Solidifying the Manuscript (Part 2)

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


In a recent blog contribution, Joe Vriend touted the value of solidifying the manuscript early in the publishing process. Requiring editors to finalize a manuscript as early as possible in the production process is the key to pursuing e-only or e-first publishing.

This got me thinking about another possible benefit of solidifying the manuscript prior to pages. What if this act and working in an electronic environment actually changed the way we organize information?

Drop caps or ascending capital letters developed as scribes illuminated ancient manuscripts. The advent of moveable type altered the way we separate sections and create heads. Modern printing capacities and desktop publishing software have enabled us to more readily present marginal and tabular materials. Each time a new technology develops, we alter the way we present information.

A problem we face today is that many of the elements we add in printed books may not effectively accomplish the intended goal or function within an electronic environment. The elements used to convey structure in print (e.g., specific alignment or page breaks) often do not work in electronic versions (even with improving reader technologies). Worse, they may interfere with comprehension. Consider the way we connect captions to images, separate information using page breaks, or use specific alignment to relate information, as in a table. Because of the dynamic nature of e-books and other electronic publications, these strategies often fail to achieve the intended results. Instead of conveying information or communicating relationships, the results often confuse rather than clarify things for the person reading the book.

We want to draw readers into our publications, but our approaches often fall short. Take, for example, the typical method of enhancing e-books. Usually, enhancing an e-book means replacing fixed graphics with moving ones. When we employ this method, we are accomplishing the exact opposite of our intent. Instead of drawing the reader in, we are literally taking him out of our books, by jumping from the book to the video. Frankly, we employ this method because we lack the imagination and understanding required to enhance books in ways that increase interest in our books and are compelling to the reader.

We have not figured out how best to construct e-books (or print books, given the contemporary reader, for that matter) or what enhancements will be most effective. If we rely so heavily on the print paradigm, we will be incapable of participating in a paradigm shift and unable to continue developing viable publications. Working from fixed pages, thinking in terms of print media, and requiring e-books to replicate elements in printed books will hinder us from being able to develop new approaches. To realize the benefits of the the new paradigm of the electronic publishing age and to develop the necessary imagination to be successful in the publishing world, it is best to break our poor habit of relying on the print model. Certainly, we should cease copyediting and proofing based on a paper paradigm.

Operating in an electronic environment and finalizing the manuscript prior to “pages” might offer us the opportunity to develop better electronic sensibilities. At Scribe, we train every employee to work in a completely electronic environment. In addition to the efficiencies gained and the ability to develop electronic books, we have seen other results. It appears that Scribe staff members have cultivated an intuitive ability to organize information in electronically suitable ways. We still have a long way to go, but when presented with information, our staff members intuitively know how it will be read in a variety of platforms. They know how to edit and design that information so that it functions well in any environment. We see this in simple ways, such as our chapter- and head-naming conventions (lengthy names do not work in e-books), and in more complex ways, such as our presentation of relational information. This is due to the fact that while we are still highly influenced by the print model, our interactions are in the electronic world.

To survive in the publishing world, we will have to operate successfully in both print and electronic environments. Currently, there is a lot of uncertainty about what that means, how information will be organized, and what form(s) books will take. Certainly, insisting on a print-based workflow will not prepare us for the future. The efficiency gained by solidifying a manuscript before typesetting, as a part of employing flexible publishing methodologies, should be sufficient to lead every publisher to restrict content development to the manuscript stage. If my supposition is correct, however, continuing to work using the print paradigm might render us incapable of success in the future. Thus failure to alter our workflow may not only cost us additional time and money; it may cost us our jobs.