For many of us who work with ebooks, the highlight of our year is ebookcraft in Toronto. ebookcraft is a two-day conference devoted to ebook production, sponsored by Booknet Canada. The fifth edition was held last week, and it was a veritable who’s who of Publishing @ W3C.
Why do we love ebookcraft? It’s full of “practical tips and forward-thinking inspiration.” It’s impeccably organized, by the wizardly Lauren Stewart and her team. It’s warm and welcoming. There are cookies. More than half the speakers are women. It really is about making beautiful, accessible ebooks. Of course, that requires standards. The ebook world has suffered more than most, with interoperability being a dream rather than a reality. Many of the presenters are involved with standards work at W3C.
The first day of ebookcraft was devoted to workshops, where longer talks and smaller audiences allow for in-depth coverage of various topics. Naomi Kennedy (Penguin Random House) kicked off the day speaking about “Images in Ebooks,” addressing approaches to format, size, and color with the ever-popular Bill the Cat.
Romain Deltour (DAISY) asked his audience “Is Your EPUB Accessible?” I found out that mine was almost there but not quite (and I wrote some of the specs he was featuring, uh-oh!). Romain walked us through concepts such as how information gets from HTML to the user, what assistive technologies are, how to figure out if your content has accessibility support, and how to test your files. Romain is one of the developers behind Ace by DAISY, a command-line program to check EPUBs for accessibility, and he did a demo for us. Ace by DAISY is based on the EPUB Accessibility 1.0 spec.
There was a panel over lunch called “Everybody’s Working on the Weekend,” about volunteerism in digital publishing. The panelists were from Booknet Canada, some of the wonderful planners of the conference. Many of them also devote their time to standards development at Booknet Canada and other organizations. When it was time for audience participation, it was pretty clear that publishing is a world of volunteers. Everyone wants to help, but there’s a serious shortage of time and resources, given busy day jobs. And standards work can be daunting at first—we need to find ways to gently welcome newcomers.
Deborah Kaplan picked up after lunch with ”WAI-ARIA in Practice.” She walked us through ARIA best practices, perhaps most importantly when NOT to use ARIA. She also opened our eyes to the wide world of keyboard navigation and gave us a hefty reading list for learning more.
Peter Krautzberger spoke about MathML: Equation Rendering in ebooks offered an overview of the options available for equational content in EPUB. We looked at equations in SVG and MathML and many options for making them accessible.
Conference organizer Laura Brady participated in a panel with the NNELS (National Network of Equitable Library Services) called “We Tear Apart Your Ebooks.” The panel discussed the NNELS open system for sharing accessible publications. Once a book is in the NNELS system, it can be shared throughout Canada. Authorized users request accessible publications, and the NNELS team works to make them accessible. Laura recently audited several publishers in Canada to assess their level of accessibility (really not that great) and trained them to get much better.
On Day 2, we shifted from workshops to the big room. Who better to kick off the day than Liisa McCloy-Kelley, co-chair of the Publishing Business Group? Liisa’s topic was “Laser Focus: Don’t Get Distracter by that Shiny Object.” Liisa gave us a short tour of the history of ebooks and EPUB (and made sure we knew how to spell it). Publishing, reading, and writing have changed a lot over the years. We all get caught up on “shiny objects” that might catch our attention briefly, but it’s important to explore why you want to do it. Is it because a feature is cool? Is someone asking you to add it? Are you fixing something that’s annoying? Do you have a unique solution? There are many questions to ask that can help you decide whether you should implement a change, and when (and if) you will make the change. There are some issues that the entire industry must address. We need to stop making proprietary formats and embrace standards. Focus on improving image quality as screen quality improves. We should consider the external contexts provided by reading systems, how voice, AR, and VR might affect our content, and be patient.
The highlight of the day was Rachel Comerford’s “epub and chill” talk. Somehow Rachel managed to compare online dating with ebooks. The whole room was chanting “expose your metadata, not yourself.” The rules for dating and ebooks are pretty similar: 1. Remember Your Audience 2. Use Standards 3. Be Transparent 4. Don’t Play Hard to Get. I strongly recommend checking out the video when it becomes available.
Karen Myers (W3C) and I spoke about standards in Publishing@W3C in a talk entitled “Great Expectations—The Sequel.” We offered a brief history of Publishing@W3C and a deep dive into the work happening in the EPUB3 Community Group, the Publishing Business Group, and the Publishing Working Group. We offered a quick tour of the cast of characters that makes up the rest of the W3C. We shared some highlights from groups such as WOFF, WAI, and Verifiable Claims that could be of real interest and value to the the publishing community. We spoke about how to get involved and how to stay current.
Dave Cramer (co-chair of the EPUB 3 CG) and Jiminy Panoz went on an “Excellent CSS Adventure.” You’ll have to watch the video for Dave’s biblical opening. Dave and Jiminy explained the magic of CSS with some great tips, from the power of selectors and the cascade to the mysteries of pseudo-elements and inline layout.
Benjamin Young and I discussed an HTML-First Workflow at Wiley. We spoke briefly of Wiley’s 200+ year history of publishing books and journals. We have recently begun exploring an HTML-first workflow for our journal articles that looks at content apart from metadata. We have focused on layers of material. The content is in HTML. Metadata is in RDFa. Style is acheived with CSS, and internal processing is accomplished using HTML’s data-*. attribute. The Wiley team that is working on this project began with a set of technical requirements with the goal of improving output. It is still a work in progress, but we heard that lots of people are ready to dive into HTML now.
Ben Dugas offered his perspective as an ebook retailer at the End of the Conveyer Belt. Ben works in Content Operations at Kobo. His team looks at all the files that pass through Kobo’s pipeline. To summarize, content creation is hard, spec creation is hard, content QA is hard, and building support is hard. My favorite part of Ben’s presentation was when he pointed out that it takes a little time to get used to standards work, but once they got used to our quirks, they realized they had actual opinions and it was okay to offer them. Ben’s advice is to move on to EPUB 3 (and beyond), use epubcheck and Ace, test across platforms, think about the reader, and not accept the status quo. Sound advice.
If you’re involved in the creation of ebooks, be sure to come to ebookcraft in 2019! In the meantime, you can see what people said about ebookcraft on social media, follow @ebookcraft on Twitter, and eagerly await the videos of this year’s conference.
Many thanks to Dave Cramer for his thoughtful editing of this post.