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Publishers, Pay Attention To The Web! What The w3c Means For You

Why publishers should care about and support the w3c.

Last week, Liza Daly posted “What publishing needs from the web (and how you can help)“. There, Daly pointed to a couple of useful resources (Dave Cramer’s Requirements for Latin Text Layout and Pagination, and Robert Sanderson’s Annotation Use Cases, both hosted by the World Wide Web Consortium, or w3c) before making the case for publishers to pay attention to the web:

It’s hard to believe this in 2014, but when EPUB was first born, it was provocative to suggest that ebooks would be a part of the web. Early ereaders were implemented with proprietary software stacks that presumed interoperability at the level of file interchange only. We’re still paying the price for some of these decisions, from DRM, to strict XML-centric markup, to a collective deficit in documented best practices, free software, and open dialog.

The problem with “strict XML-centric markup” is a tricky one, as some types of content benefit from it, while other types suffer. In an earlier post, Daly describes the challenge this way:

A trade book is not data. Even non-fiction trade is a work of human creativity with unpredictable contours. In programming terms, most books are BLOBs, opaque shadowy things that can be moved from system to system but whose contents cannot be inspected in a mechanical way.

The challenges Daly identifies extend well beyond the world of books. Writing last month on A List Apart, Jeff Eaton described “The Battle for the Body Field“, in which craft (typography, juxtaposition and amplification, as examples) is frequently hand-tooled into web content, to the detriment of scale and reproducability across multiple platforms. Early in his post, Eaton describes the challenge:

When narrative text is mixed with embedded media, complex call-outs, or other rich supporting material, structured templates have trouble keeping up.

Eaton offers examples in which editors and designers abandoned templated workflows to ensure that the work appeared on each platform as they intended. Consistently, the workarounds represented labor that is lost whenever the content is published on a different platform.

In Eaton’s view, a move to more consistent use of XML, which separates content and its description from its ultimate presentation, might help more data-driven applications, like news coverage. Although Daly is rightly skeptical of the value of XML for trade content, I think she would agree with at least this part of Eaton’s closing assessment:

Site builders, content strategists, and designers must understand what’s happening inside the body field, not just the database-powered chunks that surround it. Which patterns in our content should rely on simple styling, and which merit their own custom tags? Which can we assume will stay consistent, and which should account for future changes? Our planning process must start answering those questions.

Last week, I wrote that “Collaboration is a workflow“, one that requires us to interactively consider process (what gets done), technology (the tools and standards we use) and structure (how we are organized) to achieve a desired result. Print (alone) forgave a multitude of short-term decisions; digital demands that we revisit our approaches and expand our skills sets.

Daly calls on publishers to join the w3c and its working groups to help shape the future of content creation, management and consumption on the web. Right now, the w3c needs “participation from publishers, reading system developers, ebook developers and other thinkers in digital publishing.”

Daly concludes, “This is important, high-profile work, and there are some hard problems to solve.” As Robert Wheaton reminded us, the hard problems are the ones we are supposed to solve.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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