I love the many small, technical puzzles that designing books with CSS presents. There are also some much bigger challenges that we’re tackling, and where community effort might go a long way.
First, multiformat thinking is hard. The whole point of our digital-first approach is to store content only once, and produce multiple formats automatically. This puts tremendous pressure on project managers, developers, authors, editors, designers and proofreaders to think in multiple formats at once.
For instance, on the web, hyperlinks are cheap: you can add them anywhere, attach them to any text, and the design can keep them out of the reader’s way. In print, hyperlinks vanish or, if presented as page numbers, take up space and attention. Another example I mentioned above is interactivity: the text in the filmstrip figures in The Economy has to be sensitive to the fact that readers might be looking at clickable slides or at a static, printed page. And when controlling the flow of text, editors have to be aware of things like what happens when an element is floated: it appears beside the text it precedes in HTML, which can be counterintuitive for things like sidenotes beside paragraphs.
Like many publishers, we’ve had to invest a lot in training our team in multi-format thinking.
Second, manual page refinement is time-consuming. Automated layout with CSS gets us far, taking care of perhaps 90 per cent of a traditional typesetter’s role. But after that a human still has to check every page and refine many of them. On The Economy, I spent three or four hours on each chapter making small tweaks to get figures and sidenotes to fall in just the right place for maximum readability. On most novels, we spend at least three or four hours manually adjusting letter-spacing and soft hyphenation to avoid bad breaks, widows, orphans, and short lines.
If there is one thing we need better automation for, it’s proper, typographically sensitive widow-and-orphan control.
Third, technical skills are expensive. Extraordinary demand for developers worldwide means that dedicated technical team members are completely unaffordable for most publishers. If you’re going to create books with HTML and CSS, you need technical skills on the team, either in-house or in partnership with an outsourced team you can really trust.
In our team, we dedicate a significant piece of everyone’s time to technical skills development – both editors and designers – to reduce dependency on developers. And, as our technical lead, I have to spend at least half my time learning or training others. A commitment to digital-first publishing is a commitment to a serious learning curve.