Beyond typesetting

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There is plenty of talk about outsourcing publishing services but what does it involve and who does it? We talk to Gurvinder Barta, chief technologist of USA/India-based Aptara, which serves many well-known publishers

What do publishers use companies like Aptara for?

We work in the content-transformation market. We provide services such as developmental editing, copy editing, typesetting/composition, XML and technology tools for content authoring, electronic submission and peer review. Authoring content is also critical, although in STM publishing this is more relevant to books. For example, we write questions and answers to accompany text books.

There is a lot of pressure on publishers and on their partners to deliver shorter times to market. To help this, we are looking at how we can integrate authors more into the process. For example, we’ve developed tools that allow them to make changes to their proofs themselves. Publishers can restrict this so that authors cannot, for example, change more than 10 per cent of their article at the proof stage. Some publishers do not think that authors are really ready to work electronically but my feeling is that they prefer it.

One advantage of outsourcing is cost but companies also find that the variety of outputs now makes it hard for them to do their publishing services in-house. Outsourcing in the high-end text books and schools markets is just getting started. These companies are seeing corporate pressure to look at what is happening in other areas of publishing such as STM scholarly publishing.

What are the technical challenges with working for many publishers?

Publishers look for some uniqueness to give them competitive edge. Our approach with our tools is to keep them modular rather than hard code them. We mostly customise systems for particular customers as every publisher has a different process.

We are moving towards the output being more user-dependent so that whether things are accessed on Macs, PCs or Unix systems is user definable. Users will say ‘I want this piece of content and this is how I want it.’ This is one of the advantages of using XML. Publishers are trying to avoid having to pay four times for four different formats.

This variation in possible outputs is also a challenge with e-books. Although the PDF approach is popular, publishers are standardising the format for their company rather than industry-wide. It took a while to standardise journal papers based on XML and e-books will take a while to standardise too.

Another issue is that each printer has a different way of handling PDFs. This is a problem while a large amount of content is still being printed as well as published electronically. The different approaches to handling PDFs pose a challenge if publishers change printers.

How is the outsourcing market changing?

For content-transformation companies it doesn’t matter what the content is. Every company is a publisher. If you step back and look at the content life cycle you can apply it to any industry. We got into the STM journals market in the early 1990s but have expanded into new areas, such as text books and school books, through growth and acquisitions. Although we are still strong in STM publishing we keep adding new verticals.

Outsourcing has been going on in STM publishing for many years and there is not much left for STM publishers to outsource. The big trend now is consolidation as publishers choose to go with companies that they feel will still be there tomorrow. We employ around 4500 people in three centres in India. People might set up little typesetting businesses with a couple of computers and a small office but for small start ups in our business it is a challenge to find customers and to get consistent work. I think that consolidation is going to continue.

Publishers increasingly want to see their outsource partners and to know who is running them. On average around two customers visit us each week. Ten years ago we had perhaps two customer visits in six months. And they are setting up offices nearer to their outsourcing partners too. For example, Blackwell has set up offices in Singapore.

Our customers are also inviting companies like ours to come to their internal meetings. They invite multiple vendors, tell us their challenges and ask us all to suggest solutions. Another trend is that they are now giving us access to their systems by virtual private networks so that we can populate their databases. This enables their production controllers to each control more titles as we take over more of the production process. The production controller is doing less on each title but managing more. Publishers are looking for partners and not just vendors as they go offshore.

Interview by Siân Harris