channeling their inner Herbert Hoover (an iPad in every pot?), thinking that their business is going to magically transform from print to digital, and all they have to do is provide ePub files.
Forgetting for a second the fact that that is punting on a great many things that are possible with digital publishing, how simple—really—is even providing ePub files for most publishers? How about cost-effective?
Well, ePub is XML, but it is a specific *flavor* of XML that allows for very nice display on a reading device (Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.), and allows pages to be re-flowed. But hold on, a specific flavor of XML means yet another conversion? Unless of course you have a full XML-first workflow, from which you can compose pages, render ePub files, etc. But how many of us are there yet, where ePub is just another output of your normal workflow?
There's that gap again.
I didn't set out to write this as a depressing blog post. I didn't set out to, but I did.
Ironically, I don't believe in all the doomsday prophecies about the "death of print" or even the folks who are abandoning traditional print publishing. Every market is going to have its early entrants, laggards and haters. Just as TV didn't kill radio, DVD movies didn't kill theaters, and digital will not kill print. At least not in the span of my career, and as I've told you many times, it's all about me.
But what publishers need to understand is that they need to do some hard work on the back office side of things, lest they find themselves permanently stuck between the realities of today and the tantalizing expectations of tomorrow. Mind the gap.
Jabin White is Vice President of Content Management for ITHAKA, an organization committed to helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. ITHAKA provides several services to the academic community, including JSTOR and Portico, which increase access to scholarly materials and ensure their preservation for future generations.
With a heavy background in XML theory and practice, White has spent most of his career evangelizing the benefits of markup languages and related technologies, including content management, workflow enhancements and authoring tools.
Prior to joining ITHAKA, White served as Director of Strategic Content at Wolters Kluwer Health's Professional & Education (P&E) Division, Vice President, STM Sales for Scope eKnowledge Center, and VP of Product Development at Silverchair, Inc., a leading developer of information solutions for health care publishers.
He also spent five years as Executive Director of Electronic Production at Elsevier, serving the Health Sciences Division. White started in health sciences publishing as an editorial assistant at Current Medicine and has held digital publishing positions at Mosby, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins and Unbound Medicine. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University with a BA in history and has a Masters in Business Administration from Pennsylvania State University.