Recently, I’ve seen a couple of posts advocating that publishing companies should establish separate digital units that are given relative freedom to do their own thing; the implication being that the rest of the business carries on largely as before. I don’t agree with this approach, and here’s why.
Firstly, digital publishing is as much about process as it is about digital product. The latter (and indeed the print product and marketing material) should be an end result of the digital process rather than a goal in and of itself.
It is critical that the person responsible for digital publishing (process or product) understands the importance of agile development. This is particularly so for those digital products that are more complex than a very simple EPUB. It is one thing to have a digital product that looks good, but if that product has not been produced using good digital processes that allow for quick updates, alterations and iterations, the resultant product with all its links, media, and interconnected bits and pieces, will be, quite possibly, more difficult to update than the print book. And the content won’t be easily reusable.
Publishers should experiment as much as possible, but on a small scale, with prototypes to find what works. Use a variety of methods, even use ‘traditional’ methods if that is what people feel most comfortable with initially. But sooner rather than later, they should find the most agile and cost-effective way of achieving the desired result, and bring in the programmers who understand what ‘agile development’ really means, and the project managers who understand planning and budgets. And yes, this does all mean that xml should be somewhere in the workflow to make this all possible; whether this is ‘traditional’ xml or xml in the form of XHTML and CSS3 (see related posts). Establishing an agile, software-driven, and properly managed process (with good design, editing and content management as part of this) will enable both quick turnaround of product and the ability to creatively use the content in a variety of ways.
Secondly, from a people perspective, privileging the ‘digital people’ in a publishing house is likely to lead to two things: the rest of the business feels alienated and neglected, and staff morale and productivity may drop. Rather, let everyone feel excited about what’s coming, what they can do to contribute and what skills they can learn.
The skills that are needed for a digitally-savvy business, whether it be publishing or any other company, are needed throughout the business, not just in a pocket of it. In a digitally enabled and aware business, ‘digital’ is at the core of everything the business does.
As long as publishers are only thinking about the digital product, and see ‘digital’ as separate from the rest of their business, they will not be able to take advantage of all the wonderful technological advances that will enable creativity and great content to flourish.