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Reports from the Field

Four MPublishing staff attended Tools of Change for Publishing 2011: Publishing Without Boundaries earlier this month. Here is a roundup of what each of us found most interesting, provocative, and relevant to our work in university-based digital publishing.

Kevin Hawkins
Head, Digital Publishing Production

There was a lot of buzz at TOCCON 2011.  During the two days of the conference, a number of major announcements were made: Borders Group, Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection, Apple announced a new model for subscriptions to content through the App Store, Google announced One Pass, and the IDPF announced the first public draft of the EPUB 3 standard. Such breaking news made its way into a number of conference presentations, including a whole session all about the new version of EPUB.

EPUB isn’t the only standard undergoing significant revision right now. There was a presentation called “What’s in HTML5 for Publishers?” and a pre-conference workshop on “standards in flux”. Business models, too, are in flux, and it was heartening to hear so many presentations with people developing or using new business models for publishing. One keynote speaker was Margaret Atwood, the award-winning Canadian novelist and poet, who calmly raised concern about changes in publisher expectations for authors yet has managed to adapt with changes in the industry.

Alix Keener
Digital Conversion Assistant

For someone like me who’s still new to the industry, TOC was a great conference to gain exposure to the wide and varied world of publishing, to all of its players, and to learn from the different perspectives–from the big houses who are still making the move to digital to smaller start-ups to folks who are on the consulting side of things.

Kevin Kelly’s (of Wired) talk on becoming “people of the screen” and James Bridle’s talk on why we publish fit nicely together, I thought.  Bridle’s stirred the reader in me as well as the publisher.  There’s still a part of me that not-so-secretly loves the feel and weight of a physical book, and so it was heartening to hear him describe the ways in which we can bring this to ebooks–it’s a temporal quality that we seek, rather than physical; publishers are selling an experience rather than an object, and giving readers the opportunity to share their experiences of that book online is a way to get that sublime feeling. Kelly echoed this sentiment when he said that access is better than ownership–that there can be no conversation or shared experience if there are too many barriers to the content.

Magellan Media’s Brian O’Leary brought this notion back into the realm of scholarly publishing, where discoverability and access are more of a concern, with his presentation, “Context First: A Unified Field Theory of Publishing.”  It makes so much sense to consider the context in which you want to publish before you decide what the final product will look like. If we reach a universal technical standard for publishing in many contexts at once, I can imagine how streamlined my workflow would become, allowing content to be reachable and accessible even faster.

Shana Kimball
Head, Publishing Services, Outreach & Strategic Development

Scholarly publishers would do well to check out presentations by Brian O’Leary and the session on open, webby book publishing by John Maxwell, Kirk Biglione, and Hugh McGuire. Both sessions challenge us to consider the tools we use to publish, as well as stretch us to think about the products of publishing (i.e., ebooks, print books, and other finished objects) in new ways. What happens if you think about the open web as your publishing platform, and integrate web-based production into the entire publishing workflow? There are exciting implications here for streamlining workflows, speeding up production, and leveraging existing web standards to create and disseminate various content types, instead of chasing after a newfangled format or yet another shiny new device.

I have now taped Brian O’Leary’s maxims up to my office wall, which I feel are related to many of the values in scholarly publishing I hold dear — promoting broad and unrestricted use, as well as discovery, of scholarly content:

Our content must become open, accessible and interoperable.  Adherence to standards will not be an option;

Because we compete on context, we’ll need to focus more clearly on using it to promote discovery;

Because we’re competing with businesses that already use low- and no-cost tools, trying to beat them on the cost of content is a losing proposition.  We need to develop opportunities that encourage broader use of our content; and

We will distinguish ourselves if we can provide readers with tools that draw upon context to help them manage abundance.

Jeremy Morse
Head, Publishing Technology

At past TOC conferences, there was a general sense that the way for publishers to move into the digital realm was to provide “enhanced e-books,” but nobody had any good idea how to go about that other than to build and sell the “book as app.” This year, we saw the beginnings of a convergence of technology standards that may just provide a credible solution for an enhanced digital reading experience.

EPUB 3.0 appears to go a long way toward answering the criticisms of EPUB 2.1 by moving beyond that iteration’s focus on textual books.  The inclusion of HTML5, CSS3, XSLT 3.0 and XQuery 3.0, and (as yet tenuous) specifications for audio, video, and media overlays for the synchronization of text and audio at last lay a groundwork for expanding the types of reading experiences that e-books can deliver.  While it remains to be seen which subset of EPUB3’s features will be predominantly supported by hardware devices, the standard does require that “core media types” must be supported before EPUB3 compliance can be claimed, so there is some provision for the graceful degradation of enhanced content across platforms.

Given limited resources, it’s been tricky to strategize our entry into the current fragmented e-book market.  You can invest your resources in multiple standards in order to chase various slices of the reader pie, but the resulting plethora of format outputs is not only more troublesome from a maintenance perspective, it also becomes more difficult to convey elegantly to the consumer what their options are.

The real genius of EPUB3 is not its provisions for representing content, but its goal of being a common transmission medium for virtually any kind of content.  Just put this file into your device, and consume whatever happens to be inside.  That’s the potential of EPUB3: what the MP3 was to digital music, the EPUB3 can be to all digital content. Period.  In a world of open publishing and shareable content, the mobility of content becomes much more valuable, and EPUB3 moves us toward achieving ubiquitous content mobility.

Still, no one seems to really know what kind of “enhanced e-book” the marketplace of readers might actually want.  Perhaps we’ll begin to find out once we can competently offer something for the market to accept or reject.

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