Some thoughts on a modern publishing workflow

In an early series of blog posts, I set out the workflow Cambridge currently follows in developing a book. As mentioned in these posts, it is a linear process from author to editor to typesetter (with a bit of back and forth between these two to finalize the book). This workflow would be familiar to a publisher from 30 years ago. Despite advances in web technologies, the legacy systems at traditional publishers mean that innovation doesn’t take place in-house. As more publishers outsource services to India companies, innovation in the publishing industry itself is outsourced.

A few smaller and more tech-focused publishers (e.g. O’Reilly Media) have already re-imagined the publishing process. There are also various start-ups offering off the shelf solutions. I wrote about Pressbooks who have adapted the popular blogging software WordPress to an online book publishing platform.

So, as someone who makes books daily, here are my thoughts on the matter.

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Grammarly – a user review

Grammarly is a digital writing tool that aims to improve the quality and clarity of your writing. It is pretty much your wordprocessor’s spell and language checker on steroids. Grammarly has an online platform as well as as a chrome and Microsoft word plugin, but I use the desktop app. My workflow is writing in Google Docs and then copy and paste to a new document in Grammarly for editing and checking. You can, however, also import materials directly if you are working in Word or another word processor.

When starting a new project on Grammarly, you set your goals. The goals are divided into Audience, Formality and Domain, with a few experimental options such as Tone and Intent (I haven’t used these yet). Audience offers three options, General, Knowledgeable and Expert, with Knowledgeable being the default. This option means your text needs focus to understand and read. Formality looks at the use of slang and casual language and is divided into Informal, Neutral and Formal. Domain is where you have the most options. You can select whether your text is Academic, Business, General, Email, Casual or Creative, with rules and conventions applied based on your selection. 

Setting your goals at the start of a project

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Pressbooks – a user review

Let me paint you a picture of book production in the 21st Century – in most cases, it’s very similar to book production in the 20th Century. Cambridge, for example, still uses a linear workflow where the editor works on the manuscript and then, once ready, passes it on to the typesetter to lay the book out. A series of back and forths then ensure between typesetter and editor, who marks up a PDF with corrections and changes for the typesetter to implement. Once the editor and publisher are happy with the product, the typesetter produces a print-ready PDF, and your book is published. Oh wait, you wanted an e-book as well. Let’s start a whole new process where we convert the print PDF to epub, with an added round of checking and proof-reading to see that the conversion process didn’t drop any content (it happens!). Now you want to edit or change something? Let’s go back to the editor and typesetter to fix this and back to the digital producer to make the change in the e-book. It’s (very) exhausting.

Which is why I was so excited to test out O’Reilly Media’s online publishing platform a few years back, developed in-house and used to manage their book production. The platform had a dashboard where you could create a new project and import a manuscript, stored in a database. The editor and author would both have accounts on the platform and could work simultaneously on the document. While editing, changes are saved in real-time, with a record of all changes kept. The editor can reverse these changes if needed. Any images could be uploaded directly to the platform and inserted in the book. The book designer (in this case, someone with web technology skills) would design a template for the book using CSS. This CSS would have options for the print version of the book as well as the e-book. At the end of the process, a printable PDF or epub file would be exported, for printing and distribution. If there were any changes needed, the editor could log into the platform, make the edit and export the files could quickly and easily. For me, this seemed like an ideal workflow for book production. Unfortunately, Cambridge, like other traditional publishers, has legacy systems in place, and the effort to switch over to this type of platform was more than the perceived benefit. This experience did, however, get me excited about alternative ways of producing a book and I set about exploring some of them, one of which is Pressbooks.

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Let’s talk about e-book formats

For a little short of five hundred years, Cambridge University Press has been printing books. When it came to decisions around format, the options were simple – what size paper and whether to print full-colour or black & white. For a considerably shorter time, we’ve been publishing e-books. Here’s what I’ve learnt about e-book formats in that time.

The e-reader

The first thing that’s different about an e-book compared to a print book is that you need software to access it. We call this software an e-reader. Some people get confused between the e-book and the e-reader, thinking they are the same thing. The e-book consists of the book’s content as well as some functionality, such as a hyperlinked table of contents. The e-reading software includes functionality such as bookmarking and note-taking as well as display manipulation

This e-reader could be an app on your phone or tablet or embedding in a browser on your laptop. A browser is an interesting analogy to use to understand the e-reader. A browser takes the HTML code of a website and presents it in a way that is easy to read. In the same way, the e-reader takes the e-book file and displays the components in a way that is easy for the user to interact with and read. The e-reader is also responsible for the digital rights management (DRM), limiting copying and multiple-access to the e-book as well as access periods for subscription sales. These restrictions are significant for commercial publishers.

There are several standalone e-readers available as well as proprietary ones. Some will support more than one format; others are limited to a specific format. Cambridge has an e-reader as do many other publishers. Amazon is the dominant player in this market with its Kindle e-reader.

Cambridge uses two e-book formats, PDF and EPUB, both widely used in educational publishing.

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How to publish a book: Developing

I’m a publisher at Cambridge University Press and I’ve written a blog post on the traditional process of publishing a book. I’ve split this blog post into three parts – planning, designing and developing. This is part three.

Developing a book

Once the planning and designing phases are complete, we then move on to actually developing the book – writing, editing and layout. Depending on the amount of work spent on the earlier phases, this could be a relatively straightforward process.


After developing a detailed book-plan and, if needed, a writing template it’s now over to the author to work their magic and write a manuscript. Note – if this is a creative work, such as a novel or collection of poems, then the manuscript is the first thing that gets written, particularly in the case of self-publishers. 

There are many books and blog posts written about the craft of writing (and I may add my two cents on the matter in another blog post), but the main thing to be aware of, particularly when writing educational material, is try to track the number of agreed pages as closely as possible. It’s a difficult task for an editor to trim content while keeping meaning. The second issue, and perhaps more difficult to get right, is to ensure you write at the language of the learner. A primary school reader will have a very different grasp of the English language to a working professional. The author must be aware of word usage and line length and pitch their writing to the correct level. This is something an editor can assist with fixing but it much easier to get this correctly done during the writing process. 

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