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Migrating to Digital Publishing? The Six Key Questions to Ask

Here are the six “Ws” you need to ask yourself before transitioning from the old to the new: why, who, what, when, which, and where.

By Karina Mikhil

The publishing industry is not generally known for being agile or quick to change, yet it is facing one of its biggest times of change probably since the invention of the printing press. At the heart of this is the migration to digital.

Prior to this migration, a time-tested process and structure existed for getting books printed: from acquisition, copyediting and typesetting, to author reviews and proofreading, to print. Although hiccups occurred and no two companies had the exact same workflow, the foundations were the same and ensured quality products got released in expected time frames.

Whether publishers are dealing with online content or e-books, digital only or both print and digital, publishers are now faced with more questions than answers as to how to incorporate the new with the old. Below I provide a framework for those questions, using the traditional 6 Ws: why, who, what, when, which, and where.


Of the six questions, this is the easiest to answer. No publisher can afford to ignore the digital any longer: the tipping point has come and gone; more and more e-books and e-readers are being sold weekly; and authors will begin demanding this, if they haven’t already. And traditional publishers need to offer all things digital to compete with the emerging “digital publishers.”


Even prior to the migration to digital, publishers would do one of two things to keep costs down: outsource as much as possible, keeping headcount down, or the reverse, which is hire talent to keep all services and costs internal. With digital, publishers have to make this decision anew. Should they invest in new talent from other industries (e.g., technology) or in educating existing talent, those who are eager to learn and have a background in publishing? Or should they turn to one of the many conversion and content solutions providers that exist in the market?


Karina Mikhli

Karina Mikhli has worked with Oxford University Press and Assouline, among other publishers

What exactly is a digital product, or more specifically an e-book? Is it a replica of the print product or something that only starts from there and then adds interactive media? How much new content should be added to the digital product for consumers to choose that over the print product? Are they competing against each other and is there a way to bundle them? And what is actually a value-ad as opposed to bells-and-whistles that are more of a distraction and deterrent? Also, should publishers focus on frontlist alone or backlist too? How much of either or both?

And what should the price be for this digital product? If it’s a replica of the print, should it be cheaper given that there are no PPB (paper, printing, and binding) costs? Is this a reason to add new and/or interactive content to justify increased price points?


Whatever the ultimate digital product, when should it be prepared and released? Should the publisher work in an xml-first environment and then from there publish across platforms, either simultaneously or at whatever schedule decided on? Is there a reason to do print first and then digital next? How long can a publisher hold off on releasing an e-book so as not to affect print sales?

Part of this question, and also continuation of the “who” and “what” question, is quality control. In the current process, we have production editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders, all with defined skills and quality checks they are responsible for. In this new digital workflow, publishers need to decide who is responsible for digital QC (internal vs. external staff), what are they responsible for (proofreading the entire text to ensure conversion didn’t introduce errors or just flipping through pages on e-readers to ensure no major formatting problems were introduced), and when is this to be done (hopefully prior to release and not after complaints come in).


Which formats will e-books be made available in and which e-readers will they be targeting? Currently you can probably focus on a few (Kindle, Nook, and Sony) but many more are emerging. Which will you continue to focus on or will you try to be accessible to all?


First off, where should digital content and assets be stored? Hopefully a CMS (content management system) of some sort exists and can act as both an archive and an enabler of updates and reprints. If one does not exist, an archive of some sort — whether on a network drive, in the cloud, or via a third-party provider — is vital.

Through which channels are these digital products sole? Does the publisher have e-commerce on their website and the technical support needed to sell their own e-books? Do they not want to bother and instead use distributors? Someone will need to ensure that the proper formats, metadata, uploads and updates are prepared for each of these distributors.

As the above demonstrates, there is a lot for the publisher to consider before it can migrate to digital but to be done right, these questions and others need to be thought through before investments are made.

Karina Mikhli is a publishing executive with a Master’s in Publishing and over ten years of experience in different sectors of the industry. Her expertise is in managing editorial, production operations, and process management. She has worked with Kensington Publishing, The Princeton Review, and Oxford University Press among others.

SURVEY: How Far Are You in Your Transition to Digital Publishing?

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  1. Posted September 8, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    So far digital publishing has not done much more than produce an electronic facsimile of print works. We still have the traditional journal and the traditional book, even if the latter is somewhat “enhanced.” The real revolution will come–and the answers to the questions above will become much more challenging–when the technology is used to its maximum extent to produce entirely new types of documents that do not resemble any of the traditional formats. The experiment undertaken in the ACLS Humanities E-Book and the Gutenberg-e projects gave us some foretaste of what may eventually be coming, but this is just the beginning of the real revolution we can expect digital to usher in eventually.

  2. Andrew Lugton
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    It will be interesting to see if traditional publishers’ backgrounds prove to be an asset or a liability.

  3. Posted September 8, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Great article Karina!

    Digital Publishing has definitely arrived but many publishers are still debating whether to stick with traditional print or go digital. My answer is always go with both. Print is costly but still maintains a strong audience so by cutting your print production and producing E-Editions for publication is another to expand your distribution. The advantage of having an E-Edition for your publication is the ability to track your readers engagement and also of course the option to monetize the publication for additional revenue. Going digital also allows you to use various different media tools such as videos or social media tools. Social media helps you stay connected with your readers in a way that traditional print never could.
    The future is digital especially with the substantial growth of mobile devices.
    Here is an example of an E-Edition that works through your browser on a desktop, smartphone or tablet. ( http://goo.gl/a4OgI )


  4. Posted September 8, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Protecting digital content is an incredibly important space today, and it is our only business at Content Raven.

    We secure virtually any kind of electronic file (Audio, Video, MS Suite, PDF, Flash Etc) and prevent theft or misuse. Through the Content Raven application you can restrict:
    • Printing
    • Copying
    • Forwarding
    • Viewing
    • Sharing
    • Screen Captures

    Control and Analytics:
    • Expiry of content based on dates and time periods
    • Remote termination of content
    • Track who opened content and where geographically
    • Page level detail of what was viewed
    • Access to content based on users and groups (parameters can be adjusted)

    We have found that our clients see immense value in the IP protection and control alone. But we are also finding that the analytics and tracking is just as important.

  5. Posted September 8, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Digital Publishing is here to stay. My Company publishes newsletters in both platforms for our self and our customers, because not everyone is connected at the hip to a (computer/smart phone) as of today. In 5 years that will all be a different story. The sooner you get on the train the sooner you will arrive at the wonderful world of e-biz. This will be a learning curve for every company taking their business to the next level. Not only do you need to produce the e-newsletter and other marketing material web friendly, it will also need to be mobile friendly. You need to come out of the gate on this one perfect. What I mean by that is your first version better be right because you may not get another shot with you customers being disappointed with your first attempt. So take the advice and study up on doing it right, if need to hire someone to lead your company down the right path it will be well worth the investment.

  6. Posted September 13, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I couldn´t agree more, Mr. Ott. I believe that this is good news for online companies such as ours, http://www.uniflip.com, where we specialize in digitally converting standard e-newsletters or other PDF documents into a digital format with pages that flip, just like a real book or magazine. This way, companies and individuals now and in the future will not have to spend so much time and money on paper and ink cartridges. I don´t believe digital publishing will ever replace the standard book and magazine entirely, but digital publishing and sharing will definitely become more accessible to everyone at all levels.

  7. Posted September 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Karina Mikhil has posed the right questions that every publisher should ask and must answer when transitioning to digital publishing. Since this is an area that is a frontier in all respects, there’s a cautious attitude when it comes to ebooks. But as standards, formats, and reading devices become established, new opportunities and challenges in content delivery and access arise. The nascent EPUB 3 is expected to work with reading devices like the iPad, Nook, and Kobo, and compatibility is a concern that’s keeping publishers on their toes. Fortunately, with the help of professional conversion services, such as those provided by Aptara, they have less reason to keep their fingers crossed.

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