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SDKs, APIs, XML – the next chapter


November 2007. A lounge bar overlooking Green Park in London. Two people sketching the future of book publishing gone digital. One, a publisher, had just seen an eReader prototype at Frankfurt – clumsy, dimly lit, but clearly portentous. The other, head of a website development company, had recently dipped his toes into publishing by authoring a guide on websites and being awarded a contract to build one for a major UK publisher. Their sketches soon morphed into one workflow model integrating the conversion of eBooks (a term little used then, except to refer to PDFs) with online print and eBook promotion, distribution and retail. It looked like the future.

That future is here now, but it’s been slow to arrive because of a few hurdles along the way. The greatest of these was fear – fear of the unknown and fear of technology. Digital publishing, as it came to be called, threatened to upset centuries-old business models and to infringe copyright, and required a level of technical know-how that few in the industry possessed. Add to this, various financial hurdles (e.g., converting a text-only paperback into an eBook in 2008 could cost £2,000; and you’d be talking in the tens of thousands for a D2C website) and practical hurdles (e.g., upwards of 20 eBook formats vying for top position; and inadequate solutions to digital distribution) and it’s not surprising that many publishers simply hoped that digital publishing would go away. Their trade magazines weren’t paying much attention to it at the time, so why should they?

In the past two years, though, all that has changed. Digital publishing has been so completely embraced that the term itself is now redundant – there is just ‘publishing’. Digital technologies are no longer seen as threats, but as opportunities to facilitate the publishing process and create new business models, with brand recognition and reader engagement at their core. Things are moving so fast that if those two people in November 2007 (Darin Brockman, now Firsty’s CEO, and Kay Sayce, Publishing Consultant) were to try now (with Charlie Warburton, Firsty’s MD, and our ever-expanding technical team) to sketch the future of publishing, it’d be impossible.

But we would be able throw some light on the next chapter in publishing. In terms of concepts, we’d cite direct publisher-reader relationships, combined content output, and cloud-based and open-access publishing. In terms of technologies, we’d focus on three interconnected technologies – SDKs, APIs and XML – and would urge you, as publishers, to do so too. Here’s a brief introduction to them.

Multiplatform publishing. The ability to automatically generate customized outputs to multiple platforms (browsers, smartphones, tablets and other devices) will become pivotal to successful publishing. It involves cross-platform development using SDKs (Software Development Kits) and rests on two things. The first is intelligent content. Targeting many devices means producing a variety of outputs, but it doesn’t mean having many versions of same content. If content is intelligent (i.e., flexible, well structured and semantically rich), it can be reliably processed and tailored to suit the platform it appears on. The second is cross-platform code development. Just as multiple targets need not mean multiple versions of the same content, they also need not mean multiple versions of the same code. The complexity of content delivery determines the application needed. For simple delivery requirements, a web application might be enough (i.e., a browser-based approach, where tailored code is applied to tailored content). In other cases, the delivery requirements might make it necessary to develop a separate application for each of the major platforms.

Creating good APIs. Tomorrow’s successful publishers will also be those who provide good APIs (Application Programming Interfaces – sets of tools that convey content by allowing different bits of software to communicate with each other). Books are made of data, and publishers need to manage how retailers and readers access these data (books). To do this, they need to know their books inside out, which generally they do (basic metadata, as well as more abstract elements such as themes, concepts, quotations and literary references). What they tend to lack is the ability to use this knowledge to make their books as widely available as possible. Arranging this knowledge and adding more in-depth data to create semantic maps of their books is essentially what creating a good API is all about.

Formatting content with XML. In order to format content so that it can be output to various platforms via, inter alia, SDKs and APIs, you need XML (Extensible Markup Language). Easy to manipulate and convert into multiple outputs, it is becoming the de facto standard for data transfer in the context of book production. It allows you to impose rules about your content and to manage the process of converting manuscripts using XML Editors. Converting manuscripts to XML offers many benefits, including reduced costs and production time, early manuscript viewing, the ability to search not just text but also specific structures within the text, adherence to data standards and assured internal data security.

For more on SDK and XML tools, there’s useful information in a recent issue of the online magazine EContent. For an in-depth discussion on any of these technologies, do call us at Firsty (tel: 01635 581185).

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