July 2011

My recent post received comments from Aramanc Consulting (thanks Aramanc), who also offered four principles for establishing an agile publishing program. One of Aramanc’s general comments was that it is difficult to understand “why publishers/production companies see ‘digital’ as a separate entity”, and why they still rely on using the PDF as the basis for a digital workflow. I consider these comments tangentially in this post.

Format and structure

Up until now, publishers have concentrated on producing great content, which is well edited and designed. When publishing was just about single packaged units of content (i.e. books) and particularly for print, this approach served them well. Legal and Scientific, Technical and Medical (STM) publishers had to move to XML early on because it was necessary for their business and made immediate business sense. Now, however, it makes sense for most, if not all, publishers to move to an agile workflow, but of course thinking of content as something other than a ‘packaged’ unit and moving to a workflow that requires separating format from structure, can be a difficult conceptual leap.

‘Lost in translation’

XML experts tend to come from a computer programming background and publishers come from arts and design backgrounds, and speak different ‘languages’. Typography and design are very important to publishers, but have not been central to the concerns of XML experts who are naturally more concerned with the efficient processing of the content.

To publishers already worked off their feet, XML and content management can seem like Greek, and are relegated to the too-hard, too expensive basket as they seem to have no obvious short-term rewards; while to XML experts, the resistance of publishers to the seemingly obvious advantages of XML and content management is unfathomable. Both these responses are valid in the context of the separate disciplines. Perhaps creating mixed groups of technical and ‘creative’ people is what is needed. Joining LinkedIn groups outside of one’s own area of expertise is also very useful. Some groups attract some very knowledgeable people and the rich interchange of ideas from different perspectives can offer new ways of seeing things.


Publishing companies are often understaffed and just keeping up with existing deadlines using the standard DTP workflow is difficult enough without having to think about new workflows and technologies. It is understandable that publishers find it easier to continue with what they are doing and either ‘add on’ digital product at the end of the process, or have a separate digital unit.

Final thoughts

Establishing an agile, XML-first workflow can be expensive, but it doesn’t need to be exorbitant, and it doesn’t need to be very difficult. At the very least, publishers should establish a set of standard paragraph and character style names that are applied consistently and correctly in all MS Word or Adobe InDesign documents for new products as this will help XML experts and will keep costs down. The key thing is to take a first step.

I agree wholeheartedly with Aramanc Consulting who concludes his comments with ‘Getting the fundamentals sorted out first will deliver many profitable benefits later on. ”

Update: Mike McNamara and I were asked to present together at the Tools of Change Conference in Frankfurt, October 2011. In the lead up to the conference, we were interviewed on XML and other tech-related matters to do with publishing by O’Reilly Radar: ‘The agile upside of XML‘. [Unfortunately, Mike wasn’t able to attend the conference].


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Musings on Digital Publishing Copyright © 2012 by Anna von Veh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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