Dr Agata Mrva-Montoya has worked at Sydney University Press since 2008, in a role combining editing, project management and social media. She is interested in the impact of new technologies on scholarly publishing, editing and books in general. In pre-publishing life, she completed a PhD in archaeology. She is also a member of Human Animal Research Network at the University of Sydney and can be found on twitter as @agatamontoya.
Agata Mrva-Montoya took a few minutes out to talk to me about her presentation earlier today, which as you may have noticed created a highly enthusiastic response among the twitterati attending the conference.
Many editors want to work on more ebooks and digital formats, but get a sense of mild discomfort when they contemplate the scale of change involved in the enterprise. If the future is ebooks, don’t we need to upscale our technical skills dramatically? According to Agata, the digital (r)evolution is not that scary. In fact, it’s not even all that new: Agata has been able to trace the advent of digital publishing from Project Gutenberg in the early 1970s through the onset of the Amazon age (when will that end, by the way?) to today’s dominant reading devices from Kindle and Nook to the tablet to iPhone. This is as much about long-term evolution as it is right-here-and-now revolution.
In her paper, Agata set out three clear-as-day areas where editors should be looking to develop their expertise: formats; workflows; and knowledge and skills. We know that digital publishing does – or will – demand change in all of them. Yet in some ways, digital workflows fit into what editors already know about scheduling and electronic working — yes, including or even especially Microsoft Word – and Agata is coming from the position that we should be thinking about ways for the publishing team to extend and build on what they already know. For example, we already know how to work with web specialists if that isn’t our area of expertise; we deal with vendors who build websites, platforms, and anything else we want to commission. Ebooks can be handled the same way. To be effective, we need to understand the possibilities of the format and know the language those vendors are speaking about ebooks, so that we can scope, edit, and produce in appropriate ways.
I must admit that I sometimes wonder what the word ‘interactive’ really means now — with so many formats now available and publishers plumping for a dizzying number of workflows and methodologies. Agatha’s view is that ‘all ebooks are interactive’; it’s not a particularly rich term to describe the multiple possibilities of the ebook. So, what are the more meaningful definitions? Agata describes three types of ebook:
1. A plain ebook: ePub, MOBI, or HTML, with footnotes, plain text, and linked index. It’s plain, yes, but still interactive in some ways. You can flip a page, click on a note, and so on.
2. An enhanced ebook: ePub3 and Apple iBook, with multimedia and deeper interactive features like video, audio, animations, web interactivity. This is still basically a linear format.
3. An ebook application: native iOS or Android software, with the most dynamic options for video, audio, animations, web interactivity, GPS, links, Flash, and so on. As this is conceived and developed to be a non-linear product, it offers readers the chance to interact with both content and storyline.
So, formats in the bag, let’s move on to workflows. The critical issue Agata underlines, whichever of these formats is chosen, is that editors know MS Word absolutely inside-out. We’re moving from a print-first workflow (in which ebook conversion was late-stage and largely outsourced, with risk of error in conversion either from Word or InDesign) through XML workflow (requiring substantial technical intervention and programming to produce a high-quality and repurposable digital, but lower quality print, product). Now, as Agata showed us, we don’t have to go with XML because there is a XHTML- and Cloud-based (CMS) workflow in which Word moves into XHTML and from there into … well, where does your imagination end?
Although XHTML enables very flexible multiformat publishing (ideal for all those platform-agnostics in the publishing industry), this workflow demands absolute rigour in manuscript styling. No problem, you might think: that’s our stock in trade as editors. But challenge yourself: what more can you do, what more might you need to do, if you’re preparing material for XHTML workflow? Agata’s message is very much ‘automate as much as possible’; editors should be aiming to use things like macros and other tools so that we can free ourselves to focus on style and structure. Of course, style and structure have always been critical, but for enhanced e-formats, they are basically the bones of the material – everything else forms around them.
When it comes to technical skills, the critical question for many editors is ‘how much do I need to know about XML and XHTML to continue with – or extend into – editing ebooks?’ Reassuringly, not as much as you might think. Your ability to front-load your workflow with as much editorial work and QA as you can cram into your budget and schedule is key. Publishing schedules may need to start significantly earlier to accommodate this work, so that damaging errors are eliminated before the XHTML part of the process begins.
For anyone involved in scoping or commissioning this kind of material, there’s one word of warning from Agata: beware of moving towards ‘interactivity for the sake of interactivity’. As we’ve already seen, ‘interactivity’ is at risk of becoming a baggy kind of word; it would be worse to push out products that don’t provide what readers want. Agata’s advice? Don’t ask what can we add? but rather, what is this for? And copy editors can ask, what are the reader’s expectations from this text? – just as we do now, figuring out the reader benefits from material, and using that knowledge to hone the product.
It can be hard to visualise ebook workflows if this is an area you’re thinking of expanding into; Agata’s talk will really have helped to clarify what we do and don’t need to concern ourselves with. And, critically, how to see continuity in the editing role.
Here’s a little taste of what the audience were thinking while Agata presented her paper:
[Special thanks to the people whose tweets I’ve shamelessly borrowed!]