/ Guest Editor's Gloss: Reflections on the Revolution

When Judith Turner, editor of the Journal of Electronic Publishing, and Colin Day, its publisher, asked me to be guest editor of this special issue on book and journal publishers moving from print to electronic publishing, I jumped at the chance. They thought I was doing them a great favor, but actually, they were doing me one.

I learn by talking and writing, as my patient employees can attest. I involve them in extended conversations in the process of putting a proposal together, or writing a white paper, or developing a seminar. I love capturing the ideas we've discussed on paper or in a presentation, because that's when I feel I'm really getting a handle on them.

So you can imagine my delight when Judith and Colin approached me about editing this issue. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk to some very smart people who are doing some very interesting things in an area I'm deeply passionate about. It was a chance to put into words — and thus fix more clearly in my mind and incorporate more effectively in my work — some of the things I'm learning.

As owner of Impressions Book and Journal Services, I have the good fortune to know and work with many such people. Some are employees, some are customers, some are colleagues in various professional contexts, and some are even — to use a term that almost seems outmoded in the present situation — competitors.

One of the pleasures of this business right now is the sense of openness and excitement that blurs and sometimes erases the lines that used to be drawn between people. We collaborate, we learn from each other, we help each other. Customers and vendors work together to develop solutions; people who might seem to be in competition willingly share what they know, and pay attention to what other people are doing.

The reason is that we're in the middle of a revolution. It's a common observation that the technological advances of the past decade or two are changing publishing more profoundly than it has changed since Gutenberg's time. Especially when change is as rapid as it is today, it presents great opportunities and associated great risks. The traditional roles that bring clarity and stability to the status quo break down at a time like this: It becomes less risky to share knowledge than to conceal it. If somebody else has tried something new and failed, or succeeded after much struggle, you want to know about it; and the best way to understand is through dialogue, collaboration.

That isn't just altruistic; it's also practical. Rapid change can really make you humble: These days, it's impossible to delude yourself that you have all the answers. It's also impossible to keep thinking that past success ensures future success. Revolutions like the one we're in can cut down the high and mighty with shocking swiftness, and reward smart upstarts who have the guts and good luck to do the right thing at the right time. Most of us dream of being one of the latter, but at the same time dread being one of the former.

"When better to be an entrepreneur than in the middle of a revolution?"

Ambition and terror are both heightened when all that upheaval has happened right before your eyes. I still think of myself as relatively young (or at least not old), but I began in publishing before Bill Gates and Paul Allen started scheming in their dorm, before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak cobbled together the first Apple in their garage. Now those former upstarts are the threatened establishment. As I write this, the publishing world wonders if the once-mighty Mac will survive (many pray it will) and watches as the Justice Department challenges the Microsoft monopoly. What's going to happen to my company in the midst of all this change — and to yours?

I have to admit I love being in the middle of this revolution. In 1982, just as it was picking up steam, I launched my own company, Impressions, when we were seen as cutting edge by converting authors' CP/M disks and setting type in pages, not galleys. In 1990, we became part of a big, established book and journal manufacturer, Edwards Brothers. I became vice president of EB at the time PostScript transformed the prepress process and digital printing started to emerge. In 1995, seeing the opportunities presented by electronic publishing and the new value it gave to the skills and services we'd been cultivating all those years, I bought Impressions back. I wanted to be in the right place, doing the right things, at the right time. I'm an entrepreneur at heart, and when better to be an entrepreneur than in the middle of a revolution?

I like being in the middle of the process, and of the market, too. We tend to have a balanced view of things at Impressions because we do so many of the things publishers do, for so many different kinds of publishers. We're nonpartisan: We produce everything from print pages to Web pages, from casebound books to CD-ROMs. That gives us a great vantage point, and it also helps me sleep better at night — I like to hedge my bets. In fact, despite Impressions' high-tech reputation, we make most of our money from good old typesetting. And we love it. (Personally, I still love drawing type, with a pencil and paper, though when I indulge myself and actually design a book now and then, I use a Mac.) We love type, we love words, we love the printed page. We design, we edit, we index. We work with all sorts of publishers, from little five-book-a-year publishers to Macmillan and Wiley and Harcourt Brace, from one-journal societies to the American Bar Association and the American Library Association. We produce trade books, textbooks, scholarly books, legal and medical books, reference books, encyclopedias, journals. We don't think print will go away — and we don't want print to go away.

What's exciting about the situation today is that print is just one of several alternatives. Though I love print, I don't think it's always the best way, or the only way, to publish a given book or journal. For the kind of information readers need intermittently in small batches — journal papers, for example — the Web is a much better medium. The same is true for material that needs to be constantly updated, like legal, or financial, or medical information. But despite the rapid expansion of bandwidth, the Web can be cumbersome for very large batches of information. For a big encyclopedia or a medical reference full of massive image files, CD-ROM (or its upcoming successor, DVD-ROM) can't be beat — though it might need to be supplemented via the Web to be kept up to date. Electronic media allow publishers to publish things not practical in print: color versions of the printed black-and-white figures, or all the images that couldn't fit into the print pages, or the research data supporting the published conclusions. And electronic media allow publishers to publish things that are not even possible in print: a video clip of a lab procedure, or a snatch of a symphony, or even software to show a molecule in three dimensions. What a brave new world, that has such options in it!

"The good news is, this stuff can actually work"

But how's a poor publisher to know what to do in the midst of a tempest like this? A few years ago, when so many mysterious and ominous electronic alternatives were just clouds on the horizon, many publishers sat back and scoffed, or hoped it all would blow over so they could go back to business as usual. The truth is, some publishers still do business as usual. People don't really read on the screen, do they? (Yes, they do.) You'll go broke publishing on the Web, won't you? (Not if you do it right.) CD-ROM was a colossal failure, wasn't it? (Nope; just some CD-ROMs.)

Today, though, most publishers do recognize that electronic publishing is here to stay. Now the ambition and terror I spoke of earlier become real. On the one hand, these new options begin to look like opportunities. What if I didn't have to pay for warehousing all the print I do now? What if I didn't have to trash the inventory I'll never sell? What if I didn't have to print as many copies — or any? Think of the shipping and handling costs I'd save if I could get my customers to print out what they want! Maybe people really will pay for information, not just paper. Maybe I can get more mileage out of the work I'm doing: after all, I'm a publisher, not a printer. But on the other hand, making a move toward electronic publishing begins to be a matter of survival. Without the right alternatives, will my subscribers desert me, my readers shop elsewhere, my competitors beat me to the punch?

The good news is, this stuff can actually work. Not all the time, and not always in the ways we expect; but publishers are making real commitments, real investments — and even real money — in electronic products. In the last few years, the industry has moved from the experimental stage to the exploratory one. Now it's not as much a matter of will it work? but what works? Nobody has all the answers, and nobody has done everything right, but it's no longer a terra incognita. The horror stories of a few years ago — the publisher who lost big bucks on a CD-ROM, the electronic journal that never caught on, the investments in technologies that didn't make it — are being replaced more and more by success stories. There are CD-ROMs that generate profits that shock even their publishers. Some journal programs have found a new lease on life with the Web. The Internet even turns out not to damage print sales, but to enhance them. Most print publishers see a move into electronic publishing no longer as a matter of if, but when.

And that inevitably leads to how. Hence the purpose behind this special issue of the Journal of Electronic Publishing. The articles here range from position pieces to personal experiences, but the common thread is the story of how a variety of book and journal publishers are moving into electronic publishing. Some of the writers are publishers themselves; some are on the editorial side; some are in production; and some are suppliers. The products represented range from small scholarly books to huge reference books. The writers have a variety of perspectives and a variety of experiences to share. Let me whet your appetite by telling you a little bit about them.

Two of the areas where the move to electronic publishing is happening the fastest are reference and journal publishing. There is tremendous demand for electronic products in these areas: Users need the functionality only electronic technology can provide. The articles we have from reference and journal publishing will be valuable to publishers of any kind, because of the issues their stories raise and the solutions they relate.

Sylvia Miller tells the fascinating story of how Macmillan is transforming their print encyclopedias to a variety of electronic products. Writing from the editor's point of view, she shows how much more dynamic and powerful these electronic products can be than their print counterparts — and how their development requires a whole new workflow, raises teamwork to a new dimension, and forces editors, designers, and publishers to think about familiar material in new ways.

Martin Hensel, the main architect behind Mosby's landmark GenRx product, tells a reference-publishing success story from a different point of view. He focuses on the process by which a successful but limited print product — a large drug reference book — was transformed into a much more powerful and profitable electronic one. Its success paved the way for other such products at Mosby, and perhaps it can for you as well.

On the journal side, Gerry Grenier tells how Wiley advanced from its initial experiments in publishing a single electronic journal, Image Guided Surgery, to today's roll-out of Wiley InterScience, a very large-scale program for publishing more than four hundred print scientific, technical, and medical journals online. There were special challenges in managing such a large and varied body of work produced by a host of vendors using a variety of technologies; the story of how they created a coherent and workable system in such a complex, heterogeneous context is impressive and illuminating.

"One of the hallmarks of the digital era is its openness"

Writing from a different sector of the scholarly universe, Kate Wittenberg describes Columbia University Press's innovative CIAO project, Columbia International Affairs Online. Designed to accommodate a wide variety of publications — from working papers to journal articles to scholarly monographs — in a single discipline, CIAO blurs the lines not only between the traditional categories of print publishing, but also between the participants who produce them. Her article illuminates the profound change this project has made in how the participants view the publishing process and how universities, libraries, and presses need to work together in new ways in the digital world.

In addition to these case-study oriented articles, we've included three pieces that deal with underlying technological issues in a more general way. All four of them will help you put the various publishers' stories in perspective and relate them better to your own situation.

My own article discusses two key technologies that are critical to electronic publishing today: SGML and PDF. They are often seen as competing technologies; I make the case that they should be seen as complementary. SGML, the Standard Generalized Markup Language, describes structure and meaning; PDF, Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format, describes the appearance of a page. By helping you understand these two critical technologies and how they work, I hope to help you use them effectively in developing electronic products.

Tony Hicks, of the University of California Press, has written an engaging, accessible piece on what might seem to be a very technical aspect of SGML: the use of ISO 12083, a standard — but controversial — publishing-industry DTD (Document Type Definition). We've worked closely with him in the development of this SGML strategy for scholarly monographs, and I can attest that despite its intellectual and theoretical slant it has grown out of extensive real-world trial and error. Its main goal is to enable publishers to build a flexible, standards-based SGML archive with procedures that can adapt to the practical needs of editors, designers, and typesetters who may not have specialized SGML expertise or tools. This is a critical issue for any publisher contemplating SGML.

As publishers develop electronic products, they often reveal significant inefficiencies in their workflows. Files created for one purpose turn out to be hard to use for another; changes made for spin-off products are missed in the master files; authors and editors need to collaborate electronically, even though they may be far apart and using incompatible systems. Chris Kartchner of CDIS, INC., discusses how content-management systems can bring order to chaos and, in the right context, pay for themselves by enabling publishers to maximize the value of their electronic assets and automate their workflows for the digital era.

Will these articles give you all the answers? Of course not. But I hope the experiences and insights these writers are so generously sharing will help you ask the right questions, think the issues through more thoroughly, and assess the options more realistically.

I encourage you to share your experiences and insights, too. I can't stress enough how important this kind of dialogue is. One of the hallmarks of the digital era is its openness. Proprietary systems and proprietary solutions are widely regarded as things of the past. The rapid pace of innovation we enjoy today (and yes, it is possible to enjoy it!) is largely due to the existence of open systems, open software, and the open interchange of ideas and solutions among people who might seem unrelated or even in competition.

New ideas can come from anywhere; unless you're really engaged in the ongoing dialogue you won't fully understand and benefit from them. Whether you're one of the upstarts or part of the old guard, you have a lot to gain from sharing what you know and listening to what others have to share. I'm convinced that this is the most exciting time ever to be in publishing; it's a great privilege and pleasure to be able to participate in it.

—Bill Kasdorf


Impressions Book and Journal Services, Inc.