The Publishing Machine: How automation makes space for creativity

Damian Gibbs

It is a curious thing, publishing books. I’ve never been sure if it is more art or science; either way, there is no doubt that both are involved, and one without the other amounts to naught.

Access to literature has come a long way since early handwritten manuscripts, thanks to moveable type and the printing press, largely attributed to Johannes Gutenberg. The “technology” Gutenberg leveraged was his own trade of blacksmithing. This is as far from being a scribe as you could imagine—metal versus paper, a loud, hot workshop versus the quiet library environment.

It is unknown how or why Gutenberg formalised the concept of moveable type and the printing press, but it is an early example of “disruption” by someone “outside of the business”.

Nevertheless, it launched the spread of knowledge and the subsequent proliferation of ideas and inventions, providing the foundation for the “knowledge economy”. The improvement in quality (particularly legibility) created value, and the ability for printing presses to scale provided an attractive economic opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Of course, since then, authoring, typesetting, and printing have become digitally enabled, but the traditional practices of this 400-year-old profession remain entrenched in publishing software and processes.

For typesetting and page composition, this can be a double-edged sword. While the ‘science’ of typesetting enables the predictable delivery of quality pages, predictable can also mean repetitive.

I started typesetting in the early 1990s, and soon became aware of the repetitive nature of probably 80% of the books I typeset. While the designs for each title or series of titles were unique, the process of laying out the pages, and the decisions on where and how to place artwork, were the same.

Essentially, I realised that I was thinking like an algorithm, and with my elementary knowledge of Python and Javascript, I could use code to automate many of the decisions I was making.

When I began using the industry-leading typesetting software, Adobe InDesign, I was still doing a lot of repetitive tasks. Some of these I solved with GREP searches; however, I also knew that computers generally have limited capacity to handle vague problems or ‘grey areas’.

Those grey areas are where I would far rather spend my time and energy doing meaningful work.

The focus of automation should be to free ourselves from the boring drudgery of repetitive tasks, minimise errors, avoid danger, eliminate redundant data, and enhance the user’s effectiveness. As companies who have adopted automation have shown, less time making allows for more time innovating.

So how can publishers benefit from automation?

Firstly, a reality check—automation is difficult. Not because the technology is complicated, but because people have to adjust the way they work, and that is uncomfortable for many.

However, the questions to ask are: What will you do with your extra capacity once automation is achieved? Which creative and innovative projects sitting on the back burner can you finally bring to the fore? How will you spend your most valuable resource—time?

Automation is not an all or nothing commitment; it can be done in incremental steps.

A good place to start is to look for small, simple, repetitive tasks that you perform regularly (for example, in your word processor, spreadsheets, cloud platforms, or typesetting software), and explore ways to automate them.

There will always be tasks that computers cannot and should not do, but automating repetitive chores that are better suited to computers frees up humans to focus on the more meaningful work I mentioned earlier.

In the end, the reader cares most about when and how great their next read will be. So where should publishers be investing their creative energy?

Damian Gibbs started out as an apprentice typesetter over 20 years ago at a leading South African educational publisher, and from the start was curious about opportunities that digital technologies bring to publishing.
He transitioned to general market publishing and eventually became a service provider to local and offshore publishers covering a diverse range of publishing markets, all requiring varying workflows and output requirements.
Damian has extensive experience working with publishers to use evolving technologies and innovative digital publishing products to improve workflows, and to transition from pure print to digital outputs such as web, e-books, and CMS publishing.
Based in Cape Town, South Africa, he now works as a Solutions Consultant at Typefi, where he specialises in developing and supporting automated workflows for standards publishers.

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