Intelligent Content and the Future of Technical Communication
The Business of Intelligent Content

Intelligent Content and the ePublishing Revolution

As is clear to see, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the emergence of eBooks and eReaders. As always, this type of excitement is a mixture of hope and fear and it is a natural response to change. This type of excitement is a healthy thing for a publishing industry that, until now, has been without a clear direction while the internet progressively reshaped its landscape. I have touched upon the subject of eBooks before in a post called The eBook Revolution: Blowing Books to Bits. In this earlier post, I looked at the revolution more from the perspective of the consumer and what the consumer stands to gain, and potentially lose, in the march to eBooks. Now I would like to consider the revolution from the perspective of the publisher.

A Universe of eReaders

With the proliferation of eReaders, it has become incumbent upon publishers to provide their titles in a suitable format for delivery to, and display on, all of the potential platforms. The natural impulse is to achieve this goal with as little cost as possible as these costs are being added onto those associated with typesetting printed books. Following this impulse, it would make sense to find an approach to producing eBooks that amounted to hitting a "Save as eBook" button within the tool used to typeset the books for print. And these buttons exist but most publishers find the results of this action unacceptable, and especially so when there are so many devices to be supported.

It turns out that publishers are every bit as finicky about how their eBooks appear as they were about how the printed book appeared. And for good reason because at a certain point consumers notice quality and, where published information is concerned, lapses in presentation quality strike at the heart of a consumer's confidence in the book they are reading, or perusing for potential purchase.

If the "Save as eBook" option is not going to do the trick, then perhaps there will be a simple-to-use transformation service that imports typeset content and generates one or more eBook renditions. Such services are becoming available. And this approach offers a better prospect of success because good automation can achieve a lot. Good automation would provide publishers with the ways and means to guide the rendition process and to constructively influence the quality of the eBooks being produced. However this approach still faces a fundamental challenge in that the input to these transformation services is content that has been specifically encoded to support print production.

The Legacy of Books

While there is some benefit to be had by replicating aspects of the print rendition in eBooks, such as will provide the reassurance that comes with familiarity, there are many other ways in which it is severely limiting to start the eBook production process with the print typeset source. In taking this route, it's as if the print world is reaching down through the ages and maintaining a firm grip on us as we try to adapt to a fully digital world.

Information Changes

So what is the best strategy for publishers who need to support the two worlds of print and digital books?

We actually do know the answer to this question. Many industries have been challenged by the need to support radically different publishing products and to do so in a way that is both adaptable and affordable. Unfortunately it is an answer that large parts of the publishing industry have been avoiding and in some cases actively resisting. The answer lies in the judicious deployment of open markup standards so that the content from which all published products are produced is itself independent from any one of the renditions and is completely amenable to the deployment of good automation so that all published products are as good as they can be.

Now to be fair, the publishing industry has had many good reasons to be cautious about adopting what could be called a "digital first" publishing model wherein the open standards upon which the web relies are made the foundation for the publishing lifecycle. For one, until the ePublishing revolution took hold, there was marginal need to introduce an approach that would support multiple publishing outputs. For another, the tools that were typically used in a digital first publishing model, such as those associated with the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and which have made steady inroads within technical communication, were not well suited to use in most book publishing environments. The truth of the matter is that neither of these concerns now apply and the time has come for the publishing industry to really look at migrating towards a fully digital first publishing model.

What distinguishes a digital first publishing model is the notion that it would encompass the full lifecycle of the publishing process and would accommodate all of the participants starting with the author. Historically, this is one of the places where the digital first model has encountered problems. Authors prefer to use familiar tools. Some still probably cling to the physicality of a typewriter although that seems hard to imagine. This has meant that the publishing process was always forced to incorporate a format conversion process into the typesetting effort.

Looking forward, we see two possibilities appearing that offer the prospect of starting the publishing process with a more open, and more intelligent, content format. Specifically, publishers can leverage the fact that the popular authoring tools can be automatically converted into a format that is more useful for full-spectrum publishing. The initial conversion would therefore see content migrate from a word processing format into an open and intelligent format instead of being simply reformatted for high-quality print. More interesting still, the possibility exists for publishers to establish online authoring environments that provide a broader array of supporting services to the individual author or to the collaborating team of contributors. This latter prospect holds out substantial potential value as it has been shown, in other industries adopting intelligent content technologies, that some of the key benefits come from being able to facilitate more continuous interactions between the authors creating the content and other team members including editors, illustrators, reviewers and translators.

Suddenly, intelligent content becomes an important concept for publishers to consider. Rather than resisting the adoption of open standards, such as XML, publishers need to take in the full scope of what is available from the providers of intelligent content technologies and from the body of experience that has grown up around how to exploit those technologies effectively.

The Intelligent Content conference is held each year to look more closely at how intelligent content, and its associated technologies, can be leveraged. A major focus this year is directed towards considering how a digital first publishing model can be realized and what types of enhanced eBooks become possible when what is input to the ePublishing process is intelligent content.

iContent

A new vision of the future comes into focus when we look at what intelligent content means for the ePublishing revolution. It is a vision that sees publishers being able to improve the level of quality that is realized in all of their published products. And it is also a vision that sees publishers being able to streamline the entire publishing lifecycle, thereby realizing much-needed cost efficiencies. It may be that what makes the ePublishing revolution genuinely important for the publishing industry is the emphasis it places on the central role of intelligent content in the future of publishing.

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