The Struggle for Media-Independent Publishing

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"Media-independent publishing" is the latest buzz-term among print media pros. But what exactly does it mean, and what's in store for organizations that try to implement media-independent publishing strategies? Those were the central questions in a conference session held Monday during Seybold Seminars Boston 99, the electronic publishing trade show that runs this week in Beantown.

The session was moderated by Kevin Hannon, vice-president of publishing technologies for Sotheby's–the well known auction house–and also featured presentations by Mary Mclaughlin, publishing systems manager for Granger, a distributor of industrial supplies, and Carla Tishler, director of Internet and Web development for book publisher Houghton-Mifflin.

The three companies may be in different lines of business, but all have encountered similar challenges in their on-going efforts to implement media-independent publishing systems–most simply defined as systems that seamlessly integrate print and electronic publishing workflows. In short, Hannon said, building and maintaining a media-independent publishing system "is a nightmare."

Today, most publishers use separate workflows for print and dynamic media, which is an inherently inefficient structure because they must often share the same assets–articles, photos, illustrations, and other elements that appear both online and in print. However, integrating the two poses many challenges. For example, all media-independent publishing systems use a database to store media assets destined for print and online publication. But if you make late changes to a QuarkXPress layout–a common occurrence in many publishing companies–you have to manually update the database to reflect those changes, because none of the currently available media-independent publishing systems will do it for you.

Some organizations face the prospect of integrating disparate print publishing workflows. For example, Tishler noted that Houghton-Mifflin's eight divisions each have unique publishing systems.

Another challenge is dealing with legacy data: information stored on mainframes, proprietary electronic publishing systems, and even on paper, must somehow be converted to a standard format.

Hannon said that media-independent publishing systems must often integrate information from departments that previously had little to do with publishing. For example, the Sotheby's system–used to publish print and Web catalogs of auction items–incorporates inventory management and financial data. "You need to create a dynamic relationship between the corporate systems and publishing tools," he noted.

All three speakers agreed that implementing a media-independent publishing system requires a major commitment from the entire organization, along with input from a variety of players, including designers, editors, production staff, financial specialists, and IT professionals.

One challenge for designers working with media-independent publishing systems will be maintaining creativity. To maximize efficiency, these systems require that data be highly structured, but there's a danger that this will lead to designs that look as if they came off an assembly line.

For example, Granger, which publishes a 4,000-page catalog, uses an automated system to generate tables and other catalog entries. In a manual system, a designer might insert rules to make a table easier to read, or use a single spec to describe multiple catalog entries rather than simply repeating it. Unless publishing systems provide an easy way to achieve this kind of flexibility, "we'll all be doing something that looks like a phone book," Mclaughlin said.

The move to media-independent publishing could be ominous for the Mac. Even now, Mac-based designers in many corporations feel pressure from IT departments to switch to the Wintel platform, which dominates the business market. As companies create integrated publishing systems, IT managers might think they have even greater incentive to force a switch.

However, the Mac continues to benefit from its strengths as a design and publishing platform. Hannon notes that he attempted to implement a "PC only" policy when he took over Sotheby's electronic publishing operations, only to reverse himself when he discovered how difficult it was to attract PC-savvy designers.

"The Mac needs to be recognized as a business platform," Mclaughlin said. "Organizations like mine that don't recognize [the Mac] need to get past that. Either that, or PC versions need to be as strong [as the Mac is] for publishing."

Tishler noted that many media-independent publishing systems use Web browsers as their main client interface, making platform distinctions less important.

The bottom line, Hannon said, is that Mac designers in corporations need to "make a business case for support for their platform."

All three panelists agreed that implementing a media-independent publishing system is costly and time-consuming, and often requires a great deal of outside assistance. Although they did not discuss the merits of any particular publishing system, Hannon said it's important to pick a vendor with the resources to stay in the market over the long haul.

Noting the crowded field of developers offering these systems, Hannon foresees a consolidation over the next several years. Ultimately, he expects there will be six major players, at most, including Quark and Adobe, which are only beginning to discuss their product strategies.

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