I had a fun conversation with John Pettigrew on his ‘Talking Through My Hat‘ publishing podcast recently. If you’re in book publishing, his series is worth subscribing to. He has regular conversations with wonderful publishing entrepreneurs, including Michael Bhaskar of Canelo, Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, and Emma Barnes of Consonance.
A while ago I gave this talk at the Cape Town Professional Editors Group. Here are my speaking notes.
Today, every passage you edit will sooner or later be read on screen. This digital world desperately needs our craft and high standards, but what does that mean for our daily work? In this talk I’ll pick out three big, important issues, and talk about some of the tools we’re using to tackle them. The first is text-only editing. That is, the end of word processing as we know it. The second is real-time, collaborative editing. And third, automagical pagination: how do we edit when there’s no such thing as ‘page two’?
So what does this digitisation thing really mean for editors? I think, basically, it means you’re editing text that will be read on a screen. Importantly, you’re editing text that will be read on a screen and on paper.
Now if you’re going to edit for the screen, the single most important thing is to actually read on a screen yourself. If you aren’t reading on screen, you simply cannot edit for the screen. Just like you can’t fix a car if you’ve never ridden in one.
That said, we are all busy people and there is an infinite amount to learn about computers: the rate at which the technium evolves far outstrips the rate that we can understand it. Even the greatest minds in computing readily admit that the Internet is now bigger and more complex than any one person understands.
So the trick is to not try too hard to learn it. Rather, just start using web- and screen-oriented tools and the learning will come when you need it. No one went to a whole seminar on how to use email before they sent an email.
In the next thirty minutes or so I’ll pick out three big, important developments and talk about some of the tools we’re using to tackle them. This is basically show and tell.
The first is text-only editing. That is, the end of word processing as we know it.
The second is real-time, collaborative editing.
And third, I’ll talk a little about automagical pagination: how do we edit when there’s no such thing as ‘page two’?
First, what is text-only editing? Text-only editing is editing in plain-text files. When you do this, you’ll probably be using a particular writing structure called Markdown. For instance, let’s use Stackedit to write plain-text markdown. Type on the left, and on the right Stackedit turns our plain text into formatted HTML.
What we’re seeing here is the separation of content (which is structured text and image-references only) from formatting and design.
What are the big advantages of text-only editing?
- Smaller, faster files.
- Computers need perfect consistency (the digital age is a wonderful place for obsessive copy editors). Here the tools force our hand, and we learn to be less sloppy.
- Text-only means fewer copy-paste messes (when you copy paste into a new document and the fonts go all weird), because I’m getting only and exactly what I’m seeing. Plain text. We do have learn some new tricks like unicode glyphs (there is no ‘Insert symbol’ font or formatting gimmicks, like superscripting an o for a degrees symbol). This is actually a good thing, even if it seems like more work at first while we learn its tricks.
- Less file corruption, because there is simply less going on – less code to go wrong.
- Better version control, especially if you learn to use a tool like Git.
Collaborative editing has literally changed the way I write, edit and deliver documents.
What is collaborative editing? In short, me and someone else editing the same online document at the same time. The biggest tool for this is Google Docs.
What are the major pros of collaborative editing?
- It lets others watch while you work. And you can watch while others work. Publishing is weird because it’s always been a team sport played by lonely freelancers from their own home offices. Collaborative editing instantly makes the team aspect real and useful.
- You can use commenting for feedback and discussion. Track changes just isn’t the same as actual live annotation. No more emailing documents with increasing repetitions of the word ‘final’ in the file name. (Also, see Hypothesis.)
- Instant delivery of work and real-time review. As soon as you’re ready for your client to check something, share the doc and the ball’s in their court. So much editing is problem solving, and collaborative editing means the publisher-editor-designer are basically always in the room together at the same time.
I cannot believe that Google Docs has been around for years and people are still editing in MS Word. I promise, promise, promise you want to move all your writing and editing into Google Docs. (You could also use something similarly cloud-based with live collaborative editing but, for better or for worse, most people are familiar with Google and already have Google accounts).
Lastly, what is automagical pagination? Well, on screen, our software and screen size are going to decide how much text is on the ‘page’, the visible area in front of us. On screens we might refer to this as the ‘viewport’. If you’ve used Kindle, iBooks, or Google Play Books you probably know what this looks like.
There are a few key issues that arise when text flows into a viewport. And very importantly, when you’re editing the same text for both that viewport and also print output.
- Hyphenation and non-breaking spaces. Of course you never want to put a hard hyphen into a line because that line will be made and remade in countless different lengths in its life, and you don’t want your hyphens turning up in the middle of a line. You also don’t want the space in a number like 100 000 breaking over a line, so you need to learn how to insert a non-breaking space. And there are several other glyphs that have similar complications, like ellipses and en dashes.
- Cross-references. That is, referring to other places in the document. On screen, you can’t say ‘see page twenty’, because ‘page twenty’ is completely different on my computer and on my phone. You can’t say ‘Click here to go to the figure’, because in print there is nothing to click. And you can’t say, ‘in the figure below’, because on screen the figure might shift position. Common solutions are to introduce numbering systems for sections and figures, or to completely rephrase cross references. (Some smart digital-first workflows let you insert a variable that becomes a page reference in print, and is a hyperlink on screen.)
- Elements that appear on screen but not in print. For instance, let’s say you want to include a YouTube clip in an ebook, but you can’t have the clip in the print version. In some systems, it is possible to mark certain elements to appear in one version but be completely hidden in another.
- Minimalist courage. For maximum compatibility with unknown reading systems, you have to use fewer, more carefully-chosen features. You can’t have ten different variations on headings or boxes. Pick very few features, and treat them consistently with the same styling rules. Make no single-instance exceptions (e.g. never say “I’ll make this one heading smaller because otherwise it’ll look funny here.”)
- Strict content hierarchies. You have to place every feature of the book in a hierarchy, as if your whole book was a tree of trunk, branches and leaves. Computers need hierarchy.
There is lots more we could go into here but there isn’t enough time and we’d bore half the room. And as I suggested at the start, it doesn’t matter how much you try to stuff in your head now, when the only way to make it useful and make it stick is to deal with issues as they come up in your work.
I hope that you have some concrete questions, though, so we can spend some time dealing with those real issues that you’ve already come up against.
At a Mobile Literacy Network Meeting this week hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, I talked about Paperight, why we had to close, and some of the lessons my team and I are taking to our next ventures – particularly Bettercare and Book Dash.
From the talk:
Our problems were of course, in part, the result our strategic decisions: out of an infinite number of possible alternatives, some would have been better than others. But aside from that, we knew we had three major external challenges:
- While many publishers joined us, almost none let us sell their most popular, high-value titles. They asked us to test with their scraps – I’ve spoken before on why that’s always a poor idea, and wastes everyone’s time and energy.
- Most copy shops were not active partners, which is not surprising when we had so few high-value titles for them to promote. Many also gave their customers poor service (we double-checked ourselves spending hours and days in stores).
- Our target market – potential readers and students with poor backgrounds – have grown up without books. They don’t attach much value to reading. Certainly not enough to buy books before food and clothing. As I’ve said before, South African publishing has done very little in the last twenty years to change that.
Despite our disappointment, buried in those revenue stats is a promising story: we made far more as a publisher than as a distributor. We had created a hundred simple, low-priced books of our own: collections of past grade-12 exam papers. That one small collection of high-value, low-priced titles made as much as all our other sales combined. And that’s after those past-papers were free for the first seven months.
It’s rare that a national industry is confronted with a single threat to its future. That just happened to South African publishing. A few days ago, the South African Department of Basic Education released a policy document, for public comment, that explains how the DBE would like to handle textbooks going forward. (If you’re in publishing, read it, here’s the PDF. Instructions for official public responses here.)
The document has big, important ideals, and contains many smart ideas. The emphasis is on making sure every child has textbooks, and no one can fault that. There are many ways to help make that happen: the department must make its textbook money go further, the distribution of textbooks must be simpler, and schools must try to reuse all of their textbooks from year to year. The document addresses these issues and more. The issues have inherent challenges and complexities, and it’s clear the authors have thought about them.
But the document contains one, huge, glaring misadventure: the DBE wants to buy a single textbook in each subject for the whole country. For example, every grade 10 child in the country will use exactly the same maths textbook. The same history textbook. The same life-orientation textbook. Whether they’re at a high-end school in suburban Joburg or a rural school in the Northern Cape.
The theory is that, this way, the DBE will find economies of scale that will reduce the cost of textbooks and their distribution, and that this will help them achieve universal textbook coverage.
It’s very difficult to respond to this theory seriously, because it’s flawed to the point of absurdity. Even if the DBE did save money this way, it wouldn’t save much, and the damage done would be far more costly in the long term:
- Teachers would no longer choose the textbooks they want to use. They’d be less interested in a textbook prescribed for them centrally, and wouldn’t be able to pick a textbook that suits their particular class.
- Right now, we have a few dozen educational publishers, dominated by about five big ones (Pearson, Oxford, Macmillan, Via Africa, Cambridge). Within two or three years, publishers who don’t get to sell their textbooks would go out of business. Publishers I’ve spoken to reckon there would be space for three or four publishers, and only if they have owners with deep pockets to help them weather years with no government sales.
- Private schools, which are growing rapidly, would continue to buy whatever textbooks they choose. They’d benefit from choice and diversity, and have the ear of those publishers that survive. This would further increase the gap between the quality and perceived quality of state and private schools. Gaps like that create self-reinforcing vicious cycles.
- Given the make-or-break high stakes involved, the process for choosing only one textbook would be even more prone to corruption than the current system. In the current system, the DBE chooses eight books per subject, a number that is already the result of a massive concession made by the publishing industry a couple of years ago. Before that, any number of textbooks might have been approved for sales to schools.
- We’re only beginning to figure out how best to create and distribute digital textbooks. To evolve great systems, we need a diverse environment, a constant churn of solutions adapt-or-dying, funded by risk-taking angel investors. A one-textbook policy would kill that process in an instant and set digital textbooks back years.
- Promising initiatives to create open textbooks (like Siyavula’s) could all but disappear. Open textbooks rely on philanthropic sponsors to cover their development costs, and sponsors would be wary of funding textbooks that might never be used in state schools.
No doubt there will be much public comment on these issues. Signs are ominous that it might not make much difference: a senior DBE leader told a group of publishers recently that their position on procurement (which includes buying one textbook per subject) is very unlikely to change. We could have guessed that: weeks before the proposed policy was made public, the Minister had already announced it in her budget speech as given:
2014/15 has been targeted as the year by which the sector will be moving towards one textbook, per learner, per subject.
In South Africa, the vast majority of publishing revenue comes from the government purchase of textbooks. This revenue cross-subsidises the less lucrative publishing of fiction, children’s books, and reference books like dictionaries and atlases. As I’ve mentioned, it funds much of the experimenting around digital textbooks and online learning. And educational publishing – despite many weaknesses in this regard – supplies most of our country’s book-publishing skills. As a country we’ll pay a terrible price if our educational publishing sector shrinks.
That said, the DBE is not the root of the problem. They are simply reaching for the biggest hammer they can find to solve a long-standing problem: the gross under-supply of textbooks to poor students, and the perception that books in South Africa are too expensive and exclusive. Even if it’s the wrong hammer on the wrong nail, as the publishing industry we have to take a long, hard look at the part we’ve played getting to this point.
The spectre of state publishing and a single-textbook system has been around for many years – certainly for the twenty years I’ve worked in publishing – and always in response to these same basic problems. And yet publishing companies have not changed anything substantial about their publishing models or processes in those twenty years. As educational publishers, we’ve repeatedly fallen back on our unshakable belief that we’re already producing the best possible books for the lowest possible price. And each time that the state has threatened to force our hand, we’ve persuaded them to let us keep doing things the same way. There have been tweaks to the system, but the basic model has never changed. What if we’ve been wrong the whole time?
So perhaps the chicken has finally roosted. We’ve scraped through our tests, but now it’s exam time and we have just hours to prove ourselves. Can we find different ways to do things, or do we tell our editors, writers, designers, marketers and salespeople to find other jobs? Whatever happens, we have a lot of honest, open talking to do.