Coach House and Technology

While Coach House’s history of artistic innovation is well known and celebrated, its record of innovation in the fields of print and online publishing may not be as well publicized. On one hand, Coach House still has drawers of wood and lead type and hand-presses; on the other extreme, it has proven itself to be the Research and Development wing of Canadian publishing, a veritable incubator that has seen publishing technologies from their earliest stages of promise to their realization as fundamental parts of the industry.

Coach House has always been an ‘early adopter,’ testing and developing technology in an industry that has otherwise tended towards caution. Propping up the editor’s desk is the legacy of that commitment, a bulky Sun Microsystems server that was the first ever UNIX system used in a print environment. While that mideighties model may now be a piece of Coach House furniture, it once formed the core of an SGML-based print-on-demand production system. SGML, a way of ‘marking up’ text with layout instructions, eventually lead to HTML, the language of the World Wide Web.

It was also in the mid-eighties that Coach House saw potential in another new arrival on the tech scene: the Apple Macintosh. What others saw as a toy Coach House saw as the future of publishing itself, a graphic-based computer that would allow designers to edit their work digitally and go straight to press without manually setting a single line of type. Coach House pioneered a Mac-based environment, which has now been the standard in the printing industry for 15 years.

The nineties saw on of the greatest innovations in the history of publishing: the World Wide Web. While others looked at the Web as a threat to print publishing, Coach House saw not only its inevitability but its vast potential. Archived along the walls of Coach House’s print-production room are the software boxes for HoTMetaL, the world’s first graphical website editor, developed right in the Coach House by the young startup company SoftQuad. While the big players like Adobe’s GoLive, Macromedia’s Dreamweaver and Microsoft’s Frontpage now vie for the commercial market, they all owe a debt to the innovations of HoTMetaL.

Perhaps its biggest innovation, however, is bringing the ‘open source’ philosophy to Canadian publishing by putting the contents of its new titles online. Other publishers still dismiss the open source idea outright much as they dismissed computers when they first arrived on the print scene. The question they all ask is the same – why would anyone pay for books they can read online for free? Coach House, as always, is standing firm against conventional wisdom, confident enough in the added value of its print editions to see the great marketing potential in simply giving the contents away online.

This added value anchors Coach House’s legacy of innovation – the craft and knowledge that is put into every book that rumbles off its presses. In a world awash with text, it’s the quality of the books themselves that will be of value, a philosophy that informs and anchors all of Coach House’s technological innovations. Coach House is a true ‘clicks and mortar’ company, referring to the now common wisdom that you must fully integrate your digital initiatives with a real-life physical business. This model is vital not only to Coach House’s survival, but also to its ability to be a think tank for the industry itself, a great laboratory that gives anyone paying attention a little look at the future.