Back to school: Comparing workflows

Another post I made to the discussion forum for the Whitireia Diploma in Publishing.

On Comparing workflows (XML-first or last)

I’m an XML believer. There, I said it. But I’m not so sure about the workflow, and the fact that publishers have been arguing over XML wokflows for at least a decade if not more shows it’s not a clear-cut issue.

Clearly there’s a need to maintain a good process around authors, editors etc working off the same file. I think Anne posted to clarify that there’d be some kind of sequencing involved. I’m unconvinced that authors will take to xml authoring; some editors will, and in larger publishing houses overseas there are dedicated technical editors doing just that. (And getting paid a little better than text editors.)

OpenOffice was mentioned briefly. Used well it will produce a clean document and good XML so a process of an author creating in their beloved Word and a technical editor converting that to OpenOffice and then to XML sounds simple. Note though the point about how even now we don’t use Word properly. A well-formatted document is fairly easy to work with and convert into other formats. OK, not that easy, but if the headings and body text are at least styled with the inbuilt styles it’s a good start, and typesetters have been working with styles for a few decades at least.

Typesetters are one of the sources of technical editors; XML is just another form of mark-up that they’ve learnt on top of various typesetting packages. And any publishing process as you know involves cleaning up what the author submits. The round-trip gets more complicated however if the author wants to make changes at final proof stage. Where to make the changes in a way that fully exploits the single-source XML file but avoids the the designer having to reset the XML?

OUP were struggling with this and the solutions weren’t going to be simple. For them it was worth the effort as they weren’t just talking about final proof changes but about round-tripping editions. At the time they were planning to do do the first edition as XML-last then generate a Word document for the author to amend for the second edition. Then a keying agency compares the document before and after the author amendments, identifies the changes and enters them into the XML file. Cheap it isn’t.

So who’s going to pay for it? Obvious question, and as you all note, for smaller publishers, probably no one. They’ll either muddle along and manage somehow or just not bother with XML. I think it’s possibly too easy for fiction and poetry publishers to say they don’t really need XML and excuse themselves the pain of an XML workflow and expense of XML editors. True, there’s more need in other types of publishing, but over time XML can pay off even for fiction – it’s easier to share and licence, reprint, store, archive etc, and is far more likely to work with future technology than a document from today’s version of Word. (But that’s an argument for XML rather than an XML workflow.)

One of the key decisions I think a publisher needs to make is whether they’re creating a book or a collection of data. If it’s the former (and for most local publishers this is the case), then an XML-last workflow will work well. Get the book written, edited, set, finalised and printed, then create an XML file as the source for any future renditions. If however a book is only one of the editions you’re planning, then XML-first (or XML-early) is going to offer a lot of benefits for single-source publishing all the formats.

Either way, an editor who understands markup and good formatting, and especially XML, may not be highly paid but will be highly valued.