Publishing Industry Standards

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


When faced with a crisis in quality, the Japanese developed standards and best practices. The changing electronics world created a condition in which it was insufficient for customers to dictate their wishes. As technologies rapidly developed, the need to adjust specifications without sacrificing quality became evident.

Output requirements and the supplies needed were changing, thus the standards impacted every process along the supply chain. Manufacturers and vendors sat on boards and worked to mutually develop standards and production methods. This cooperation helped ensure their success in a rapidly changing environment.

The publishing world faces a similar situation. When output requirements change, that often means changes in input should also be altered. Consider, for example, the PDF: while it provides an excellent source for print, the PDF is an inadequate source for e-books. Many of the problems in e-books are the direct result of using PDF files as a source. Vendors accept PDF files because we require them to. Worse, we do not seem able to provide sufficient materials from which to build an e-book. Instead of insisting on vendor practices, we would all be better served by creating a standard to improve the source that we deliver for e-book development.

We engage in harmful practices for a number of reasons, including outmoded methods for classifying costs in the publishing chain, an unwillingness to change, and a sense of superiority over vendors. Our habits are damaging our industry and allowing others to usurp our position in it. It is essential to develop standards that result in the best, most efficiently created books, regardless of their format.

  1. We need to pay more attention to our audience’s environment and connect that to our standards and practices. Producing arcane materials will result in irrelevant products. We must focus on ways to edit and produce books that enrich (and uplift) our audience without ignoring them.
  2. We need to consider the entire process, not merely the output, of producing books in print and electronic forms. We should realize that editorial decisions and methods have the greatest effect on the quality of our books and better connect the whole chain.
  3. We need to realize that styles are ever changing and stop holding on to archaic forms. Style guides are tools that should be developed and employed to convey information in a clear, coherent manner. They are not inflexible rules whose use reflects our intellectual superiority.
  4. We need to realize that design aesthetics are dynamic and stop insisting on preserving medieval elements because we think they are beautiful. More important, we should understand that what helped clarify things in the past might confuse a contemporary audience.
  5. We need to consider the efficacy of every content type as compared with its alternatives. Certain elements may seem good to us but may not be the best way to present information. It is often the case that costly elements (e.g., an abundant use of tables) neither accomplish their purpose nor function technically.
  6. We need to engage in a dialogue with vendors to establish standards and best practices to achieve them. Often the problems we see in output are the result of a poor source. Compounding this is the fact that what is difficult to fix in later stages is often arduous to create initially.

In an ever-changing environment, it is impossible to establish inflexible processes and requirements. We must be cognizant of the fact that standards imply practices. We must develop a dynamic set of standards and practices to produce books in concert with vendors (and authors?). Working with others and trusting their expertise can help us publish better books that continue to meet technical requirements. And perhaps they’ll even be relevant to our customers.