Using XML for Book Design

Wed, 02 Aug 2017 16:00:08 +0000

Our recent blog post discussed XML, or eXtensible Markup Language, in relation to the editing department. Now, we’ll discuss what happens when the design team gets an XML-tagged manuscript.

Recall that XML tagging does not change a manuscript’s appearance; it merely identifies pieces of text that need to be designed. It’s like placing sticky notes in a book: you’re flagging parts of the book, maybe sentences or ideas you want to come back to that need special attention, but you’re not changing anything about the book. Also note that the editor doing the XML tagging isn’t placing tags wherever they want; they have a reference document, like a PDF or Word file, that has the proper (but not typographically designed) formatting already. So the act of XML tagging is actually a form of transcription. The editor marks every “firstpara,” or paragraph of a new chapter; “breakpara,” or paragraph after a break in the text, and everything else that isn’t straight text. Italics, accents, special characters, page breaks—everything that could trip a book designer up.

If you’ve worked with InDesign, the process of XML tagging might sound familiar. It’s exactly like creating paragraph styles and applying them to different parts of a text. The difference is, the XML tagger doesn’t determine what the text looks like. That’s up to the designer.

Fast forward to after the editor has fully tagged a document. The editor then hands the XML document to the designer, who imports the file into InDesign. The designer works some technical magic and bam! The XML tags correspond to premade paragraph and character styles in InDesign. The designer still has to determine things like font size, leading (or space between the lines of text), page breaks, and other typographic aspects, but the tedious part—applying the paragraph styles to hundreds of pages of text—has already been completed by the XML tags.

That’s not to say XML tagging itself isn’t tedious; it is. You might be wondering, “The designer would have to apply paragraph styles to the whole text anyway. What’s the benefit of using XML instead?” Well, XML helps design not only the print version of the book, but it also helps with the ebook version. Without XML, the ebook designer would have little to go off of or would have to tag the document in XML themselves. By having the editing department get XML out of the way before the design or digital departments even see the file, the process is streamlined. XML is a great way to increase the productivity of the press and reduce overhead (less time and money spent designing a book means more time and money available for other tasks!).

XML coding may not be a glamorous job, but it’s an important one. It reduces confusion and encourages communication between departments, and ultimately it helps us design great-looking books.

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