With around 7,500 exhibitors from over 110 countries, the Frankfurt Book Fair is the publishing industry’s biggest trade event in the world. I found myself there this past October, mostly hanging around the “Digital Innovation” track. This for two reasons: we (Lexum) are in the business of helping publishers look good on the web and there was a beer stand conveniently located not far from the stage to help fight the jetlag.
The premise of the courtship between an IT service provider and a publisher is quite straightforward. Publishers want to sell more of their books by repurposing their print content for digital media. IT service providers sell products to publishers to help them achieve this goal. So here are my impressions on some trends in digital content delivery that I could observe at the Fair. Of course, by no means a claim for comprehensiveness, adequacy, depth or objectivity is hereby made (please see the above remarks on the beer stand and the jetlag).
Process-wise, there are generally three paths to the digital world.
First, a publisher may adopt a simultaneous print and digital strategy: content editing and production is managed in a structured way in a single process, often in XML. Then, the process forks with one branch leading to print and the other one to digital. A good, well-thought and solid solution, unfortunately inaccessible to small publishers.
A second strategy for publisher is to keep only one process in place – the print process. At some point along that process, an IT service provider jumps in, takes the ready-for-print InDesign or PDF file and converts it into a more exploitable and structured format. This is achieved through a mix of conversion software and a large workforce off-shore. At the outset of this approach, digital books may take two forms: straight-from-print or reflowable. A straight-from-print output is basically an EPUB replica of the paper with essentially the sole advantage of making the book available for purchase through the eBook distribution channels. A reflowable output is much more interesting (more expensive to produce, though) because it allows content consumption use cases beyond the cover-to-cover sequence of print works. This second strategy is enticing to publishers since they are not required to change their print process – the same file that goes to the printer is used for the digital version. The downsides are the lack of flexibility of the solution when it comes to content updates and the disconnect between content production and content delivery in digital format. For instance, content updates are always intermediated by the ready-for-print file. Then, the publisher has no control over the “magic” performed by the IT service provider to convert InDesign into HTML5.
The third option, just emerging, is based on MS-Word. Word is the most commonly used authoring format in the world and a properly styled Word document can go a long way. It can be converted to HTML5, EPUB3, chunked down, reflowed, made searchable and interactive. The direct path from Word to structured content is probably the cheapest, easiest to implement and lightest option. It would be more appropriate for books with frequent updates and for which interactivity is prioritized over layout (layout being served much better by InDesign and the likes). Those books would be textbooks, manuals, reference works and so on. Because it manages the content in a structured way, this solution also allows answering the need for customized books packaged on demand, i.e. a few chapters or sections only.
When it comes to digital, most, if not all IT service providers, openly join the choir preaching to publishers “to drop models from the past” (read, strategy two). Instead, they recommend adopting a digital strategy that is independent from the print one. In practice, however, all IT service providers are happy to fit into publishers’ print production process in the least intrusive way possible by taking InDesign or PDF files and using them as input for publisher’s digital strategy. And so the model lives on…
Regarding the digital medium for content delivery, between eBooks, the web and apps, apps seem to be the top of mind choice for mainly two good reasons – the exploding use of tablets and off-line storage capability, which browsers only serve in a clumsy fashion.
One last remark and a quite nice surprise actually: there is no 800-pound gorilla among the e-publishing solution providers. In such on old, traditional and densely populated market, one would expect to run into an established model, proven from both technical and economic point of view, that enables publishers to go digital. In fact, the market is still very immature. Technology changes every six months. EPUB3 launched not so long ago is already being second-guessed by EPUB3 lite. Different business formulas are being tested with no one in a position to claim the status of a golden ticket. What’s more, most, if not all of the publishing solutions are in the cloud. In sum: a great market for start-ups!