What I Heard at AAUP

By Mark Fretz of Scribe Inc.


The Association of American University Presses (AAUP) convened their annual conference in Boston, June 20–22, 2013. As always, the program offered stimulating plenary and panel sessions, lots of informal conversations, and plenty to think about as we said au revoir.

It is always helpful to pay attention to events and conversations taking place throughout the publishing industry. While listening to these conversations, it is important to check both the accuracy of the information and how it squares with your experience. Clearly, what is happening within university presses is relevant to publishers and editorial and production staff working outside the AAUP world. Here are some of the things I am thinking about after spending three days with some of the industry’s smartest and most dedicated publishing professionals.

Hot Topics

1. Everybody needs a little help from his or her friends.

Publishing has always been a relationship business. Now more than ever, this is evident in how all parties involved in the publishing industry are actively seeking partners who can help them succeed. Major trade houses may pursue finding help through mergers and acquisitions. University presses may look for partners, both among other presses and on the service provider side of the industry. We all realize that we cannot do it alone.

On the one hand, organizations like the AAUP exist for the purpose of facilitating collaboration and mutual support. On the other hand, individual publishers are investing a lot of time and energy to find the right partners, those that truly understand what is needed and can actually help publishers solve the problems they face. No organization is completely self-sufficient. If you go looking for outside support, make certain that the potential partner's processes, values, and goals are consistent with your press. Finally, prioritize building long-term productive relationships based on mutual interests rather than one-off relationships that meet an immediate need but fail to take the long view into account.

2. Lines are blurring.

With electronic publishing and the move to XML, content is more portable than ever. Portable content has led to chunking (i.e., dividing up a body of content into smaller units for distribution independent of the whole). Whereas journal publishing has been doing this for some time, book publishing has only recently caught on, given the advancements in XML and electronic workflows. Consequently, the traditional line between books and journals has begun to blur. What will we call content combined from various sources that is delivered in multiple formats, especially when individuals and institutions purchase this content on a subscription basis rather than on a title-by-title or issue-by-issue basis? In the future, classifying content as a book or journal may become a means for classifying the subject matter rather than the product.

The upshot of all this is that you will need to take an unvarnished look at your publishing program to consider everything from acquisitions; to developmental and line editing; to design and production choices; to marketing, sales, and distribution. This will allow you to see possibilities that did not exist in the past—possibilities for improving how you conceptualize the content you are acquiring; possibilities for developing and producing that content with end users and functionality in mind rather than product lines such as books or journals in mind; and possibilities for how and how many times you might deliver this content to your customers. Educational publishers are already heavily invested in this approach to content creation. Perhaps academic presses could learn a few things from their colleagues in the education sector.

3. XML alone will not solve your problems.

Like traditional publishers across the industry, university presses have been struggling with making XML useful. For some time, publishers have known about and understood the potential significance of XML for multipurpose publishing. However, the financial benefits of XML, or the course to follow to realize those benefits, have not been as easy to discern from the vantage of a print-first or print-only process. Even those publishers that have found a way to make XML work for them run into certain projects that challenge even the most sophisticated XML workflow. We are all trying to figure out the best way to utilize XML to address our specific circumstances and challenges.

XML alone will not solve all your problems, but it certainly improves your prospects. For XML to pay for itself, though, involves more than adding angle brackets to content in postproduction. Publishers need to conceive of their entire workflow as a structured work environment, which is XML conformant and in which the editorial and production processes are seamlessly connected. Content must be made consistent for the process to take advantage of XML's benefits, one of which is that its structure can be retained when transforming content from one format to another. In addition, when both editorial and production processes operate on the same basis, the redundancies that so often plague publishers are eliminated. This type of workflow makes it easier to see the financial benefits of XML and prepares publishers for a future in the world of electronic content.

4. Many paths lead up the mountain.

Varying content formats (e.g., print, Word, PDF, Quark, InDesign, XML) require different types of processing to repurpose them. Given multiple starting points, publishers are pursuing different paths to the goal of having repurposeable content, particularly to produce e-books. Although many paths lead up the mountain, those paths are not equally suited to achieving the goal of creating easily repurposeable content. Some paths may put your press at risk, may be unnecessarily difficult, may take far longer than other paths, or may end up somewhere other than where you originally wanted to go. One path may not work in all cases, so the most important decision facing each project manager is which path to follow. Some publishers employ a mix-and-match approach tailored to their list and markets. Regardless of how you tackle the individual challenges of each specific project, if creating repurposeable content is the aim, then producing a format that can be repurposed as early in the process as possible just makes sense.

5. Complex is standard.

University presses, as a rule, do not shy away from complex subjects or projects. More to the point, university presses routinely publish titles with complex page makeup; these are not the exception but the rule. What impresses me is that university presses actively seek out better and more efficient ways of producing these complex projects. They truly take up the challenge with a determination to overcome their problems while accepting the limitations (i.e., financial, personnel, technology, time) placed on them. This determination translates into an almost contagious entrepreneurial spirit, which stands in marked contrast to the traditional image of being staid and stodgy operations housed in musty old buildings in some out-of-the-way spot on the university campus. The response to "This is complex" is "We can do this."

What sets some presses apart is their ability to develop standards for dealing with all their materials using a single workflow, regardless of how simple or complex their titles may be. Instead of treating complex problems as anomalies to be tackled on a one-off basis (i.e., "There's nothing else like this in our list"), these publishers establish protocols for accommodating complex titles that would otherwise require a disproportionate amount of time and attention. You need not approach them as unique projects requiring custom work; they do not actually fall outside the normal workflow. Even the most complex project can be handled, to a large extent, within the reliable processes already established for any title.

6. Accessibility, as an afterthought, comes at a price.

Mission-driven publishers, such as university presses, prioritize making their content accessible. In fact, as extensions of universities, it is part of their mission to disseminate knowledge, some of which is created at the university whose name they bear. Accessibility encompasses both producing content in multiple formats, so our customers can have access to that content regardless of how they access it, and preserving that content in perpetuity for future generations to access (i.e., future-proofing content). Accessibility takes different forms and takes on different formats, which introduces the topic of standards into the discussion. Making content accessible to persons with disabilities, for instance, forces publishers to think about markup standards established by organizations such as Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) and National Information Standards Organization (NISO).

Establishing universally recognized standards is one thing—standards do not exist for every desired output or use, and those that do exist may lack discrete specificity or granularity to be useful within certain niche publishing markets. Implementing standards is another thing—a file may validate against a standard but not actually be accurate. Developing processes that can efficiently convert content from one format into the desired format is yet another challenge—manual intervention in a file risks introducing errors. With some standards, the source files are used as the starting point for creating other files with specific uses in mind (e.g., braille, audio, large print, or digital text formats). When that is the case, the source files require some type of conversion to be a fully accessible version for a print-disabled person. To produce such files, either the publisher needs to have trained staff that can handle the conversion in house, or they have to outsource the work to specialists, in which case the publisher should have enough in-house expertise to perform a quality control check on what comes back from the vendor. Add to this the challenge of delivering specially coded content on e-readers with a wide range of technical capabilities and coding specifications rather than on a dedicated device, and it is no surprise that making content accessible comes with a substantial price tag.

Underlying all these issues, though, is a fundamental issue that, if addressed, can help control the costs associated with the two types of accessibility (i.e., end user and future generation). The way to reduce this price tag is to plan for publishing each book in all potential formats as early as possible in the development phase of the project. To produce a book in print and as an e-book, make it available to customers who cannot access a printed page, and store it for future use, you need to create, design, and format the content for maximum portability, which currently means using XML. If publishers do this, they can then avoid the fiscal conundrum of whether or not they can afford to follow through on their commitment to making their content accessible.

Concluding Thoughts

Without a doubt, the six topics identified here are not the only ones that people were discussing at AAUP. Nor are they the only topics worth discussing more broadly in the publishing industry. However, for editorial and production professionals, these topics represent the state of affairs and the types of challenges facing people charged with the task of producing content for the press. We would like to use this opportunity to begin a conversation about which topics are uppermost in your mind and how you and your colleagues are attempting to respond. You can reply to me directly (mfretz@scribenet.com) or share your experiences with and thoughts about these topics with all our readers. We look forward to learning from one another.