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Moving away from paper

by John Pettigrew

Software exists to make our lives easier. Our phones are full of apps that you can download and use instantly, with capabilities that we could hardly have imagined ten years ago. In which case, why is the software we use for our work often so dreadful?

We all love computers these days, don’t we? They make life easier, faster and more connected. But we need the right tools. During the 1990s, the rise of word processors and desktop publishing software led to a wholesale change in the way that books were edited and laid out. The widespread adoption of email made it much easier to exchange documents with authors around the world.

In the past few years, we’ve seen other areas of the publishing workflow start to go on screen, either for the first time or with greatly improved new systems that are designed more deliberately for the specific workflows publishing uses, and the problems we face. But how do we know when this progress is A Good Thing™?

Software for publishing

During the Noughties, the software available to publishing teams was (let’s face it) generally pretty dreadful. Hard to use, inflexible and slow, it was often all that brings the concept of ‘business software’ into disrepute!

Fortunately, the past few years have seen a far greater awareness of two key factors that make a big difference to how tools like this work out in everyday use.

  1. Ease of use
    Steve Jobs has left the world one great gift above all others: the concept that software should ‘just work’. The rise of mobile apps has been a huge challenge to the software industry, and one that most creators of ‘business software’ haven’t really got to grips with. The expectation now is that a new piece of software shouldn’t require days of training before you can use it. It’s the software-developer’s job to make it easy!
  2. Do one thing well, and cooperate
    The jobs that we do in publishing are complicated, which has often meant that the tools we used were complicated, too. This is largely because they tried to do everything – which meant that they did nothing very well. The modern approach is to create tools that do one job each, excellently, and then cooperate with other software to do the rest. Emma Barnes of Bibliocloud has written eloquently on this subject!

On-screen proofing

This is very much the philosophy behind Futureproofs – something designed to do one job, to do it well, and to cooperate with other tools to create an over-arching platform. As regular readers will know, I created Futureproofs mostly because I’d got so frustrated with the existing software for dealing with proofs on screen!

The proofing process actually works very well on paper – it’s simple, reliable and well-understood. However, it’s also surprisingly expensive and slow. The problem I’d found was running an editorial team that was being asked to do more work, more quickly and more cheaply, so we were pushed by management to take more work on screen. Unfortunately, we found that trying to proofread on PDF files was slow, complicated, confusing and, ultimately, more expensive than paper had been.

Computers are supposed to make life easier, not harder. And, I thought, could it really be impossible to build software that would let editors, proofreaders and authors work together effectively on screen – something that let you mark up a proof on-screen easily but precisely, something that let you collaborate with your team, and something that made it easier to manage your projects based on real-time data from the team.

After two years of work, we have a product we’re really proud of, with real, live projects from our customers and a set of users who love Futureproofs. We seem to have “Do one thing well” cracked. The next step, “cooperate”, is what we’re making our first attempts at now. It’s a stage I’m really excited about and looking forward to, because it continues the basic mission I’ve been on – to make publishing teams’ lives easier.

The key, though, is for those of you who are actually producing books (ebooks, apps, whatever) to be able to put together a set of tools that does the job you need doing. Go out there and look, because there are more choices (and cheaper choices) than ever before. There’s no need to suffer with terrible software any more.

About the author

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has over 15 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.

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