Single Source Publishing Part 4 : For the Good of The System

Adam Hyde Aug 15, 2021

Single Source Publishing Part 4 : For the Good of The System

The fourth article in a short series by Adam Hyde about Single Source Publishing. Other parts here: P1, P2, P3

“[XML].. is seen as something that must be endured by content authors for the greater good of the enterprise.”
Peter Meyer, 2005

It seems (from Part 3) that our dream of perfect automated output is dead, so how do we ensure all the folks involved in preparing content to publish – authors, editors, copy editors, designers, format wranglers etc – can work on the same source?

Let’s look, at a somewhat simplified level, at the operations each of the main categories of stakeholders have to perform.

Content – ability to change the content

Design – ability to change the look and feel of outputs

Format – ability to change the structure of outputs

The challenge for systems designers is to consider tooling that can help each group of stakeholders work efficiently while they share the same canonical source.



To solve this problem, the publishing sector’s ‘system thinking’ has largely been, to date, driven by what experts believe is the best file format. This ‘file-format-first thinking’ has looked like this:

This thinking has lead us to where we are today, and today we have broken, disjointed workflows.

To bring about the efficiencies we are after, we need to think in this direction:

What if the file format was the last decision you made when constructing ecosystems of publishing tools, rather than the first thing you decided?

Are we more interested in making decisions based on how we can help people work more efficiently, or making decisions based on source file formats? When designing systems the publishing sector has, for the past 25 years, appeared to have answered “source file formats” to this question. This is largely why the sector has been driven away from single source publishing systems and is mired in the kind of broken, slow, expensive processes we discussed in Part One and we illustrated as follows:

When we started our discussion of single source publishing systems in Part One of this series, we talked a lot about source file formats. However, it appears that deciding on the actual source file format to be used is (literally) the last question we must ask. The questions we need to ask are as follows, in this order:

  1. what tools can people efficiently use?
  2. what group of these tools share the same file format?
  3. what is the file format?

We need to start looking at ecosystems of tools that people can use efficiently to work together on the same source, and then adopt that source format, whatever it may be….. this might be a lengthy exercise as there are a lot of tools and formats out there, so I’ll make it easy on you.

In the next series of articles I’ll cover an ecosystem of tools that is extensive, an ecosystem that has had more development than any other over the last 25+ years, an ecosystem that can deliver everything publishing needs now and in the future — an ecosystem which shares the same file format….stay tuned…


Part 5 now here. Digest maintained here.

Thanks to Wendell Piez for feedback. Thanks also to Henrik van Leeuwen for the images and Raewyn Whyte for copy editing.

About the Author

Adam Hyde

Coko Founder

Adam is the founder of Coko, Book Sprints, Pagedjs and many other open source publishing projects.