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Extensible Markup Language (XML) has been the buzz in publishing for years, but many publishers are confused about when and how best to implement the technology that promises so many benefits, yet disrupts traditional print workflows.

Large publishers have been incorporating XML into their workflows for some time, but as reader demand for eBooks grows, small to midsize publishers are getting on board. Creating the original source material using XML technology — a strategy called “XML-first” — allows publishers to lower their overall production costs because they can create multiple electronic formats easily and efficiently.

A versatile tool to streamline workflow
XML technology reduces document data to its raw form, which provides flexibility for publishers to easily produce output for tablets, apps, print books, and future platforms.

Sheridan Books’ Technology Manager Marie Ketner explains, “XML is platform agnostic, so content you produce today can be easily adapted to new formats.”

Simply put, XML is the non-proprietary standard that allows content to be created in one format then easily converted to multiple print and electronic formats. XML also provides a means for publishers to create a single document with differing sets of instructions depending on the final output format. For instance, electronic output may have embedded video files when the print output does not, even though both outputs are created from the same original XML source.

In addition, XML enables content repurposing after publication. The standard provides a simple way to search multiple documents for similar topics or information, allowing publishers to easily bundle and repurpose existing content into new products. In more sophisticated solutions, XML repositories allow publishers to tag and aggregate a large amount of content quickly, producing manuals, customized excerpts, and more.

The challenge for publishers
Some publishers lag behind in pursuing an XML-first approach. The reluctance is often due to the effort required to modify the current workflow processes and the need to train authors, editors, proofreaders, and other staff. For some small publishing houses, changes such as this can require human or financial resources that may not be feasible at the time.

Fortunately, the availability of XML authoring tools is increasing, and many of these applications now create XML code in the background while providing a user-friendly interface for the author or editor.

Additionally, some publishers hesitate to move to XML because standardization of text can create challenges with unique book layouts and design.

“Many publishers like to keep each book’s design fresh,” says Ketner. “However, there are options such as importing XML text into an application like InDesign, laying out the text in a design-friendly way, then exporting the final text as XML. This process is called ‘XML-in, XML-out.’”

What about XML-last?
XML can also be incorporated at other editing and production stages, including after the document has been designed for print output. Adding XML at this point will likely cause publishers to lose some of the cost-savings and workflow efficiency. However, when attractive design is a primary concern, there are still some benefits to this option, such as the ability to create electronic output in advance of print copy delivery.