Digital Workflows: The Immediate Advantages and the Possibilities for the Future
By Dave Watkins, Head of Editorial Text Management / Editor, Faber Social, Faber & Faber
In 2011, Faber decided to change the way in which we make our books. Until then, like most other publishers, we had created a PDF for the print edition, then sent that PDF on to a third party to be converted into an ebook.
This method worked, but we wondered, with the developing appetite for ebooks, whether there might be a better way; we started to think about digital-first workflows. Without getting too technical about it, the principle behind a digital-first workflow is that you identify the different elements of your book at source – this is a chapter title, that is a paragraph of displayed prose, etc. – and then express the book into whichever format you want it be published: print, digital or both.
It’s a nice idea, but could it work? We knew that such a major change would likely cause more than a little upheaval, so the benefits would need to outweigh the disruption convincingly. The following are what we saw as the reasons for making the switch:
Safeguarding our content
In the conversion model, all of the work that goes into the words on the page and, increasingly, the screen – the punt on the typescript; the editorial honing and finessing – ends up getting tied into the final formats: the print PDF and the ebook. This renders it vulnerable. PDFs get lost. Ebooks are locked with Digital Rights Management. For both, versions get muddled.
Having our content stored safely away from its final formats seemed a very good idea.
Flexibility and cost savings
In a digital-first workflow, there’s no waiting around while a third party applies the necessary technical wizardry to make an ebook. You can do it yourself, instantly. There are obvious time savings here – there are cost savings, too, as you’re not paying for someone else to do the work for you.
Independent print and digital formats
In a digital-first workflow, formats are truly independent. It’s as easy to create an ebook as it is a print PDF – the one is not reliant on the other. This avoids the expense of typesetting, should you wish to publish into ebook only.
Holding content independently of format allows you to pull out whichever part of that content you like and publish it separately or put it together with other bits of content to create a new work.
Examples of this would be a chapter sampler or a textbook aimed at a particular market that’s made up from various different titles.
By and large, most conversion houses do a good job of interpreting print PDFs and turning them into ebooks. But there is a process of interpretation, and that process is subject to human error. This can result in mistakes. With a digital-first workflow, the publisher is in control. And as the publisher knows their content, this should minimise the number of errors.
For these reasons, we decided to go for it. The workflow that we settled upon was called Digital Publisher. It is – bear with me – an XHTML-based package that uses different sets of CSS to render content for different formats. And it works. Three years on, the majority of Faber’s adult fiction is produced in this way, as well as a significant and growing proportion of our non-fiction. It’s not always been a bed of roses it’s fair to say, but the project has been a success – a fact that is owing in part to the flexibility and can-do attitude of Faber’s project editors – and we’re now considering how we might make Digital Publisher more widely available.
Faber is already reaping the immediate benefits of a digital-first workflow, but I think the really interesting times lie ahead. For all of the advances in digital publishing over recent years, retailers and publishers alike still tend to regard ebooks as the digital equivalent of their print counterparts. They are marketed and published in very similar ways: the majority are sold through retailers rather than direct; outside of the trade, rarely do readers get access to the content until the publication date, which more often than not aligns with the print edition. When you’re reliant on a conversion process to create an ebook, the mirroring of the physical publication is understandable – necessary even. But when you remove this restriction, the options for marketing and publishing in different ways are opened up. Perhaps the content itself could be used to harness the enthusiasm of readers beyond the blunt instruments of price and discount. Perhaps, instead of one publication date, there could be several over time.
To explore these possibilities, there are other obstacles that need to be overcome – the most immediate being the application of Digital Rights Management at the point of sale. But Faber does now have the capability to start questioning whether there might be more than one way of ebook publishing, and that is a very exciting prospect indeed, for us, for our authors, and for our readers.