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Changing fast and slow: the evolution of tech in book publishing

Recently, grad student Chandler Barton (at the University of Houston at Clear Lake) wrote to ask what I made of evolution in publishing technology. Are things changing rapidly?

First of all, technology moves slowly, despite appearances to the contrary. In the vast majority of companies, big and small, little has changed in the way books are produced and distributed. Most teams are still using the same desktop-publishing processes that they’ve used for thirty years – using InDesign, and Quark and Ventura and PageMaker before that. This isn’t bad or wrong. It’s often a necessary part of staying stable and risk-free on low margins. Sometimes there are real operational reasons for it. And, for better or for worse, people who can operate InDesign are generally cheaper to hire than people who can operate a digital-first workflow.

Then, in a handful of companies, a geeky champion gets into a decision-making position and drives new approaches. That’s the evolution we see in book-making. Often these companies are vocal about what they’re doing, and that makes the evolution seem more rapid and widespread than it really is.

In small companies, innovation is easier (The Innovator’s Dilemma provides good reasons for that). For example, the Coko Foundation has worked with the University of California Press to create Editoria. Publisher Canelo has a largely automated ebook production system built with storytelling software Atavist. Consonance has created publishing-management software that grew from Snow Books. At Electric Book Works, we built the Electric Book workflow to solve our own needs, and have now made hundreds of books for clients with it.

In bigger book-publishing companies, this kind of systems innovation is rare, but it does happen when the stars align. A good example is Hachette USA, where Dave Cramer has led an impressive transition to digital-first publishing. The key is that those champions have to arrive in the right place at the right time. It’s more alchemy than strategy: other teams have tried to reinvent systems to be more digitally focused but failed because they didn’t get quite the right people into quite the right roles at quite the right time.

In all of this evolution, everyone has to build their own workflows and tools. I can’t imagine there will be another Quark or InDesign – a single, dominant tool that almost everyone uses. Instead, digital-first book-making will be built on common standards (like HTML), not common tools. Teams and individuals will assemble their own toolboxes, just as web developers already do today.

And, as they do, the capability gap between teams using traditional workflows and those using digital ones will widen. For a long time, that gap won’t amount to much. InDesign-based teams will deliver solid, predictable products, and digital-first teams will spend much of their time problem-solving and learning.

And then, all of a sudden, the gap will mean everything. There will be a tipping point when the cost of making and selling books with a digital-first workflow drops far below the cost of doing so traditionally. Cost savings and new revenue will show in better salaries and working environments that attract the best people, in smarter marketing campaigns, and in revenue that attracts investors.

And, while I’m focusing on production here, the same process will play out in other parts of publishing, such as sales and marketing, print and stock management, customer service, and rights. Each of those areas is being increasingly digitised.

What does this mean for individuals in publishing today? First, if you’re really good at InDesign-based publishing, don’t worry. While your potential earning power may remain limited, you’ll have a happy job for a long time.

On the other hand, if you’re curious about what’s possible, and want to be able to command a higher salary and greater mobility, grab any opportunity to learn web-development skills. They are increasingly directly transferable to every part of book publishing, and there is a staggering amount of free learning material online. One place to start is Learn Enough, which can help you get comfortable with the command line and working in a text editor. As soon as you can, build something real where you can work with HTML and CSS. A simple Wordpress website is still a great start, as it has been for countless web developers over the years. Perhaps go and make a book with Wordpress-based Pressbooks.

And if you have a different perspective on the evolution of technology in book publishing, let me know. Tweet @electricbook or send me a message.

Arthur Attwell last updated 10 October 2018