Even the most determinedly 20th-century, “books-are-here-to-stay” publisher is aware that the world is changing. Reliable channels for sales and marketing that have grown steadily for the entire lifetime of the oldest industry veterans are now shrinking or fading away.

Print book review media and subscription book clubs are fewer in number and, most critically, bricks-and-mortar retail shelf space for books is being reduced. At the same time, new channels to promote and sell are opening up. Consumers started telling each other about books with Amazon customer reviews a decade ago; now they're doing the same at BN.com and through general-interest gathering points like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, and at a plethora of sites like LibraryThing, Shelfari and GoodReads dedicated to book conversation. Bits and pieces of books are used for Web marketing or sold in installments, placed in e-mails or RSS feeds, or even combined with material from other sources and fed back to the consumer as a unique book printed on demand.

While sales of books through bricks-and-mortar locations are stagnant, sales through online channels, which today principally means Amazon, are growing. A goodly portion of those sales are driven by “referrals” from specialized Web sites continually sprouting throughout the Internet as well as referrals driven by those publisher widgets commonly found on social networking sites. And this is all just the beginning.

The reduction of general book review media, print and broadcast, and the reduction in bricks-and-mortar bookstores are already forcing publishers to learn new ways to market and sell their titles. The shift from traditional to digital marketing is already changing publishers' mindset when books are acquired. (“Does this author have a Web site?”)

Publishers are losing avenues to promote and sell many different kinds of books and to move them in the simplest and most profitable blocks: selling whole preprinted bound books in a way that allows them to be shipped in bulk. In other words, a publisher can send a memoir, a novel and a travel book to Publishers Weekly and the New York Times, and perhaps have all three of them reviewed. They can also ship multiple copies of all three in the same box to full-line bookstores that shelve them “vertically” (by subject) and ring up the sales. As printed book review pages and bookstores disappear, so does the viability of that formula.

Emerging revenue sources—including those mentioned above and including licensing fees from various Web sites in pursuit of content—don't use print, don't use whole books, don't often want material from unrelated books and, most critically, don't offer anything like the same level of revenue to a publisher.

This all adds up to making the use of XML in the production process increasingly important to publishers.

So, What's a Publisher to Do?

First: recognize reality. For many titles, you aren't going to sell as many copies as you used to, and your standard marketing practices of the past few decades won't be nearly as cost-effective.

Second: come up with a strategy to suit the new reality. There are many conceivable ones, and they depend largely on what you publish, but two things are certain: you are going to want more direct contact with end users than you had before and you are going to find users congregating at Web coordinates that appeal to subject interests (or niches).

Third: recognize that your content is now “unbound.” You can still sell it in “book” format, but you will also be selling it in smaller units (chunks) or in larger units (books put together as databases) as well. And you will certainly be using chapters, excerpts, TOCs and other parts of your book in marketing, if you aren't already.

And that's where XML comes in.

XML stands for “extensible markup language” (and no fair asking why it isn't “EML”). XML uses tags to associate any information you want with any part of a document (i.e., a book). That is, your document file in XML resembles a database, with a structure you define to track elements of the document. It contains not only the printable text and information about the art (though not the art itself), but it can also contain any piece of useful information about the document or about any piece of it.

Information to Go

What information would a publisher want to travel along with the document?

Document “structure” and display This is the best-known part of XML. Document structure can identify the A heads and B heads, the body copy and the caption copy, the page breaks and the required connections between illustrations and text. This information enables “transforms” of a document into various forms: a book, a large-print book, an e-book, a Web-based presentation....

Rights information You can use XML to include the rights you own and have sold to the overall property (which the ONIX standard—which is XML—already does in the foreign rights arena), and you can also load information about the ownership and licensing of art or photographs. And XML will enable you to “show” that information to a third party who might want to buy something from you, or just keep it for yourself, cutting down on the research (digging through old contracts) that might be necessary to do a rights deal.

Content and context information Although this is a bridge further than publishers are at the moment, XML enables you to identify chunks, such as biographies within a larger book of history or place descriptions from a novel or a travel guide. XML allows authors to archive Web links with source material, and those links can become “live” again in a digital presentation of the material on the Web or as an e-book. This use of XML will become particularly important over time as publishers are called on to aggregate everything they have on a certain subject for the increasing number of vertical Web sites we envision in the future.

With the need for using XML becoming more apparent, many publishers in all areas—professional, technical and consumer reference, are well on the way to adopting XML, but the process can be hard. To capture data that makes your downstream outputs more flexible and less expensive to produce, you need to become both more explicit and more uniform in how you manage your documents. Transforms that can be invoked automatically work well only when the underlying XML document is “well-formed”: structured so that the output is reliably correct and reproducible. (And the XML file created from your PDF and returned by your printer usually won't qualify.)

Here's what we call the Copernican Change. We have lived all our lives in a universe where the book is “the sun” and everything else we might create or sell was a “subsidiary right” to the book, revolving around that sun.

In our new universe, the content encased in a well-formed XML file is the sun. The book, an output of a well-formed XML file, is only one of an increasing number of revenue opportunities and marketing opportunities revolving around it. It requires more discipline and attention to the rules to create a well-formed XML file than it did to create a book. But when you're done, the end result is more useful: content can be rendered many different ways and cleaved and recombined inexpensively, unlocking sales that are almost impossible to capture cost-effectively if you start with a “book.”

Ultimately, XML will be critical for everybody. But it is most important to publishers that render material in many forms and those with content that can be chunked and recombined into new products with new revenue opportunities. In a recent survey by the StartWithXML team, 75% of publishers say they already repurpose content or think they should, and nearly two-thirds think their titles would aggregate into useful databases. You'll save the most money right away if you create many books that are similar in structure and thus can be rendered from the same “style sheet.”

Author Information
Shatzkin, founder of the Idea Logical Company, along with Brian O'Leary, Ted Hill and Laura Dawson, created the StartWithXML project.

Help Getting Started
The StartWithXML project (at startwithXML.com) has a blog discussing many questions surrounding XML in greater detail. The project will soon publish a research paper through O'Reilly Media that will include extensive information on how XML can be applied in your publishing processes. And there will be a one-day forum: “StartwithXML: Why and How” at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium in New York City on Tuesday, January 13. That session will examine both the business case and the process challenges in careful detail, with presentations from publishers, consultants and suppliers who have been on the front lines of the XML changeover for the past few years.