Ebook Magicks

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This is a guest post from Melissa deJesus, an associate production editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A fuller bio is at the bottom on this piece.


I finally made the pilgrimage to ebookcraft. You might not immediately think of a gathering of ebook professionals as a pseudo-religious event, but a core experience in ebooks is swapping arcane knowledge, as the name of this blog suggests. Dave Cramer started his and Jiminy Panoz’s masterly CSS presentation with a recounting of the epub spec in terms of a biblical genesis (sidenote, if anyone has an audio recording of that, I want a copy), and they later referred to image and caption fit code as the Holy Grail. I think ebook developers are all seekers after an ideal: we want perfect code that makes the best of every display technology: we want EPUB3s with magical CSS and unerringly semantic HTML.

If we get it right, ebooks can combine with any technology, ereader or assistive technologies, to enshrine content not in dead tree sheets but in machine-readable, universally accessible, deathless code.

Today, the ideal feels within reach thanks to the hard work on standards and specifications by folks like the W3C Publishing Business Group, BISG working groups, and WAI. Romain Deltour and the NNELs team assured me that EPUB3, and specifically utilizing the tags in HMTL5, provide great support for all my ebooks’ accessibility needs, as long as I’m also taking the time to test the results. When it comes to testing, CSS and images can be particularly challenging. Naomi Kennedy boiled the ineffable down to three unambiguous choices; and Betsy Granger made the process of convincing print professionals to submit to standard, flexible CSS seem possible, if not easy. So many sessions addressed the ideal in which ebook devotees fervently believe. If we get it right, ebooks can combine with any technology, ereader or assistive technologies, to enshrine content not in dead tree sheets but in machine-readable, universally accessible, deathless code.

But how to get there? Depending on the publishers’ pre-ebook workflow, we all need different solutions. For some, the solution is baptizing content for digital use at birth. Kevin Callahan reminded us that accessibility begins with the author, but for many of us starts at document set up. Over at Wiley, Tzviya Siegman and Benjamin Young are starting with HTML which is eminently suited to managing flexible, interconnected data and content. But starting at the beginning of our content’s life cycle isn’t always an option. To unite disparate sources as they come, Nick Barreto and Simon Collinson touted solutions like Pandoc and getting to love the command line to automate mass changes and convert various source documents. Helping content see the light, if you will.

Before I stretch this metaphor too thin, let’s talk logistics. The conference site provided substantial pre-conference materials including schedules and FAQ, advance blog posts by speakers, and materials from previous events. Ebookcraft steering committee members provided contextualizing introductions to every session. My only complaint about the workshop day is that I couldn’t attend everything. The main day was packed with insights ranging from concrete code tips to industry-wide conceptual issues, with time built in for breaks and networking (facilitated by a simple networking BINGO card). A live DJ played presenters on stage and a mic in the form of a soft, throwable cube not only made audience questions efficient, but added an unexpected element of sport. Booknet Canada’s exceptional team presented the fascinating results from their 2018 digital survey and each day, their enthusiastic staff handled everything from moderating the live Tweet wall to handing out the adorable conference pins. The food was great, the hotel was near, the whole conference ticked along like a gorgeous clock.

And Lord knows, making things work effortlessly take a lot of hard work. As a first-timer at ebookcraft, the call to community service was clear and impassioned: the work of volunteers and unpaid developers fuels our industry. The first day lunch session as well as main day W3C session let newbies in the group hear firsthand that yes, it’s scary to get involved, but yes, you can do it and people all around you are excited to help. A few of the ways and places I jotted down to get involved included W3C publishing groups, BISG working groups, WAI, supporting Romain Deltour and Tobias Fischer to maintain EPUBCHECK, or even just joining a conversation at the #eprdctn Twitter tag. And just by doing their jobs, ebook developers can take a grassroots approach to accessibility and improve the world of reading. The great team at NNELS suggested harnessing curiosity to follow conversations around accessibility or even organize a technology meetup. Ellen Ullman’s talk drove home that our industry’s values are not just in our culture, developers are writing them into our code.

But I’ve been to the mountain that is ebookcraft, and not only did I pick up the most up-to-date and exquisite of ebook magicks, I talked to other humans, who agree with more on my only real dogma: ebooks matter.

I obviously focused on the developer side, but one of the best things about ebookcraft is that it’s not a conference just for developers. Ebooks depend on a wide world of retailers, creators of ereading devices, and librarians before they even get into the hands of readers. Ebookcraft was an amazing opportunity for me to meet and learn from those groups; Ben Dugas from Kobo, Rose Donohoo from Overdrive, and Maria Cipriano from the Toronto Public Library provided some of the biggest eye-openers for me. They reminded me first to ask the obvious, easy questions: are my books valid? Do they have covers? Can readers get them? I don’t know about everyone else, but I spend most of my days in my digital tower (which is obviously what I call my Mac), cloistered away from the world coding in solitude (or I would if people could just stop emailing me). But I’ve been to the mountain that is ebookcraft, and not only did I pick up the most up-to-date and exquisite of ebook magicks, I talked to other humans, who agree with more on my only real dogma: ebooks matter.

If you want to follow along in presentation slides, I clipped some of my faves here: https://www.slideshare.net/MelissaMDeJesus/clipboards/my-clips

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