If you’re publishing anything today, there is always a good reason to publish it in more than one format. In this course, we’ll be talking about publishing books, though pretty much everything here also applies to any kind of publication, including magazines, journals, brochures, papers, and more.

For hundreds of years, paper was such a clear winner for cost and convenience in publishing that we rarely even contemplated alternatives. Now paper is just one of the ways that people consume information.

‘Consume information’ is a crude and soulless way to describe the wonder of reading. Perhaps new media have arrived so fast that language hasn’t had time to develop more appropriate phrases.

We read on computers, phones, and other ubiquitous screens, as well as all kinds of paper. That really changes things for writers and editors.

In this first section, we’ll cover some of that context, and some new forces and concepts that it introduces.

Change and the living Internet

The Internet has got so big and complex that understanding it is more like biology than engineering. Creating anything on it – whether a blog post or an ebook – is like launching an origami boat on a great lake. For a while, it will float along just fine on the still water, but at some stage things will change for our little boat.

When we publish content in any digital format, it becomes part of that living Internet, where everything changes all of the time.

Our job as editors is to do our best to create content that travels and lasts. Luckily, there are many ways to do that.

Credibility and scale

Before we continue, we should quickly put a common misunderstanding to rest. That misunderstanding is about whether reading or publishing on paper or screen is better.

For over fifteen years, book-makers like me have been pulled in two directions: you’re a print person or you’re a digital person. This is largely a practical matter: the skills and tools for each have been completely different. Which meant the workflows for creating each format were completely different, as were their distribution channels. In most publishing companies, digital teams are still separated from print-production teams, and often this separation breeds in each team a measure of suspicion and anxiety about the other.

So the practical matter of skills has framed the evolution of publishing as ‘print vs digital’, when of course the conversation should be about print and digital. Not just because we’re stuck with a multi-format world whether we like it or not, but because print and digital formats are symbiotic. In ambitious book projects, especially where we want a book to have a social impact, neither can be successful without the other.

Print books generate instant credibility. They carry a sense of permanence and authority that digital formats cannot muster.

Notice how print books have remained ad-free in an age when every other available surface carries advertising – something about print books has kept them immune from the disease of advertising. Libraries, despite their own digital transformation, still stand revered as churches to printed books. In a Wikipedian world, we’re nostalgic about being able to cite the printed Britannica. And notice how experts only become thought-leaders when they can talk about their latest book, which only means anything if you can buy it in paper.

But print does not scale, and it’s locked into a funding model where the end-user pays for every copy.

Digital formats, and websites in particular, are the opposite. Web publications struggle to muster the authority of a printed book, but they scale instantly and allow for a range of funding models.

Most importantly, they let us shift the costs of development from many end-users to just a few institutions. Books as websites can be public goods in a way that printed books cannot, especially for the poor.

So, when a book needs to make an impact, it simply must be in print and digital formats. It cannot have impact without the authority of print. And it cannot have impact without the scale of the web.

Formats and reading contexts

When we work on a book, one of the first things we do is decide who will read it. Ideally, we decide this consciously. If we think carefully, we’ll also imagine the contexts in which people will read our book: at their desk, in bed, on holiday, in the classroom, and so on.

Some years ago, the non-profit Perinatal Education Programme asked nurses in South Africa where they found time to read their textbooks. The most common answers were ‘on the bus’ and ‘on the toilet’. That information is now always front-of-mind when the PEP team make publishing decisions.

Knowing potential reading contexts can have a significant effect on how we write and edit. Our readers might be standing in queues, sitting on planes, or herding cattle. They may be using big tablets or cheap phones, or even reading a paper print-out from the office.

A few years ago, we could write ‘Turn to page 10’ or ‘Write notes at the back of the book’. Today, we have to be aware that ‘pages’ don’t always exist, and that people might not even think of what they’re reading as ‘a book’.

Viewports on paper and devices

While a paper book might only ever appear as, say, a 6 × 9 inch paperback, an ebook or a website might appear in an infinite number of sizes and aspect ratios, on a dizzying number of screens, each with their own settings. On every screen, font sizes, colours, margins, brightness, line length and more might differ.

We have to completely set aside any fixed notion of ‘the page’ or ‘the screen’.

A useful concept to use instead is the viewport. The viewport is like a window that opens onto the content. A page is a viewport. The part of a web browser that shows a web page is a viewport.

UX, UI and user patterns

In digital publishing, you’ll often hear the terms user experience (UX); user interface (UI) and user patterns. These are very important concepts for editors.

‘User experience’ encompasses everything about being a human interacting with a given publication – whether that’s a book, a website, an ebook or an app. (And not just publications; even motor cars deliver a user experience.)

The user interface is what the user sees or hears as they encounter the publication. The user interface of a paper book would include its cover design, typography, page numbers and so on. On a website, things like text and buttons and where they lie.

User patterns are the habits we form as we use publications – patterns of behaviour. In English, we open paper books on the right, and look for the book’s description on the back cover. Those user patterns are so ingrained that it is very disorienting when a book defies them.

Common user patterns on the web include the placement of login buttons on the top right, and that we scroll vertically, not horizontally, through articles.

As we write and edit for multiple formats, we need to:

  1. be aware that we’re contributing to a user experience, but not in control of it, and
  2. know as much as we can about user patterns in different reading contexts.


The most neglected user experiences are those of people with disabilities. If you don’t have full vision, you may use a screen reader to read text aloud; you might set your computer to a large-print, high-contrast display.

As you write and edit for multiple-formats, you will find many opportunities to make your content more accessible to people with disabilities. This will include creating text descriptions of images that software can read aloud, and making sure that text isn’t embedded in images where computers can’t read it.

It is very easy – even tempting – to cut costs during production by neglecting accessibility features. It’s up to each of us to make ethical choices here when we create content, and to invest a little more in making sure our content is accessible.

In digital publishing, the term ‘accessibility’ most often refers to making content accessible to people with disabilities. It’s valuable to extend this to include anyone who might struggle to access content: people who can’t afford data; who have small, cheap phones; who live in rural areas; or who live in oppressive regimes.

As you work in digital publishing, you will have more and more opportunities to make accessibility decisions.

Further reading