Automation is great, but it won’t work for my books…

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The most common feedback from publishers when chatting about automation is the belief that their publications are beyond what automation can do. As a book designer and typesetter with over 20 years’ experience in producing almost every kind of book possible, I get it.

The hours dedicated to ensuring each line is hyphenated correctly; taking care of widows, orphans, grunts, and rivers; deciding where to place images (with the perfect crop); adjusting leading and layouts to ensure the content fits a publication correctly; and so it goes, page after page.

I am so much more than a machine. How could any software replace what I had taken decades to accomplish?

For a long time, the thought of losing production time, letting down clients and colleagues with inferior work, or missing deadlines while getting to grips with a new solution was frightening. And, quite frankly, I was terrified of losing control of the process.

So, I let any thoughts of automation languish, until it suddenly became a necessity.

Dipping a toe in the water

I took my first step with ‘semi-automation’ on a fairly complex book. The manuscript was unstyled (everything had the paragraph style ‘Normal’ with bolds and italics and manual character styling, argghh), and the deadline for typesetting did not compensate for the untagged manuscript.

There had to be a way to fix it.

I did research in online forums. I fiddled (and failed), and fiddled, and eventually I had a reasonable grasp on Adobe InDesign’s powerful GREP search and replace function.

At the time, with the deadline looming, I wasn’t sure whether the steep learning curve was worth the effort. I remember thinking, “If I had just done it the old manual way, I would at least have something to show for my effort.”

But sure enough, with some trial and error, it took just a few keystrokes to bring the manuscript into shape, and for the pages to start looking like the spec design.

I was pretty amazed with my new bionic self—part human and part machine! I had taken control of the ‘all-Normal’ manuscript and turned it into a book, in a fraction of the time that it would have taken if I’d plodded along as usual.

By replacing the drudge work with a few keystrokes, I could now focus more on the creative process of laying out the pages, and the proofs went back a little earlier than the deadline.

Developing my new superpowers

With the books that followed, I looked at every job through two lenses: firstly, using the spec design from the client to understand the layout and aesthetics, and secondly, analysing the content’s structure to see how many design elements I could insert using my newfound GREP skills.

While some projects were more successful than others, over time the gains were exponential.

Looking back on this learning experience, a few observations stand out.

  • Once I started using very basic semi-automation, I could transfer those skills to other types of books. Every book levelled up my skills.
  • I could also transfer the knowledge across software.
  • Working with InDesign kept me relevant with my publishing clients, who could still access files to update any last-minute manual changes before print.

The lowdown: Almost any type of publication can (and has been) automated

As a bionic book designer of many years now, I’ve learned that the diversity of books automatically created in InDesign is simply extraordinary.

Adobe provides access to InDesign’s underbelly for scripting, and a scout around the internet quickly reveals that there are some very smart people who have leveraged this for almost every kind of publication and most types of content.

With InDesign’s scripting model, it is highly probable that if it has been made in InDesign, it can be automated—even if only partially.

While Microsoft Word continues to be the pervasive authoring tool in publishing, it lacks one critical feature—a convenient method for marking up structure. Fortunately, nowadays there are sophisticated Word plug-ins that help authors and editors insert structural markup effortlessly.

Publishers often experience a gear-shift once source content has been given some structure—they realise that their content is dynamic, rather than static. Going from source to multiple outputs (PDF, EPUB, HTML, and so on) through automation suddenly becomes not only possible, but realistic.

Complementing powerful industry-standard software and talented people with a workflow that facilitates automation allows publishers of all sizes to be more creative and enhance their productivity—without massive disruption.

Some level of automation probably will work for your books. Why not make 2020 your year to give it a go?

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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