Skills in the Digital Era part two

The Society of Young Publishers evening on Wednesday proved to be very illuminating, and it turned out that I agreed with everything Chris Meade had to say, especially about the importance of the creative roles in digital media, although from the other side of a five-year cline, and had anticipated some of his conclusions in my talk. Speaking as a trade publisher, I argued that although editors in our part of the archipelago needed new knowledge and understanding, as they always have, they didn't need new skills, and I outlined ten key islands of knowledge, five collaborative and five individual. A few people asked if they could have a copy of the talk, so I'm posting it here. The first part sets out some general ideas, the second part looks at how to apply the ten points specifically to the creation and publication of eBooks. "My background is as an editorial manager, originally for Picador and for the last two years for ‘digital’ as well, which means Pan Macmillan’s eBook and online publishing programme. I was brought into the project team because they had got to quite an advanced stage before realizing that creating an eBook is not as simple as File, Save As, and editorial input was needed to resolve some of the new questions proposed by the new medium. I’ve also been involved in the Digitalist, which some of you may read, and so Jon asked me to contribute from the perspective of a ‘digital editor’ in a trade publishing house.      The first part of the advertisement for tonight’s session asks what new skills are looked for by those hiring and promoting under the ‘growing influence of technology and the Internet’. Having joined the industry twenty years ago, before we had computers, before we had email, and before the Web, if not the Internet, was invented, I have seen the ‘growing influence of technology and the Internet’ all my working life; but the essential skills required of editors, and for the purpose of this talk I’m using ‘skills’ in the sense of a coherent set of knowledge and the techniques for applying that knowledge, such as the skill of reading or of driving, have not changed radically: from acquiring a book and negotiating the contract to editing the text to inspiring the sales and marketing people, the skills remain essentially the same. And while the way editors publish books has changed it has not changed radically, although the tools have changed, and the idea that using any tool more sophisticated than Outlook or Word requires a separate skill set that can be delegated is unlikely to disappear for the foreseeable future, sad though that is. There are important and successful authors who don’t have computers, email, or the Web, and it would be entirely possible for an editor to work likewise: a straw poll agreed that an editor of 1988 who time-jumped to 2008 would, apart from the slight problem of not having read anything for the last twenty years, be able to edit and publish successfully.      So in the context of a discussion of the ‘portfolio of skills that publishers need’ perhaps the most important point I want to make is that although I was asked to speak as a ‘digital editor’, in my view there is no need for a digital editor as such in a trade publishing house, rather an editor who understands the digital world: editors have always been needed who could publish into new markets, who could create new markets, and editors are still needed who can publish into new digital markets with the same expertise they publish print books, often at the same time with the same material, and that’s where new knowledge will be needed. Although other publishers have come to different conclusions, notably Penguin, who have thirty to forty staff who have half their rold based on digital projects, the two most important decisions we made at Macmillan while devising the digital programme this year were, first, to locate the editorial process for eBooks directly in the editorial department for books published in 2009, once the digital team had established the workflow and processes, and second to publish our standard eBooks at the same level of editorial quality as our paper books, with the same content as far as the technology allowed. In brief, this relates to two key issues: accuracy of conversion, which we set at 99.999999%, instead of some competitors’ 99.95%, and attending to the reader experience by providing accurate and appropriate metadata, which is one of the points I want to illustrate later on to show why I believe editors need new knowledge not new skills. These two together meant it was natural for an editor to work on most of their titles as if they were destination-neutral.      So when I replied to Jon’s invitation by saying as I’ve outlined that editors need new knowledge but not a new set of skills, he suggested I take the opportunity to demystify the concern that some editors have about the ‘digital world’ and to draw some conclusions about how the digital/electronic changes we’re seeing and going to see will impact on your lives, and he gave me two main questions to address: 1. how have you found the process of moving from a traditional publishing process, where edited words primarily end up on a page, to something that incorporates the blogs and communicating with readers? And 2. what preparations, if any, should editors make for e-books, which are becoming more of a standard.

“How have you found the process of moving from a traditional publishing process, where edited words primarily end up on a page, to something that incorporates the blogs and communicating with readers?” Well, actually, I don’t think we have moved. All trade publishers are, or should be, at the early stages of incorporating new ways of composing and creating texts, and of considering what texts are, but traditional publishing always has communicated with readers to some degree – think of the nineteenth-century novels that are now classics that were written first for serialization. Twentieth-century publishing was less receptive, if receptive at all, to reader response at the creative stage, and just because Web 2.0 encourages new ways for readers and writers to get involved with each other it doesn’t follow that publishers want to, or can, take advantage of it, in much the same way that the poetry subculture of the twentieth century did little to affect conventional poetry publishing. In a way, the healthier and more active this reader-collaborative culture is the less likely it is that a publisher will want to become involved for fear of contaminating it. In practical terms a digital workflow makes it easy to chunk text and deliver it in new forms, both printed and virtual, but it’s still a one-to-many publishing process. Even new writing forms, such as Keitai Bunko in Japan or distribution forms such as MPS Mobile’s Global Reader aren’t radically different, interesting though they are, as shown by the fact that many Keitai are subsequently published in traditional print form, as of course are some of the most popular blogs. Writing that uses new media by incorporating visuals, sound, movies and so on in different delivery platforms such as the new Sony Reader, Alternate Reality Games mixing narrative and interaction by readers and contributors, self-published material, collaborative wikinovels and other kinds of informal, or extra-formal creativity, are exactly the kind of material that a traditional trade publishing house such as Pan Macmillan, however innovative, finds it very difficult to use, or even acknowledge, in a publishing process, and it’s unlikely to be seriously practical in the short term, which means until someone can think of a way to make money out of it, not least because digital projects are typically seen by customers and authors as free or very low-cost, when in fact they’re often more expensive than traditional ones because of the high set-up and development costs. Having said that we do in fact have one project of this kind, but it only exists because it hangs off a very well-established author known for his use of innovation, and it’s seen and will continue to be seen as peripheral to the editorial process, something that happens outside the editorial department, created by the digital or the marketing department and brought to editorial to be realized, and when it is approved it’s the editor who has the relationship with the agent and with the author who will attract the readers/players/contributors, the editor who presents the idea, negotiates the contract, and so on. So the short answer to this question about communicating with readers is that it’s the marketing people who have managed this change, and as long as most of a publisher’s content is sold as books, whether print or digital and whether through shops or the Web, it’s marketing that will have to continue to change the most to find new readers and new ways of reaching readers. We publish in an industry that requires content to be submitted to the trade buyers nine months before publication, and the process will remain far too inflexible for the foreseeable future. In fact of course designing or imagining a process crushes most of what makes this interesting. And more importantly perhaps our traditional process shouldn’t: the book, whether printed or in digital form, is inimical to this sort of two-way ephemeral communication. What it needs to do instead is create a new post-publishing process, a sort of après-lit, which makes clever and effective use of reader involvement through websites and with social-networking tools, but that is familiar Web 2.0 material and outside the scope of this answer.      The second question, ‘What preparations, if any, should editors make for e-books, which are becoming more of a standard’, is more easily answered and is where we get to the practical hands-on answers you were promised. But before I answer that I should say that in my view while they are now an essential part of a trade publisher’s programme they are not becoming more of a standard: there was a rush this summer to publish only in Adobe epub format, but there are several other important formats available, not least PDF, which Adobe has been careful to ensure is supported in Adobe Digital Editions; Mobipocket, which was bought by Amazon and can be read by the Kindle as well as mobile devices; and MS Reader, which is a legacy product that has some useful if under-exploited features. So to answer this question I’ll also answer the underlying one, ‘How much is digital going to change the way I work?’ In doing so I have chosen ten key islands of knowledge. 1. Get the rights. Penguin got 700 titles up for the Waterstone’s launch – then had to take 120 down as they discovered rights hadn’t been agreed. 2. Understand moral rights. The new formats mean titles that had no moral rights will re-acquire them once republished. When commissioning indexes, state that the index will be used in all editions. 3. Assign ISBNs correctly. Each format of a title needs a unique ISBN. 4. Understand localization. Harper didn’t get any UK titles up for the Waterstone’s launch – all theirs are US titles. 5. Understand version control and decide on a strategy – there are no impression numbers in eBooks. 6. Get to know your output formats. MS Reader i, ii, iii – good. Jeremy Paxman, A Portrait of the English (pub. Penguin) – hyperlinked table of contents, hyperlinked index, text is well laid out with extracts distinguished as on the printed page. Comfortable to read without distractions. iv, v – reasonable. Abbeys and Priories of Great Britain (pub. Heritage Trail) – excess leading between paragraphs, hyphen not an N dash in the title bar: too much leading in the glossary. Not very comfortable to read.

Mobipocket vi – bad. Cult of Dr Who – no page break for a new chapter, artwork missing, straight inverted commas, no italics for book title, basic grammatical error in the heading.Mobipocket vii – good. Pocket Oxford Dictionary: each word has its own page, colour is used intuitively, the distinction between underlines and hyperlinks is clear, navigation is easy. Although it has straight inverted commas, it’s obvious that a lot of thought has been put into making the best use of the medium. viii – bad. A Passage to India (pub. Rosetta Books): no sign of any thought. Meaningless emblem to go with the chapter heading, every paragraph is full out, no italics for book titles, basic typesetting mistakes. ix – bad. 9/11 Commission Report. Artwork unreadable, leading wrong between and within paragraphs, endnotes not hyperlinked.

ADE x, xi – mixed. Dr Who (pub. Pocket Essentials). Clear layout, helpful bookmarks, italic and bold all converted successfully; but the index is not hyperlinked so is useless. xii – mostly good. Thirteen Moons (pub. Random House).  Chapter titles, large and small caps, leading generally correct. 7.  Get to know your conversion or output process. ADE officially imports from XML, Mobipocket from HTML, Word, PDF or text, MS Reader from Word. 8. Understand metadata and decide on its importance for your books (bookmarks in Perdido Street Station; bookmarks in a Tor book). 9. Build in metadata-friendly elements to your books at the earliest stages. unnamed sections in Electricity (‘or was it goodbye’). 10. Understand a digital workflow.