From print to what?

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Changing work patterns in electronic publications
in the arts and design sector_by Joost Kircz

The Toolkit project aims to assist smaller publishers in the art and design sector to make their first steps in producing their books and periodical through digital means. This aim turns out to demand a fairly complicated road to final success. First of all, changing over from print on paper to digital media is not the same as, say, changing from an old-fashioned manual typewriter to an electronic typewriter. The change implies a rethinking of the whole production process from author to reader.

The first and most important new feature is that we lose the fixed page as a pivotal reference. In paper production, we can, in principle, change the book formats at will, but we are completely accustomed to a very limited number of book formats. This fact is not a plot or ruse, but the result of centuries of experience with readability, manufacturability, portability and ease of use.

Unfortunately, we cannot transpose all our current experience and knowledge about typography and layout, lock – stock – and – barrel, to a digital environment. The sizes of reading screens are not standardized, and, even worse, we can easily flip from a vertical page to a horizontal page, with all the accompanying, associated layout problems such as the position of illustrations in the text and the lengths of sentences. Readers can change the type size and even the font at will, which severely constrains the layout freedom of the designer and, most frighteningly, not every electronic reading device allows for the same presentation, as soon as we go beyond the simple text with the odd illustration.

Hence, the toolkit project strives to find common ground based on the most general but standardized and reusable techniques we have today. The project doesn’t want to show what is possible in principle and how wonderful the future will be, but to help the smaller publisher who wants to team up in the digital storm to produce decent electronic versions of their list. In our endeavour, we opted for the open source EPUB3 format as end product of the production chain. At present, it is the most versatile standard and as it is well-structured, we assume that it will become translatable into newer, more powerful, standards in the future. EPUB3 is already an accepted standard for novels, which makes it a good basis for our Toolkit.

Who wants more, or more precisely, who wants what?
In discussions with smaller publishers, and in particular, with our partners in this project, it became clear that the background, traditions, demands and vistas are all quite different. These differences are a result of the level of use of and love for new technologies and approaches as well as the character of the publications themselves. A well-composed arts book with good lay-out by an artist her/himself is a pièce d’artin itself and, e.g., the format of the book, is part of the whole concept of the product. It goes without saying that we can reproduce such a book in any format, like making a postcard from Rembrandt’s Night Watch, but this is not the same thing as the creation of a digitally-born novel book type.

Thus, in order to cater for various demands from various publishers, we must make a distinction between categories of approach.

(i) The first category is the publishing house itself that simply wants their book to be readable on a standard ereader or tablet without frills, just as we see novels being easily transposed from paper to various screens. In this case, the most important issue is that the text and the illustrations are kept together and that the lay-out, as far as possible, remains the same. In this case, we have two options: do we freeze the page in PDF-format, which allows the presentation of the PDF-version into any available media, or do we translate the pages, as they are, into a simple EPUB version that allows for so-called reflowable text on an e-reader or tablet. Nothing more, nothing less. In this case, digital publishing is just the next step in the existing traditional product chain.

(ii) The second line of attack is to step into the cold waters of the endless digital data sea and try to start from a digital approach in order to be able to publish a variety of publications based on a base-set of author-created texts and illustrations. Print on paper will be one outcome, but this is not the starting point. Here, we have to rethink the production process and redefine our production chain; as well as that; we have to look more carefully into the instructions to our authors, as they will also need to change their habits by changing to new electronic writing aids.

(iii) The final category is the extension of the previous one, namely the conversion into a real database of texts, illustrations and multimedia objects from which a myriad of different products can be created, depending on demand, technological environment, level of complication, etc. Such a modular, Lego-block-like, structure demands a developed understanding of what a base- brick of information is, and to what extent the integrity of the flow of the author’s reasoning and intention is kept.

Obviously, a publisher is not always familiar yet with what can be done in principle and what the market is demanding. A multitude of software acronyms representing at least so many software products and/or protocols blows in the wind like autumn leaves. The claims are sky-high and therefor become impenetrable for most smaller publishers.

For these reasons in our Toolkit project, we start from simple standard wordprocessor files, which we clean from unnecessary embellishments and subsequently structure them to the extent defined by the demands of the end product, such as levels of headings, footnotes, illustrations, active objects, etc. From the structured files, we enable the publishers to translate their works into EPUB3, as basis for a publication on a digital device screen, as well as for the possible translation into a web-page or a printed product.

The old saying in the computer industry “garbage in, garbage out” is true here as well. For this reason, publishers must get accustomed to instructing their authors in such a way that the translation chain from manuscript to reading device is easy and transparent. Only if the publisher herself understands the new workflow, can the author understand how to submit work in such a way that the maximum of publication outlets can be reached without any too heavy editing.

Our Toolkit enables the user to start from old-fashioned MSWord files and following the correct procedures to see the light of the tablets and ereaders allowing reading well-designed pages which are fit for re-use and multiple use, without much further ado.