Who has the inky fingers?

Standards bodies, like librarians and archivists, take a long view. 

@BarefootLiam - the host of this week's  W3C Workshop on Publishing, suggested that this is important when considering the needs of, for example, CSS for publishing. He also suggested that publishers might be on board with this, as their industry has emerged over hundreds of years. 

With this in mind, this morning I visited the Basel Paper Mill museum  (also a working paper mill, typesetting studio, printing and binding workshop). The museum is helpfully split into four floors, corresponding to the main activities in book production:

  1. paper making
  2. typesetting and the written word
  3. printing
  4. binding and associated book arts (marbling, embossing, etc.).

Progressing through the museum is an exercise in realising that the process of publishing a book has a long history as a very slow, exacting process with incremental advances over hundreds of years. It also has cycles of professionalisation (medieval scriptoria, typographic compositors) and deprofessionalisation (automatic printing presses that could be operated by unskilled labour, desktop publishing).

But what was blindingly obvious throughout was one missing piece: publishers. What was the actual role of the publisher in the physical production process?

Very little, it turns out.

Publishers never trod the printing shop floor (though some editors became enchanted by the smell of the ink and the rhythm of the machines, as they checked proofs coming off the press and consulted on colour and paper). Most publishers were entirely divorced from the production process, but they knew what a good book looked like. Skilled compositors, printers and binders were craftsmen who organised their own apprenticeship systems and enforced quality; in short, there was an agreed standard.

Then desktop publishing came along, tools became simplified, and editors, freelancers working from home, or even authors could do their own typesetting. Publishers, for the most part, continued to enforce age-old quality standards, and printers kept their jobs. Typesetting was brought from the shop floor to the direct and watchful eye of the editorial department. Publishers got control of part of the means of production, and didn't get their fingers inky. This worked fairly well for about 25 years. 

Then, suddenly, printed books weren't good enough.

In addition to the hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback and large print versions of the printed book (all of which could be accommodated by desktop publishing software and printers), publishers were now expected to produce multiple ebook versions, PDFs for web download, archival PDFs for libraries and websites. And who knows what next.

Desktop publishing software and printers can't do that.

To publish digitally, we need web technologies. Publishers need web technologies.

Web technologies make it possible to create a single file for print and multi-platform digital output, they make it cheap, and they also make it fairly easy. Web technologies have standards, written specifications, open-source modules, and many, many free online tutorials. Anyone with a text editor and an internet connection can learn to code CSS and HTML. There are no such written standards for the craft of book publishing. It's easier to teach an interested production editor to code than it is to teach a programmer the essential nuances of design, layout, and typography.

CSS and HTML are the bedrock of ebooks and the web, but they are not up to the job of print publishing. It doesn't have to be this way. The W3C needs to have publishers' input into the standards in order that they cover what is needed. The list is pretty endless, but the W3C doesn't know what they are. It includes things like the ability to easily place an ornament in a running head, avoid a hyphen stack, include marginalia, and so forth. All the stuff that print book publishers do every day, and website designers don't. 

So, whose job is it to tell the W3C what to include in the specification that defines the design and layout of publishers' products?

All I know is, the printers aren't going to do it.