Automate your way to more meaningful work

Want more time for creativity, innovation, and strategic thinking—all while improving the bottom line? Let robots do the drudge.

It’s hard to overstate the turmoil an organisation goes through when change is introduced.

However, if 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that ‘the way we’ve always done it’ doesn’t necessarily translate to the ‘new normal’ in which we find ourselves.

If you’re one of the many publishers around the world being forced to rethink how you work, automating the grunt work of production could be one way to start refocusing your team’s efforts.

Automation can add capabilities to a team that would otherwise be difficult to realise, such as rapid development, testing, and scaling of new content products in multiple formats.

Automation can also promote team agility and resilience, and give people opportunities to refocus their efforts on content creation, strategy, and innovation.

Automation: An enabler, not a threat

With momentum around process automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence increasing, the idea that ‘robots are taking over’ is a legitimate concern.

In publishing, however, robots are well-suited to mundane, repetitive busywork that saps the time and creative energy of humans.

Automated tasks run as required and can often achieve a similar result in a fraction of the human time needed. This enables production staff to get more done, and to take a more agile approach overall.

Improving the bottom line

For many publishers, print still drives revenue. At the same time, publishers must retool for ever-evolving digital channels, all while creating high quality content for every possible output.

This is particularly relevant in educational publishing, where the COVID pandemic has accelerated demand for online content.

It’s very difficult to rapidly adopt and reuse existing content for new platforms—in addition to producing ‘conventional’ file formats—without the help of technology.

When implemented appropriately, automation can make efficient, single-source multi-format content production a reality, all while improving the bottom line.

Work closer to deadlines

Automating layout processes allows editors and designers to quickly update source documents or design templates, and rerun a section, chapter, or even an entire complex publication.

Since late changes no longer require manual layout updates, teams can work closer to deadlines, and potential for human error is greatly reduced.

Scale fast

In some automated workflows, production staff can adapt Adobe InDesign print templates for flexible or reflowable digital layouts, enabling a single-source approach to multi-format content.

This improves a team’s ability to scale products more quickly and easily.

Build accessibility right in

In accessible content production, automation really shines. As accessibility legislation is rolled out worldwide, digital publications (EPUB, DAISY, Web PDF and HTML) will need to be compliant.

Retrospectively updating digital publications for accessibility is costly, time-intensive, and inefficient, and ultimately your source content is out of sync with the final products.

However, with an automated single-source production workflow, accessibility can be built right in.

Enabling smart content

When introduced as part of an overall content strategy, automation can assist in the rapid repurposing of existing content.

To learn more, check out A guide to structuring content for automation by my Typefi colleague, Marie Gollentz.

Higher-order benefits

From a more holistic viewpoint, automating tedious tasks shifts our thinking about what is meaningful work.

Less time on basic errands relieves the stress and boredom of meaningless busywork, and creates space for higher-level activities involving creativity, strategic thinking, and professional development.

Automation can also facilitate collaboration between traditionally siloed departments. Providing team members with a broader picture of the publishing cycle may lead to value-adds, such as pooling cross-department data to improve customer satisfaction.

Practical steps to get started

The inevitable turmoil of change can be mitigated by careful research, extensive preparation, and team buy-in.

It’s important to involve leadership, management and staff alike when considering a new automated publishing process—and to find the right tools to achieve your goals.

Agree on your ‘why’

Investigate the ways that automation can help grow your business, and then decide on priorities based on your business and market environment.

Do you want faster time-to-market, increased productivity, or improved product development capabilities? Are there legal accessibility requirements you must comply with? Do you need to adapt to customers’ changing needs?

Review your daily tasks

Sometimes the tasks we think are valuable and important are just that, tasks.

One way to recognise opportunities for automation is to list simple, everyday tasks which are done repeatedly.

It could be ongoing search and replaces such as changing hyphens to en-dashes when they occur between numbers, applying style sheets to paragraphs and text, or updating InDesign settings before creating an EPUB.

All these “little” tasks require effort and time but, when automated, they can result in substantial accumulated savings across the production cycle.

Identifying such tasks can also provide an opportunity to ‘dip your toe in the automation water’.

In a previous BookMachine blog, I shared how a deadline and an untagged manuscript opened my eyes to automation and saved the day! Also on BookMachine, you can find inspiration to dip your toe in the automation waters from typesetter Peter Kahrel: A typesetting goldmine: Peter Kahrel’s online repository of free scripts.

Research and choose a solution

If you’re considering an automated production platform, it’s important to research thoroughly.

Make sure that automation vendors are upfront about costs, and that the solution you choose aligns with your identified priorities.

Vendors should also be willing to work closely with you to facilitate a smooth transition, and to identify areas that could be expanded or reduced in scope depending on your needs.

Get excited about automation!

Once the automation bug bites you and your team, there’s a good chance everyone will start looking for more ways to reduce busywork, increase overall efficiency, and realise new opportunities. 

So, which aspects of your production process might you automate in 2021? Or how are you already using automation in your workflows? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!

Damian Gibbs started out as an apprentice typesetter over 20 years ago at a leading South African educational publisher, before transitioning to general market publishing and eventually becoming a service provider to local and offshore publishers across a diverse range of markets. He now works as a Solutions Consultant at Typefi, where he specialises in developing and supporting automated workflows for publishers around the world.

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