At BookNet Canada Tech Forum: A Focus on Repurposing Content

In Feature Articles by Carla Douglas

‘How can I use this across three different publications?’ is a question asked at Tech Forum, where making the most of your content was a key topic.

At BookNet Canada’s Tech Forum, March 24, in Toronto. Image: BookNet Canada, Yvonne Bambrick

By Carla Douglas | @CarlaJDouglas

‘Leveraging What You Already Own’
Amid competition for consumer attention and the need to have content in every channel across many media, the ability to reconfigure existing material for new users is vital.

Whether it involves harvesting images for resale or creating audiobooks or adapting text for different reading levels, the practice of repurposing content isn’t new. But to achieve the reach and scale needed for visibility in a rapidly changing digital environment, content needs intelligent, responsive tech.

Last month’s Tech Forum in Toronto—BookNet Canada’s annual conference focusing on digital developments in the book publishing industry—included a number of sessions about how the application of tech can bring a book closer to its audience—for example, in terms of discoverability, metadata, and format.

In a session focused specifically on repurposing content, the audience learned that getting content into a new format can be a complex undertaking, requiring speed, foresight, and imagination.

The session was a question-and-answer discussion with five panelists, led by Lerner Publishing Group’s digital production coordinator, Kris Vetter Tomes. Other panelists were Franco Alvaro, project manager for reference works at Brill (and formerly at F+W); Jordan Bass, editor-at-large at McSweeney’s PublishingRachel Di Salle, senior manager for content governance at Rogers Media; and Veronica Thompson, manager of the design studio at Inkling.

Of course how any given content is chopped up and re-served depends on the content itself—text, images, instructional material, and so on. And it also depends on the needs of clients and audiences.

The discussion ranged from fairly routine repurposing practices—such as converting text to audiobook—to using algorithms to pull content from multiple sources for efficient repackaging as a new resource.

At BookNet Canada’s Tech Forum, March 24, in Toronto. Image: BookNet Canada, Yvonne Bambrick

‘Looking at Content in a New Way’

Veronica Thompson

Inkling’s Veronica Thompson described a project that involved pulling content from various sources to create books that would accommodate different learning styles.

“Some things are easier to repurpose,” Thompson said, proposing the question to ask is, “How can I use this across three different publications?”

Where text is concerned, she said, it has to create a good reading experience. It requires “looking at the content in a new way, as discrete pieces.” And to do this efficiently, she said, “to pull from many books, requires an algorithm.”

It’s a process of “leveraging what you already own,” Franco Alvaredo said, describing his work at F+W, in which recipe content was extracted and redistributed, “essentially ripping EPUBs apart and putting them back together.”

Rachel Di Salle

At Rogers Media, Rachel Di Salle said, repurposing began with identifying what was valuable and then repackaging it for the recipe content or for parenting content.

“We have issues of Maclean’s magazine that go back to 1905,” Di Salle said. “We had to see how this digital asset might be attractive to a variety of users—sports content for an app, for example, or ebooks for longer form journalism.

“The content has to be in a management system that allows it to be repurposed easily,” Di Salle said.

Kris Vetter Tomes

And for Kris Vetter Tomes at Lerner, in-house repurposing is a similar process of recognizing how new books can be created without acquiring new material.

“We had so much artwork,” she says, “at the 3rd- and 4th-grade level.

“We could make new books without spending any money on art. And we had many titles with audio files, but no audiobooks. We pulled out the audio files and created audiobooks.”

‘Partnerships Far Beyond Publishing’

Some of the speakers pointed out how repurposing content externally with partners and clients can yield unforeseen opportunities, too.

“Partnerships exist far beyond publishing,” Thompson said, citing an overseas fast-food chain as one example.

Alvarez told of a grocery chain that wanted recipe content, and asked for metadata tags that could lend the content to further re-use. “These are things you might not think of,” he said.

Jordan Bass

“Self-cannibalizing your own content”—reintroducing old stories and interviews—is how Jordan Bass describes McSweeney’s partnership with Audible.

Bass said he sees an additional value in this exercise. In working with Audible, he said, McSweeneys is “going back to work that has never been digital before, giving a second life to authors on an audio platform.”

This theme was picked up by Di Salle. She named the Macleans digital archive as Rogers Media’s most successful repurposing project, and noted that the archive brings the material back to life. Rogers’ also has Chatelaine dating to the 1940s, with stories by Alice Munro written long before she published her first book.

“Look at your legacy content,” is Di Salle’s advice.

The most successful projects, the panelists agreed, are supported by strong tech and design.

Di Salle said, “Five years ago we knew we had to move to a digital space—so we needed lots of nerdy people on board. It was like a firehose, we were moving so fast.”

Thompson described how isolating codes to control book basics—fonts, colors, etc.—could cut develop time in half, dragging and dropping from project to project. “No more hand coding,” she said. “No more Find and Replace to change color.”

At BookNet Canada’s Tech Forum, March 24, in Toronto. Image: BookNet Canada, Yvonne Bambrick

‘Exploit Your Backlist’

Based on their experiences, what would be these panelists’ best advice in looking to repurpose content?

  • Thompson: “Planning, consistency, and impact on authors. Read the repurposed content,” to make sure it reads well.
  • Di Salle: “Get the content into one place in a single format—a repository. Build knowledge in-house. Value skillsets.”
  • Bass: “Take full advantage of each format.”
  • Vetter Tomes: “Take care of and value the workplace culture. Positive workplace relationships are key. And be aware of trends.”
  • Alvarez: “Exploit your backlist. CMS [content management system] workflow. Get rights, and be fair to authors.”
About the Author

Carla Douglas

Carla Douglas is a writer and editor, and most recently is the author of You’ve Got Style: A Writer’s Guide to Copyediting. She was a contributing researcher for the first edition of The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, and is co-author of the Don’t Panic series of literacy resources for high school students.