Publishers: Is Your Digital Content Safe, Bent or Dead?

Safe Content

Safe content means the production content is created in such a way that it can deliver any format or delivery package instantly and can be used with little or no additional cost for any new purpose. Safe content handles all levels of content complexity for any specific genre and doesn't have to be "dumbed down" or "smarted up" for reading systems, there are no proprietary traps.

Content is safe when the first order of content management business is to ensure the content is produced in a system designed to make it safe, reusable and instantly ready for any and all format generation. This approach means a significant change to the tools and approach to content production. It means the right tools, training and significantly change management.

After production, safe content is immediately ready for the generation of any format (print, ebooks, apps, web apps, websites) plus other uses such as remix, interactive and rich media extensions all from the same digitised source. This means the content is produced in (X)HTML5 so it directly supports extensions such as Javascript, SVG/2, changing MathML, WAI-ARIA and new things like the almost ready picture element. in safe content production systems all of this has to be built-in, and where appropriate for formats, applied automatically.

Multiple formats addressing the full range of reading systems behaviours is easily addressed by tagging up and processing down rather than compromising the production content for a format d'jour. Formats come and go, correctly produced digital content is ready for anything and lasts forever.

This approach is particularly useful, and perhaps essential, for content with high value and multiple uses such as trade, non-fiction, academic and education content.

Bent Content

Bent content means the content is reusable to some level but generally requires maintenance and considerable technical work to use it in new format or delivery contexts. It treats all content the same so depending on the genre, content varies in degrees of 'bent'. There are also several of semi-proprietary or custom traps to be wary of also.

Publisher content is bent when it needs additional management, technical inputs, processing and constant quality review to produce multiple formats or use the content for any other purpose. The obvious examples are "XML First" and "XML Last" production systems and their variants.

Custom XML DTD/Schemas have to be maintained on a continuous basis OR you compromise on tagging strategies. This bas been discussed in length in Avoid XML First and Reviewing XML Options.

There are several advantages in these approaches. On paper and in presentations it can sound interesting. The future use story sounds exciting until it is used, and then maintenance costs become apparent.

There are any number of presentations about workflows that try and integrate yesterdays tools into todays workflow because of worker change resistance. They are about paying for a promise, that is seldom delivered.

Standard CMS (Content Management Systems) are web content and not publisher content oriented. There is a significant difference between these two content zones. Both PDF and ebook production are largely treated as stand-alone and separate or extension tasks with significant processor development.

Dead Content

Dead content means the content cannot be reused after format production because of the tools, methods and proprietary internal layout model that is designed to create a single format.

Content is Dead after format when a production system encapsulates the content in a proprietary, desktop or format package.

  • The content is bound in a proprietary format.
  • It takes additional and human intervention to generate new formats.
  • The content is not ready for different digital content business applications.
  • Creating a print and digital publication with significantly different features is probably impossible (a necessity with education content).
  • New digital content requirements are not even slightly addressed.

If future editions, format support and reuse is not likely to be a requirement (as with much trade fiction and self-published books) producing dead content is not a significant issue, but publishers should be aware of the limitations of the production model. There is no content "escape free clause" from dead on arrival production systems.

Proprietary Systems

The most obvious tool examples are InDesign/Quark. To create something new form the content requires the production process to pretty much start over. Publisher content is locked into a third party proprietary package that is completely out of your control. For example IDML (InDesign Markup Language) is a serialisation of the ID internal layout model and is force changed every 18 months to keep users "invested".

Most of the new digital content initiatives cannot be addressed without extensive manual or custom processing of the arbitrary generated HTML outputs.

Direct to Formats

Open systems such as Calibre and Sigil are similar. Even though these last two are XHTML tools, there is no controlled vocabulary foundation and a single generated partial ebook format is what you receive. Future or other use of the content is not an option.

Anyone who has been in publishing for more than a few years knows that delivery formats like PDF, ePub, Mobi and others are where content goes to die. PDB was huge and died surviving only in the internals of theAZW (Mobi) format. Microsoft's LIT followed suite. OEB became ePub and eventually ePub3, Mobi PRC became Kindle 7 (Mobi, AZW) then 8 (AZW3). The number of "solutions" for converting PDFs to fixed-layout ebooks is now in the dozens with Adobe joining recently.

Outsourcing Format Production

Outsourcing content production is another way to ensure your content is dead for all of the reasons stated above. If a new format is required, the costs are repeated and often escalated.

Why Do It?

People stay with the dead content production systems because of time investment and familiarity with the tools. The hope is dead content creation tools will somehow get there. Unfortunately the first principles of the content management say this will never happen. It never gets better than the core content production system. There is still a strong print-first mentality and many publishers do not regard their content as future valuable, or more pragmatically know it has very limited future value so dead on arrival is fine.

In Summary

Currently many publishers think ePub2/3, kindle and Apps are going to last forever. However, as an example, the mind-blowing effect that Service Workers and Web Components will have on securely delivered off-line publisher content is only a short time away. The diversity of content delivery to consumers (outside of trade fiction) is going to explode. It is inevitable because the options of today are buried in 15 year old technologies, and the emerging consumers want more.

There is no particular right or wrong in any production system if the only objective is to create todays formats, but it is important that publishers do understand the choice of production tools and methods significantly affect value and total cost of ownership content outcomes on the completion of production.

The 'safe', 'bent' and 'dead' content observations discussed here are based on building and using all of these content production systems for print and digital formats in all genres over 15 years. The diving metaphor may not be exact but does serve to illustrate the significant differences in content production methods. It's about what publishers need, not what they want.

Our experience has been watching millions of dollars ripped up and thrown away by publishers over the last 15 years producing 'dead' and 'bent' content. In many cases we have turned that 'dead' and 'bent' content into 'safe' content (at a cost). That is why creating and delivering current and future value content using the 'safe' method is what is preferred.

Axis12 are the first to accept that moving to a safe production method is non-trivial, but the outcomes are a significant increase in the value of the content, plus production cost savings (after the learning curve) and full readiness for the future.

Publishers owe it to themselves to understand the options, choices, benefits and business cost differences between 'safe', 'bent' and 'dead' content and make decisions based on that knowledge.

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About Us

Axis12 specialise in building, hosting and supporting high traffic, content heavy web applications for both the public and private sector that help them achieve their Digital First aspirations. We recently implemented Cross Platform Publisher for the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, which has transformed the way online reporting and publishing is carried out.