Future Proofing Electronic Publishing

Posted on February 19, 2006 in Uncategorized

The desire to exploit the immediacy and audience scope that electronic publishing formats allow, in particular through the Internet, has brought with it not only a huge pressure on publishers to keep up, but also a boom in terms of new technology and employment. ‘Updated every minute of every day,’ or so says the header of the BBC News website. And the BBC, along with other major news sources, is not alone in the race to provide the latest content in electronic format. Academic publishers are also facing increased pressure to keep up in the information arms race, particularly those providing science and technical information, where having the latest research results at the tip of your fingers is a top priority for those in the field.

In researching the first instance of the term, I was appropriately led to the OED’s online database, where I quickly learned that ‘electronic publishing’ was first referenced in an article in U.S. News & World Report as early as September of 1977. Further, from an online history of electronic publishing maintained by David Carlson, a professor of New Media at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism, I skimmed through five decades of development in the field in a matter of minutes, from its earliest beginnings with Teletext in the early 1970s to the most advanced content management systems of today.

It is this last technology that is now dominating the way in which the content for electronic printing formats is being handled. Content management systems are, at their most basic, databases. However, with advances in computer programming languages, we can now build databases that contain many different kinds of information (text, graphics, smaller databases, etc.) and, more importantly, allow that information to be updated and accessed by a number of different users in a number of different ways.

To give a concrete example, Robert Faber, Director of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) at Oxford University Press, in his talk given at the SYP Careers Conference in November, spent some time discussing the process by which content for the new ODNB was gathered and stored. In 1992, when they began the project, they were interested in making sure that the database containing the content could be used to generate output in any format (print, CD-ROM, or online). He described this process as needing to ‘futureproof’ the information. In order to do this, each chunk of content needed to be carefully marked (as one might delineate the items in a bibliography: author, title, publisher, etc.). They did this by using what is called a mark-up language, the most familiar such language being HTML: the Hyper-Text Mark-up Language used to build websites. These marks or tags assist computers reading the information to generate printing plates, webpages or print-on-demand books that incorporate preset style-sheets, whereby, for instance, chapter titles are always italicised and names are always underlined.This need to anticipate future uses of electronic content and to render it ‘future-proof’ is one of the major challenges facing the electronic publishing world, in addition to the problem of generating all that content.

One sector facing particular challenges in getting its content online is the academic publishing market, chiefly within the fields of science, technology and medicine. In a paper delivered at the 1996 UNESCO Conference entitled Electronic Publishing in Science, physicist Paul Ginsparg noted that the first physics related database, created in August of 1991, was initially intended for a community of approximately 200 physicists. However, by February of 1996, the database already had over 35,000 users. And things haven’t slowed down since. Picking up the latest issue of Nature (a major scientific research journal), one sees an array of references to online supplements as well as advertisers selling access to electronically-stored datasets. Scientists themselves are in a constant race with each other, not only to keep on top of the latest research, but to also be the first to publish new discoveries. When the process of submitting papers can take months to get through the peer-review process, getting the information printed quickly has become ever more important.

Despite major successes in some realms of electronic publishing, the huge success predicted for ebooks has not materialised. Barnes & Noble shut down its online e-book store in 2003 and has not re-opened it, though they do still offer e-books for sale. Many niche markets, for example erotica, have found strong readership in e-book formats. The search for new audiences and new technology continues.

It is this drive for new technology that seems to be testing publishers. While many web-users have noticed the switch to content management systems because the content looks the same, the race to store and access information in ever-more efficient ways is an increasing challenge. And it is also a task that has left a large gap in terms of employment within publishers using electronic formats. As Robert Faber pointed out at the end of his talk, many publishers are struggling to fill all their jobs in this sector — good news for young publishers willing to get their feet wet.