BEA (Thursday): “XML for Editors: What You Need to Know and Why You Should Care”

I walked into Thursday’s “XML for Editors” talk thinking, a little too cockily, “Sure, hit me with your XML, HTML, and whatever other MLs you’ve got, back there.” (Teaching in a university science department can have this effect, even if all you taught was English.) The room was packed with publishing folk who didn’t look at all daunted, either, though. But, as I’ve been reminded at home by a husband who’s been programming since he was twelve, one lousy HTML class does not a programmer make. (Given that my row cleared out hastily after the introduction, maybe we should all go hit the technical books a bit more.)

Some background: the BEA Conference Session description for this talk said this: “XML is an indispensible tool to enable a publisher to render a book in many formats: ebooks, of course, but also print alternatives such as large-print or some form of printed recombination or repurposing. Because of that, pressure is coming from production departments to put XML tags for structure into developing documents at the earliest possible stage.” So the drive toward implementing this is coming from all sides, and the sooner that editors can become early adopters, the better for the books (in all their formats).

As Brian O’Leary (Magellan Media), publishing consultant Laura Dawson (, and Mike Shatzkin (founder and CEO of IdeaLogical) launched into the talk, I grabbed a “StartWithXML” abstract from off a seat in the crowded room, and listened. (The history of the project, plus an array of great presentations delving into XML for publishing, can be found at this link to the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference materials.)

XML is just extensible markup language (HTML is hypertext markup language) used to structure content–just like book titles, chapter headings, subheads, and paragraphs, as the abstract noted. The key introductory phrase (and an appealing one, to editors): “Because XML is extensible, elements employed for one book or type of book can be customized to reflect specific content and its likely reuse.” This set the tone for the talk, which focused on how XML can help publishers move from single-format delivery to multiple-format delivery.

My row, at this point, contained just me and a very cool, no doubt bona fide editor with spiky blond hair, wearing jeans and green Chuck Taylors. References to the cumbersome Quark files of yore made both of us snicker, but I silently thanked God that I have never so much as seen a Quark file, thanks to good ol’ lugubrious Lubos, who handled all of that for Rebo.

XML for editors, O’Leary went on, is about asserting primacy over the editorial process. Some questions to think about: what should the future workflow look like? Where and how does/will the author approach the reader? What’s the editor’s role in shepherding the conversation along?

One graphic effectively showed which genres XML can benefit, revealing how relatively static forms (such as novels, except ones like Tristram Shandy) usually don’t need much updating or interactive content. On the other end, however, lie e-books, technical manuals, cookbooks, and tourism and trade materials, that would benefit immensely from XML’s ability to allow editorial action (and, presumably, reader feedback) after publication. Being able to update content is critical to the integrity and authority of a publication; likewise, having that content immediately accessible and opening it up, in some form, to readers, offers vast potential for its marketing and PR.

The StartWithXML survey, done in conjunction with O’Reilly Media (full results and slide presentation available here), showed that

  • everyone sees value in more formats
  • multiple formats are not under control
  • storage and retrieval is not a science (this is not good)
  • editors are looking for flexibility and control
  • content re-use varies by type

Some highlights from the “Migrating to XML: Best Practices” segment of the talk:

In terms of Acquisitions: author guidelines, word with XML, keywords, tagging, chunking (taxonomies for content)

In terms of Rights: should be integrated with content in XML

In Editorial terms: tag with meaning; confirm additional downstream uses

Ultimately, the goal of the talk was to persuade publishers and editors that XML can streamline the e-book production, help standardize formats within a house, and help rein in a seemingly endless stream of content slipping out of editorial control. Let’s say your house does ten cookbook series; standardizing within and among the series can be made less of a headache with XML. Additionally, you can produce a greater number of formats and improve internal processes. But, the group stressed, you’ve got to begin with the end in mind: it’s not a panacea, adopting it may be prohibitively expensive for small presses, and not all applications will work for everyone.

The host of “StartWithXML” presentations available here are, again, an excellent resource for further reading on the topic.


2 responses to “BEA (Thursday): “XML for Editors: What You Need to Know and Why You Should Care”

  1. Apologies – I missed your write-up when it was first published. I’m glad that you found some value in the presentation; it can be hard writing for an audience you meet only in the few minutes before a presentation begins. You certainly captured the ideas that we hoped to share that day.

    • No need to apologize–the blog has been defunct for a while. :) I did enjoy the XML presentation, though I was clearly in over my head as an editor who’d been working with paper galleys up ’til 2008. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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