Is XML the New Center of the Publishing Universe?

xml-tagMany publishers are debate about the benefits of a switchover to using XML (eXtensible Markup Language) as the native source for book content to ease publishing in multiple formats and context.  Proponents argue that while there are challenges to switching to an XML based publishing workflow, the benefits outweigh the costs and provide publishers with more flexibility to publish in multiple formats with less cost.  Many publishers have begun to adopt XML and the debate has moved to a new level; now it is about shifting from book thinking to content thinking.  In this view, the printed book is just one “output” in an array of possible outputs being generated from a single XML content input.

Some of the advantages cited for using XML are:

  • More uniform document structuring and styling
  • Meta information can easily be embedded, in addition to the book content
  • Content can be contextualized so that different content is displayed depending on the context – e.g. displaying hyperlinks for an ebook, but not a printed version
  • Allowing content to be more quickly searched, shared and combined to generate new revenue opportunities for publishers and authors

xml-workflowThe case for the XML centric viewpoint is most persuasively presented by Mike Shatzkin, co-founder of Idea Logical Company.   He argues that:

  1. Publishers have fewer traditional venues to promote and market their books, due to the reduction in in brick and mortar retail bookstores and the ongoing reduction in print media outlets where books have long been reviewed and marketed.
  2. As more promotion, sales and consumption of book content moves online, publishers need to provide that content in formats and “chunks” better suited to the online space, quickly and cost effectively.  This will ultimately provide more sources of revenue for publishers.
  3. Starting with XML as the native format allows publishers to provide the right structuring and tagging of content to allow this to happen. 

Mr. Shatzkin summarizes his argument thus:

Here’s what we call the Copernican Change. We have lived all our lives in a universe where the book is “the sun” and everything else we might create or sell was a “subsidiary right” to the book, revolving around that sun.

A contrary view is offered by Adam Hodgkin on the blog, Exact Edition.  He argues that XML hsa been around for over 10 years and while it has been used by publishers as a useful formatting tool, it is notyet at a point where it will displace book-as-book as the the critical output from publishers.  He cites the success of Google Book Search as evidence of his stance.

Some of the biggest obstacles publishers will have to address to adopt such an XML centric strategy are:

  • Staff (and potentially author) learning curves and the inevitable short term inefficiences that result in the transition to a new production technology
  • Rethinking the potential markets, uses and contexts for book content
  • Being driven at a much faster pace by technology and having to make the investmentss needed to keep up with that

confused-publisherOf these, I believe the last is the most challenging.   Publishers are being inexorably drawn into fast moving technology driven marketplaces that will require more nimbleness, investment and prescience than they have needed in the past.  An early bet on XML centric approach could confer competitive advantge and up the ante for laggard publishers in the new digital publishing world.   But picking technology winners  and losers can also be a dangerous business.

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