Electric Book Works Modern publishing for impact organisations

How to start publishing digitally

So you’ve decided that it’s time to publish digitally. Properly digitally, as in digital-first. Your publications will be websites and perhaps ebooks, PDFs and in print, all generated from a single content source. Where do you start?

DIY or hire?

Your first decision is whether to do it yourself or to outsource.

If you can give yourself or someone on your team real autonomy to experiment with a real project, learning by doing in-house is a great long-term investment. Do not underestimate the learning curve though. Make sure the person (or people) you devote to this love a challenge. If they do, they will find the process enormously rewarding. Their first task will be to pick a toolset that they can wrap their heads around, and try to make something with it within a couple of weeks. They’ll probably try a few different tools and processes before they develop a system that works for your publications.

If you want to get further faster, or don’t have capacity in-house, you need to contract a team that you trust. They must be able to explain complex processes to you in a way that you understand. If they can’t, they’re not the right fit for you.

If you hire someone who can’t explain how things work, or if you don’t want to understand, then you are disempowering yourself and wasting your money. It’s critical, even if you’re hiring in skills, that you’re learning from the process. Without that learning, you can’t make good strategic decisions about your digital products.

Further to that, it’s critical that the people you hire and the tech they use do not lock you in. If they communicate transparently, and use open standards and open-source software, then you always have options. Then if you change direction later, you’re less likely to have to rip out and replace everything they built for you.

Start simple

Then, whether you decide to hire someone or do it yourself, start as simply as possible. Many teams want to jump straight to a BBC-level interactive web experience first time around. That is a mistake: you will either wilt at the costs or waste your money on clever features that turn out to be unimportant.

To know what simple looks like, you need to be clear about what you’re going to get out of a digital-first workflow. Some of its advantages come for free from the start. Others take time and money, and pay off in the long term.

Even with the simplest, most basic digital-first workflow you should get these things out of the box:

  • Mobile-friendliness: people can read your publications easily on their phones.
  • Basic visitor analytics: you know how many people visit which pages.
  • Social sharing: people can share your pages on social media.
  • Efficient updates: you can update your website content quickly and easily.
  • Basic accessibility: users relying on screen readers and other assistive technology can get around your site okay.
  • Good performance: your basic site should be fast to use and not consume unnecessary data for users.
  • Functional PDF: a good-looking, functional PDF version for downloading and printing.
  • Functional epub: a neat epub edition you can publish on places like Amazon and iBooks.
  • Version control: a reliable system for tracking changes and collaborating on a single content source-of-truth.

Once your text is ready, a good production team should be able to get a basic site up and running in a month or two.

Build on your foundation

Then, once you’ve learned from that process and got initial user feedback, and you’re ready to spend more time and money, you can build on that foundation. You might add:

  • Interactivity: animated graphics, forums, quizzes, and so on.
  • Deep-linking: let people link to specific pieces of text (especially useful for teaching).
  • Dynamic content: website content that auto-updates, like graphs that update from live data, or user-specific content.
  • A paywall: only let members see certain pages or publications.
  • User comments: enable forums, comment threads, live chat, and so on.
  • Advanced accessibility: add much more support for someone using assistive technology, like a screen reader.
  • Translations: let users switch between languages.
  • Optimised performance: advanced improvements to code and infrastructure that make your site lightning fast and data-light, and even usable offline.
  • Spin-off products: create new products and APIs that let authorised partners reuse your content.
  • Crafted PDF: generate a really beautiful PDF layout that any publisher would be proud to sell as a printed book.
  • Advanced epub: generate an ebook with advanced features like read-aloud features and interactivity.
  • A mobile app: generate installable app versions for offline use on Android, Windows and Apple devices.

Summing up

So, when you’re conceptualising your project, first decide how it will work with out-of-the-box features. Prototype impatiently, then improve patiently.

A good production team will make sure that everything you do up front will be useful in the long term. So you won’t be duplicating effort when you add advanced features later.

Your in-house team will learn a tremendous amount from getting a basic website publication up and running. The simpler the start, the more you’ll actually learn.

Moving to digital-first publishing is only scary if you bite off too much at the beginning. Start simple, and you’ll enjoy the journey.

Arthur Attwell last updated 21 July 2020