It’s About the Content, Stupid

Most people will agree these days that when it comes to ebooks, what’s important isn’t the format, but the content. People don’t buy ebooks because they like ePub files, they buy them because they want to read the book inside it. This is less true for some dead tree books, but it’s certainly true for the majority of disposable paperback reads. I’ve found that the increasingly shrill choir of people telling me they’d never read a book on screen simply haven’t ever tried using an e-ink reading device.

However, despite this, most publishing houses and the editors who work for them still see the page as the smallest unit of the book. The physical representation of that page is what the book is – even before it is typeset. The page is the end point – it is the reason to edit a book and perhaps even the reason to write the book in the first place. But, increasingly, it isn’t really what a book actually is.

That might sound like a whole lot of nonsense words strung together (not particularly unusual for this blog), but what I’m getting at is that while we might philosophically understand that a book is not the pages it is printed on, most of us in the industry don’t behave as if this is true.

Even our language is tainted by the page paradigm. Every time a digital book is created (no matter how it is created) it is a ‘conversion’ (from a ‘proper’ paper book format – even if that proper paper book doesn’t yet exist in real life). Most editors I know still genuinely believe that a proofread that takes place on screen is inherently inferior to one done on paper. They believe this despite any evidence other than anecdotal, and will probably take this belief to their graves, long after the majority of reading is done on-screen.

Having spent the last couple of weeks working at Faber and Faber and seeing a truly ‘media neutral’ workflow in action, I am now beginning to understand what a massive shift needs to take place if the publishing industry really is looking down the barrel of a books market where more than 50% of the books published are digital. That shift isn’t necessarily about learning new technologies or coding languages – though it’s likely that both will be true – it’s about shifting our perspective away from the page and towards the structure of the content we publish.

David Watkins, once the Managing Editor at Faber, and now the ‘Head of Editorial Text Management’, says that there is a kind of ‘occult mysticism’ surrounding the conventions of print. He describes his exposure to the code that underpins Faber’s format neutral workflow as – initially, at least, ‘forbidding.’

It’s what most of us [editors] have spent our entire careers avoiding … But actually it’s very straightforward when you get to grips with it. In a way it’s quite old school. [Old school] editors think in terms of content, not in terms of appearance. If there’s a hierarchy of headings, they aren’t thinking that’s an 18 point or 14 point, they’re thinking that’s an A heading or that’s a B heading. That distinction between content and appearance got lost a little bit [with the introduction of easy-to-use publishing packages like inDesign]. Thinking of work independently of format, once you get over the stumbling block of the language in which you describe the work, you’re just back to first principles really.

Seeing a room full of editors talking about XML and CSS is certainly a novel experience, but I suspect it’s one we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the next few years. And when you get down to it, it’s not all that more arcane than editorial mark-up or the ins and outs of Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace feature.

I, for one, welcome our new coding and tagging overlords. But what about you? I know a few editors and authors read this blog. What do you think of working on-screen? And what do you think of your future job as code monkey? Does it terrify you? Or is it all a part of the new world? Sound off in the comments.

7 thoughts on “It’s About the Content, Stupid

    • irony much? That response actually had the final words two wrapped in a ” ” tag, which the coders of this platform are obviously too responsible to allow! heh…

  1. okay, this is getting a little too responsible… “[blink]__[/blink]“, and just imagine them wrapped in less-than and greater-than symbols! Impact lost, forget I spoke :-)

  2. As a new editor, I’m excited to be present at this changing of the guard. I am experimenting with working on screen and on paper because I’m lucky not to be entrenched in either work method. The way I see it, the standards of old will still be useful. We’ll still be editing for clarity, consistency and correctness. But maybe we’ll be doing it with a slightly different skill set. There’s nothing to fear from upskilling. How different is coding really from what we do now? It’s still correcting.

    I agree that people who ‘prefer books’ usually have had little or no experience with an e-reader. I’m really sick of people saying ‘oh I would never by an ebook’ in a sympathetic tone as if them buying an ebook would somehow threaten my job or my industry. Ebooks are books!

    Also, in my experience, the proofread is a good as the proofreader (on or off screen). It’s the wizard not the wand.

    PS Excellent Kent Brockman quote there.

  3. I quite enjoy the coding. As you say, it’s often not much more than working out hierarchies and applying them. It’s an intellectual challenge, but it’s a very different experience to what I usually consider ‘editing’. For me, editing has mostly been about the content – by which I mean the words and their meanings, context, structure and so on. Coding is much more like production. It takes a different part of the brain, and it’s hard to remove yourself from thinking about ‘design’, especially when you’re working with an InDesign workflow and cleaning up the mess that InDesign makes of ePubs… Grrr. I think it also depends a lot on the type of content. Fiction is relatively simple to code (no complex hierarchies, multi-level lists, graphics with captions, footnotes etc). NewEd is right about the proofread being as good as the proofreader. I’m pretty comfortable on screen, but I always pick more up when I’m reading hard copy.

  4. While I can edit in hardcopy, I do all of my editing on-screen using MS Word Track Changes, Find/Replace and Macros. I also do most of my reading on- screen. OK, I admit that I still borrow novels from my local library to read in bed, but almost everything else I read on-screen. I’m passionate about books and always have been, but I don’t think books necessarily have to be made of paper. (Besides, do we really want to keep cutting down trees?) My 13-year-old daughter is a total bookworm – she chooses to spend most of her pocket money on books (the paper variety), but she also purchases ebooks for her Kindle, which, by the way, I bought for her. I love that people can get on the train in the Blue Mountains, browse Amazon or some other supplier, make a purchase and be a third of the way into reading the book before alighting at Central. My only concern is that users of ebooks don’t get an inferior product. I’d love the opportunity to work as a copy editor or proofreader of ebooks. We have to accept that ebooks are the future of publishing and be flexible, creative and postive in our response.