ebookcraft 2015: Everything old is new again

Like many readers of this blog, I attended the ebookcraft workshops on March 10. As I listened to the presenters, I was reminded of a similar set of workshops I went to several years ago and was struck by how familiar the issues were. (Full disclosure: I am not an ebook producer or designer, a coder, or an expert. I am just your average person who has an above average interest in technology and books and who works for BookNet Canada.)

Joshua Tallent’s ebookcraft workshop, March 10All the special tips and tricks presented about the peculiarities of this or that retailer’s requirements were the very same issues that were being addressed back in 2009. Sure, the specific details have changed, but the issues are thematically the same. People working to produce ebooks still have to manipulate and deliver multiple epub files that have been customized to accommodate the various guidelines of different retailers. There is a resigned lamentation over the need for common standards, and people are struggling to meet all the various requirements on tight budgets. Time travel back 18 years…

The year was 1997. While I was in the latter half of my Masters degree in Information Studies at U of T’s library school (formerly the MLS degree), I learned how to code in HTML. It was a crazy time for library science and a whole profession in transition.

In my second year, I elected to take a course taught by Joan Cherry—a trailblazer, a great prof, and an all-around good egg—in which we coded a recipe book using SGML, the precursor to XML. The SGML language was tag-based, declarative, and rigorous, and it allowed you to build a series of entities—like recipes or any other chunkable content—in which you broke everything down into its component parts (like recipe titles and ingredients) and reconstituted it into a searchable, scaleable set of recipes. SGML was open and free, and as a language it blew my mind. While HTML was interesting, SGML was a recognizable and evolutionary step in creating the things I knew and loved.

Some time later, I took a course in XML in which we learned about the layers of rules that could provide finer details so that you could identify a footnote within a text using tags, etc. The newly minted v3.0 of the DocBook DTD was recognizable to me, as it bulit upon the genius idea that we tinkered with in SGML; not only could you tag content in this way, but you could now have a common standard and set of rules by which you could name recognizable components. So my recipe book could be coded the exact same way as your recipe book, and that was incredible and powerful. It was a standard for common use that would allow for common searching, common consumption, and common and transferable encoding.

In 2009, I was lucky enough to go to the third Tools of Change conference in New York City. We were talking about a sophisticated EPUB standard that could provide the basis for producing quality ebooks with pictures and maybe video or sound in a new medium: the e-reader. RocketBook and other early e-readers had previously seemed out of reach, but there was finally a piece of shiny in town that was affordable. Again, I had my mind blown with all the big ideas, and the brave new world that was ebooks.

There was also talk of standards and challenges to those nascent EPUB standards in the form of Mobipocket, a French producer of e-reading software that was bought by Amazon in 2005. Amazon was going it alone by having its own set of requirements. While multi-platform support was a real challenge, there was optimism that eventually Amazon would come around and we would all be working off the same set of specs to provide quality standardized code that fulfilled the needs of all ebooks, no matter what the device.

In a pre-conference workshop that year, Joshua Tallent, from eBook Architects (now Firebrand Technologies), Keith Fahlgren from Safari Books Online, and Garth Conboy from eBook Technologies Inc. spoke expertly and passionately about the potential of ebooks. They discussed specific solutions to particular text and image display issues, and how to make your ebooks look the way a reader would want to see them on the disparate devices available in the market at the time.

Six years later, at ebookcraft 2015, we can see that while some things have improved, the industry continues to face similar challenges. The number of platforms hasn’t diminished, and ebook formats have as many diverse requirements as ever. Publishers and ebook producers must accommodate as many devices as readers want to read on, and as many variants to the standard as retailers demand. Once again, a talented and impassioned group of ebook producers gathered together to learns tips and tricks to have their books display just right in multiple devices.

In one workshop, Joshua Tallent brought his 12+ years of experience to address the common problems and pitfalls resulting from various retailers’ requirements around image display on different devices. Just try to get a caption to display underneath an image on some e-readers—it’s not so easy, unless you’ve seen his ultimate pro tip (see slides 72-73): a cross-platform solution. That solution to this very specific problem gives one hope.

Despite the fractured standards, there are smart people working on solutions that transcend the exigencies of unheeded standards and suggest that working together to find multi-platform solutions will result in the great leap forward we are all looking for—or will at least give those people working to develop ebooks one less thing to agonize over, so they can just get on with making ebooks beautiful.