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.