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Publishing a book from a Google Sheet

The African Small Publishers’ Catalogue is published by Hands On Books – an imprint run by the indefatigable Colleen Higgs – in partnership with the South African Book Development Council. To make this publication feasible and sustainable, we needed a way to produce it at low cost, while ensuring that its content can be quickly and easily updated.

The catalogue listings of publishing companies came to us as a spreadsheet, and this will be how they are maintained. So we set up the master document as a Google Sheet. When we need a new version of the book, we simply download the sheet into our Electric Book project, and instantly output finished PDF and epub editions.

Why and how we did this

Once upon a time, in a previous edition, the catalogue was lovingly laid out in InDesign by a freelance book designer. This workflow would make updates laborious, and producing an ebook more costly than was sensible. When we got to produce the 2018 edition, we wanted to develop a workflow that would make updating the catalogue quicker and cheaper.

A living directory really should be stored in an online database that can be updated by team members on an ongoing basis. And to make ongoing production quick and cheap, that database should feed into publishing software that instantly outputs various publication formats. In this case, we needed a print-ready PDF, a screen-optimised PDF, and an epub. And it’s possible we’ll produce website and app versions in future.

For a simple online database, we created a Google Sheet. Each listing is a row. And each column applies strict data validation to its contents: for instance, the ‘telephone’ column will only accept telephone numbers, and the ‘email’ column only email addresses. This reduces the chances of inconsistency and human error.

The sheet also includes a tab for managing the adverts in the catalogue: each advert occupies a row, and has a dropdown menu to select where it should appear in the publication.

Colleen’s team and ours can edit this sheet directly. And since a Google Sheet records every change made to it, we can see a comprehensive revision history at any time.

To set up the book’s output formats, we used our Electric Book workflow. We created custom code that would read the spreadsheet data and automatically generate the pages of the directory from it.

Now, when we need to output a new version of the directory, we download the Google Sheet as a CSV file, and with just a few clicks we can instantly output any of the book’s published formats.

last updated 14 December 2018