6 Tools of the Digital Workflow (Brian O’Leary)

Brian O’Leary is a publishing consultant and principal of Magellan Media Partners, an Adjunct Professor of Publishing at NYU, and has had held senior positions in the publishing industry, including Production Manager at Time Inc. and Associate Publisher at Hammond Inc. You can find Brian on Twitter at: @brianoleary.

The nature, history, and business goals of publishers vary widely, making it impossible to identify a single set of tools as “preferred.”  Even the most limited decisions (buy this software, use these vendors) depend on a publisher’s existing information technology, its appetite for change, corporate approaches to purchasing, and longer-term goals with respect to output and scalability.

Still, some decision points are common to all publishers. All will need to specify one or more word-processing software packages that editors and potentially authors will be expected to use.  Most, if not all, will specify a software package to handle design, although increased use of style sheets could shift certain types of publishers away from the use of intermediate design steps that involve third-party software.  That said, a given publisher may not need to use all the tools that are available, just the ones that make sense in helping to manage its authoring, repository, and distribution operations.

As content migrates to a much more robust digital environment, publishers will also need to make decisions about related services that may be licensed (title management software, production management software) or outsourced completely (content aggregation and search optimization).  In some cases, like the development of a digital asset management system or sourcing digital asset distribution services, publishers can make a scale-dependent choice about whether to build it or buy the service.

Digital Workflow Tools

Broadly defined, there are 12 different types of digital workflow tools that will be commonly employed in the publishing value chain:

  1. Title management: Typically, a centralized database that holds and manages book-specific information.  The data set can include information relevant to sales, distribution, rights, and royalties, among other areas.  Title management tools may be bought outright or licensed.
  2. Contracts, rights, and royalties: Software and related systems that help publishers manage the creation of contracts, the sale of rights, and the payment of royalties.
  3. Content conversion: Services or technologies used to convert common document formats (e.g., Microsoft Office, PDF, and HTML) into more agile formats, including EPUB and XML.  Services can also include the conversion of physical materials (books, film) into more agile formats.
  4. XML tools: Software used to create, edit, adapt, and render XML files.  These tools are most often used internally.
  5. Production management: Software and related systems that provide oversight and help manage editorial development and pre-press and production processes.
  6. Workflow management: Software and systems used to manage tasks that can include automatic routing, partially automated processing, and integration among different functional software applications and hardware systems.
  7. Digital asset management (DAM): Systems and software that help publishers ingest, annotate, catalog, store, and retrieve digital assets, such as digital photographs, animations, videos, and music.
  8. Content management: Tools used to create, edit, manage, and publish content in a consistently organized fashion.  Content management software may also be used to store, control, and version publishing documents, whether works in progress or final files.  The content managed may include web content.
  9. Archiving content: Offline storage and backup systems and software.
  10. Digital asset distribution (DAD): Managing publishers’ digital content, metadata, and promotional materials.  Some DADs also provide content syndication to distribution and trading partners.
  11. Content aggregation: Portals that provide users with a single point of access to a variety of content aggregated from within an enterprise, as well as from business or trading partners and the Web.
  12. Search: Tools that help publishers improve the visibility and searchability of their content.

Components of a Digital Publishing Workflow

Much as different publishers will use digital tools in different ways, the various components of the publishing value chain also vary in their need for and use of digital tools.

Although organizational structures in publishing overlap with the core components of the publishing value chain, we focus here on a generalized set of definitions for these several activities.   In particular, we identify six core functions:

  • Content acquisition
  • Contracts and agreements
  • Editorial development
  • Production editorial
  • Operations
  • Marketing, promotion, sales, and service

The activities, opportunities, challenges, and tools required for each of these six functions are addressed in the sections that follow.

Content Acquisition

Although the precise steps vary by type of publisher, most begin by soliciting, developing, reviewing, and assessing proposals.  This process culminates in decisions about what to publish as well as the formats in which a particular work will be distributed.

Digital workflows offer publishers new ways to think about product planning.  Although the practice is still rare, acquisition can signal the start of a period in which works can be discovered.  Tagging and partial or selective release of works in progress is a practical option in digital-first workflows.

This ultimately means that event-driven publishing may migrate to a more continuous model.  Seasonal releases may give way to more thematic or market-driven thinking about what products to release, and when.  The key to obtaining these benefits starts with the introduction and use of XML tools, the software used to create, edit, adapt, and render XML files.

Over the last eight years, word-processing software packages and design software (most notably, Adobe’s Creative Suite) have become increasingly XML-savvy.  At the same time, open-source software has grown more sophisticated and accessible to authors and editors, although its effective use continues to require a working understanding of XML structure.

As software packages like Microsoft Word and Adobe InDesign have become XML-compliant, they have added features that export XML files relatively easily.  However, the steps users take to structure Word and InDesign documents are not as tightly controlled, as is the case with native XML editors.  As a result, publishers have found that obtaining useful XML from these commercial packages is not that easy in practice.

Other options include native XML formats (DocBook, OpenOffice.org XML, and TEI) as well as applications that support many aspects of XML (Adobe’s InDesign CS and Microsoft’s current versions of Office are examples).  Users familiar with Word or other desktop word-processing packages sometimes struggle to adapt to DocBook’s or OpenOffice.org’s requirements for structure before content.

Supporters claim that the learning curve is not steep and that the downstream flexibility inherent in “tag first” is worth the investment.  Because the software is available freely, it is an attractive option to test in smaller-scale and prototyping efforts.

Although the Adobe and Microsoft products can be used without implementing XML, they provide a familiar software alternative that can help publishers make a transition to XML workflows. To obtain XML from Adobe InDesign, users apply tags to parts of a document and export the document as an XML file. If properly structured, the XML can then be used to repurpose the content elsewhere.

Before a document is exported as XML, it is also possible to examine and edit the XML structure within InDesign, add attributes to elements, or even reverse the approach and map paragraph styles to tags.  It is this flexibility that requires incremental control within an XML workflow, as users can approach the creation of a tagged document in a variety of ways that are visually acceptable but not XML-compliant.

Microsoft’s commercial product, Office Open, is an XML-compliant file format for representing spreadsheets, charts, presentations, and word-processing documents. An Office Open document file contains mainly XML-based files compressed within a zip package.  Starting with Microsoft Office 2007, the Office Open XML file formats have become the default file format of Microsoft Office, which includes the widely used Microsoft Word.  While less costly and in some cases free options exist, Word’s ubiquity makes it an appealing option for publishers looking to convert to XML workflows.

Publishers looking to use XML tools face some challenges.  Obtaining benefits in tagging early requires them to develop metadata structures that make sense for their markets and content.  These structures also require publishers to define the tag set and apply it consistently.

Decisions also need to be made about how to work with authors and freelancers without XML access.  Some publishers have created an “ingestion” step that standardizes manuscripts received from outside a publishing house, while others have progressively extended their network of external resources skilled in the use of various XML tools.

Contracts and Agreements

Although the nature of contractual agreements is as broad as publishing itself, all publishers make deals with authors that establish rights, payments, and royalties.  These agreements have only grown in importance (and in some cases, complexity) as demand for digital products and uses has grown.

Thinking about contracts and agreements as an opportunity to broaden the use of content downstream can promote cross-departmental interactions, reducing silos and improving the way that rights in particular are handled.  New content forms will likely force publishers to streamline rights and permissions handling, moving it out of the back office and linking it to efforts to market and sell content.

Ultimately, this will lead publishers to integrate royalty tracking in ways that take new output options (print on demand, recombinant content) into consideration.  The complexity of content marketing and sales will only increase over time, and the tools used to manage it will need to be both flexible and made available across a set of publishing functions.

Although the primary tools are the systems used to create, track, and report on contracts, rights, and royalties, this function will need to rely on digital asset management systems as well.  While contractual data is a special form of metadata, it remains metadata, best linked to and available with the content it describes.

Publishers working to prepare for this more robust use of content will need to start by reevaluating existing processes.  Publishers will need to create and maintain downstream controls that support credible decisions about rights without reverting to a central function or authority.

To the extent that adequate open standards exist, publishers can borrow from and organize around them, but an industry-wide agreement on rights standards is sorely needed.  Early attempts to develop such a standard are under way, but the need is immediate and growing.

Even as the challenges of tracking and linking rights data to new content are solved, publishers will still face specific decisions about retrofitting past content, whether digital or analog, to the new models. Contract complexity, already evident in the literally millions of agreements now in place, may need to be revisited to make it possible to support a wider use of content.

Editorial Development

The editorial development function engages publishing staff to work with authors to write and deliver a working manuscript.  This effort can include structuring content for use and reuse, but it always results in a working text document.

The growth of digital is opening up new possibilities for content development.  Readers have expressed interest in options that include expanded editions as well as content that can be “chunked,” or bought and consumed as components.  As noted in the earlier section on content acquisition, customers may pay for a preview of content before it is finished.

Digital workflows support a variety of downstream benefits.  Recombinant content can be identified and more easily supported from the outset.  During and after the editorial development process, content can be more robustly searched, promoting consistency and integrity and improving discovery.

In addition to the XML tools described earlier, the editorial development function will need to rely on title management solutions as well as those systems dedicated to workflow management, digital asset management, and content management.   In a digital environment, the need for greater sophistication in planning and managing content will put pressure on the classic editorial function, in which the manuscript alone was the primary output.

This may be the primary challenge publishers face in migrating editors from traditional roles to ones that emulate product managers.  Although structural changes are required to implement agile workflows and the role of XML tools is evolving, the digital-workflow editor will need to manage everything from structural tagging through to the iterative, collaborative evolution of niche taxonomies.  It’s a role that will demand both training and flexibility.

Production Editorial

Production editorial staff works with internal staff and subcontractors to manage the assembly of book components.  As content is increasingly fragmented and potentially sold in chunks, this work grows in both complexity and importance.

This function will continue to evolve its ability to manage versions and to more effectively maintain multiple versions.  “Write-once” digital workflows, properly designed, are likely to result in fewer errors, with content that is easier to update or (when needed) correct.

Effective design and maintenance of production editorial workflows will enable smaller-scale distribution and facilitate repurposing.  For many publishers, these options can become a significant source of downstream revenue, but most production editorial work today is dedicated toward optimizing the creation of a single manuscript in a single package.

As the role evolves, the critical digital workflow tools will include those employed in editorial development (title management, XML tools, workflow management, digital asset management, and content management) and production management. The latter covers software and related systems that provide oversight and help manage editorial development and pre-press and production processes.

This function also faces challenges adapting to digital workflows.  Moving from “write once, read once” to “write once, read many” is a big bite to for publishers to take, and the biggest leap occurs in this functional area. Existing XML tools, while promising, come with limitations as well.  For some publishers, the ability of agile workflow tools to support more complex layouts remains elusive.


If production editorial functions maintain content in ways that support downstream use and reuse, operations functions create and distribute that content in both print and other formats.  For physical products, which will remain, operations staff also assumes responsibility for warehouse and fulfillment of those products.

There are a number of ways in which digital workflows provide operations functions with an opportunity to improve.  Lead times to publication can be shortened, and with practice, the “print-to-web” pathway can be improved.

Building on work that started in editorial development and production editorial, operations can ultimately produce multiple digital versions from a single source (reducing reformatting expense).  This benefit is realized only when traditional barriers (silos) are eliminated and content products and uses are planned across functions.

Other benefits can include lower vendor rates, which are the result of more standard workflows and greater control over formats.  The risk associated with unsupported, proprietary formats is more significant than most publishers realize, and it is growing as the number of opportunities for reuse grows.  Publishers using standard, open, documented file formats will be able to read (and understand) content files in the future.

In addition to some of the tools used in editorial functions (production management, workflow management, digital asset management, and content management), operations also relies on tools that support content conversion, archiving content, and content aggregation.  In some cases, the tools are delivered as outsourced services, although that is largely a function of managing backlists.

Preparing for the next era of content creation and use will force publishers to confront legacy challenges.   Cost-effectively retrieving data from proprietary platforms that can include InDesign and Quark is a problem that has not (and may not) be solved.  This is also an area in which publishers’ cost-benefit mindset has led them to favor freelance efforts.  To the extent that this approach makes content less agile, outsourced work could come with hidden costs.

Marketing, Promotion, Sales, and Service

Publishers, long in the business of linking content to markets, find themselves facing an opportunity of greater breadth and depth than ever before.  It’s no longer a market in which publishers can promote and sell what they have produced (though they certainly can do that); it’s also a market in which readers can find publishers and help them define new and different products and services.

These new offerings will demand and build upon richer linking that supports “many-to-many” marketing.  Search is changing how readers discover and buy content, increasing the number of ways that publishers can build awareness.  The marketing is also, increasingly, two-way, providing publishers with new ways to understand and extend the uses of the content they have created.

In addition to the classic marketing and sales tools, publishers with digital workflows can capitalize on the power of search (tools that help publishers improve the visibility and searchability of their content) as well as content aggregation (providing users with a single point of access to a variety of content aggregated from within an enterprise, as well as from business or trading partners and the Web).

As was the case in production editorial, the breadth and complexity of products challenges publishers that have optimized their marketing and sales efforts around a set of physical products.  Multiple distribution channels demand simultaneous support at a time when marketing budgets are constrained and the efficiency of some traditional efforts is on the wane.

We’re entering a period in which publishers need to shift how marketing, promotion, and sales work while also migrating to a new and potentially radically different product mix.  This has been likened to changing the tires on a car traveling at 60 miles an hour; perhaps a bit dire, but at least directionally honest.  The value of a vision of the future, even an evolving one, has seldom been higher.

Working with Vendors

Publishers approaching agile workflows for the first time may be able to obtain effective transition support and best practices from firms working in this space.  Enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors, for example, can help answer initial questions about the type and level of metadata structures that make sense for a given publisher to populate.  Defining the tag set and a transition plan can be aided by ERP vendors, or those familiar with XML tools.

Reevaluating the processes used for contracts and agreements can involve ERP suppliers or those involved with title management.  At this stage, some publishers also consider what (if any) existing content needs to be migrated to digital formats, giving conversion services an opportunity to weigh in with a specific, stylesheet-driven perspective.

Suppliers familiar with workflow tools can also advise publishers on the structural changes required to implement those tools effectively.  In addition, they can provide a perspective on the value of open-source and commercial software options.  Because managing the iterative, collaborative evolution of taxonomies is one of the challenges publishers typically face in editorial development, suppliers who have worked in this space with other publishers can offer both best practice as well as transition support to manage the workload.

Vendors familiar with digital asset management systems (DAMs) and archival systems can be useful when integrating XML, new workflow tools, and existing or planned content management systems.  In some cases, ERP vendors working in this space can advise on production management systems or modules.  In production editorial, the expertise of some conversion services becomes useful in understanding options to use stylesheets to manage content presentation without going to an intermediate design step (such as InDesign).

Finally, efforts to render and repurpose content can be aided by a digital asset distributor (DAD).  While most publishers can benefit from a well-planned partnership with a DAD, there are a number of potentially significant conversion and content storage requirements that may be appropriate to outsource.  Content conversion, for example, can be a significant challenge for medium- and smaller-sized publishers; establishing a conversion relationship with an accomplished DAD can help publishers remain focused on the value-added components of agile workflows.

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