This Just In: Hype Cycles are Overdone
I think all global statements are useless.
OK, just in case you didn't get the irony in the above statement, let me state that in a different way. I find most global statements, if examined closely, to be flawed. Life is too complex to be boiled down into generalities that simply don't apply in all cases. Besides, only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes.
Closely related to the global statement is the hype cycle around new technologies. I work in technology, so I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but I find it humorous that something no one had heard of six months ago is suddenly the ONLY THING that people are talking about. And if you don't embrace the new new thing right away, your business is going to perish. Huh?
Take, for instance, the buzz lately around e-readers (seriously, mine is buzzing, that's not normal, is it?). If you believe the hype, everyone on the planet either has or soon will have a Kindle, and if they don't, they will have one of the many competitors coming to market. No one will ever buy a print book again. The buzz at the International CES show in Las Vegas earlier this month was all about e-books, and there were so many e-reader product launches that I lost track. Hurry, hurry, get your titles into e-book format. Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
I'm certainly NOT anti-eBook. Far from it. I love the Kindle, and it seems like every new device I hear about has cooler features than its predecessors, and it makes me want one. And the next one. And the next.
I'm absolutely drooling over the Apple tablet. But while I may not be anti-e-book, I am most definitely ANTI-one output format above all others. And therein lies the rub. OK, e-readers are white hot right now, and that's wonderful. But ask yourself, how different is that from the way PDAs were talked about in 1999 and 2000?
How different is that from the way CD-ROMs were talked about in the mid-'90s? And how much will you give me for my slightly used Rocket e-book? How are all these markets sized today?
As publishers, we do have a choice in this—some might even say a *responsibility* — not to get caught up in the hype cycles of delivery methods, and focus on the content. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong ("it's not about the bike"), it's not about the e-reader. It's not about any singular output. It's about the information, the content or whatever you want to call that thing that we do that provides information/entertainment/education to our end users and customers.
That could be a Web site, a smart phone, a Kindle, an RSS feed, even — hold the phone — a printed page.
So how do we do that? It starts with X and ends with ML.
There was an old saying in the days of SGML: SGML stands for "Structure Gives Me Latitude," and PDF stands for "Print the Damn File!" And even though XML has taken the place of SGML (for publishers, they are really the same), that little saying is as true today as it was then.
Don't get me wrong, PDF is great if you're really sure that putting content in a fixed-page format is all you ever want to do with it. But if you're not sure (i.e., you need latitude or flexibility), then structured markup is the way to go. And even then, publishers have some choices to make.
Just converting every title you have to ePub seems like an idea, but try driving composition (tables?) or other digital products from that. Just as PDF is a great format for fixed page, ePub is a great format for e-books, HTML is a great format for the Web. And we haven't even considered composition systems, which is how you get to PDFs in the first place. Many formats, many outputs from the same source XML. The principles don't change just because one output is hot right now.
The problem is, and it pains me to say this, is that XML just isn't ... well, sexy. You will never see angle brackets on the front page of The New York Times or Time magazine (if you did, somebody screwed up). But you can be darn sure that they are there, in the background, doing their thankless job. The other thing is that a solid XML strategy takes long-term thinking, and long-term investment, something that is
difficult in the best of times, harder in times of great change, but oh so worth it if done right.
So you can spend a lot of time getting your Nostradamus on and trying to predict the future, reacting to every trend or delivery format that comes down the pike. Or... you can tag content in a structured, intelligent way that allows you to be flexible and responsive to market trends. This has always been the promise of XML (and SGML before it), and every new delivery output just makes the business case for XML that
much stronger. The overhyping sometimes makes it harder to see that, but trust me, it's there.
I happen to enjoy trying to guess what the next big thing will be in terms of output formats, cool new products or hot technologies. That's a pretty far walk from betting the future of my business on that guess.
And why would you, to borrow a poker term, go "all in" if you don't have to?
Now, about that Apple tablet …
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.