Publishing and technology

Highlights from Tech Forum & Ebookcraft, 2019

This blog post was written for Simon Fraser University’s publishing department (original post here). SFU sent me to Toronto to soak up as much as I could from the Tech Forum & ebookcraft conference in March of 2019 and here’s what I found!

The MaRS Discovery District was buzzing with excitement this past week as I entered into BookNet’s annual Tech Forum & ebookcraft conference. I felt an overwhelming sense of curiosity, not knowing exactly what I would discover, but eager to soak in as much as I possibly could from some of the most innovative and prominent leaders in the publishing industry today. With my laptop open ready to take notes and a coffee in hand, I was all ears.

It was an absolute pleasure to see that the 2019 programming for both ebookcraft and Tech Forum had a strong focus on accessibility and diversity. Arguably publishers are still some of the most prominent gatekeepers of what content reaches consumers and therefore publishers have such an important duty in ensuring that diverse voices are heard and that the content they produce is accessible for all. I didn’t expect that I would be touched by the presentations at a conference about technology in the publishing world but it made me proud to be part of this traditionally colonial industry, whose current members are working incredibly hard to break away from the darker areas of it’s past to create a truly inclusive industry.

I had the incredible opportunity to chat with people from all over the world, including two men from O’Reilly in the States, and two women from Book Wire in Brazil, along with many young women from Penguin and Simon and Schuster among others. Their questions and comments brought so much more to the table.

Here is a recap of my highlights from the conference!

Jaz making a MPUB sign at Ebookcraft

Diversity & Publishing

Disrupting Bias

Ritu Bhasin of Bhasin Consulting Inc. was a stellar presenter, I felt like I was watching a Ted Talk, but the best part was that she gave the audience actionable tools to start using right away in order to create inclusive companies.

I didn’t realize that there were different levels of diversity. Compliance represents the level to which a company is simply following government regulated diversity legislature, diversity is the quantitative representation of groups which often feels like tokenism since it’s just looking at the numbers (for example how many women or visible minorities are working at a company), and lastly inclusion is the true qualitative inclusion of diversity into the company by allowing employees to bring their authentic selves to work. It is at this stage that anti-oppression and decolonization can really start to take place, and where employees don’t have to mask or deflect biases. At the inclusion level, companies can start to attack the system and unwind the underlying ideologies.

From here Bhasin went into a detailed analysis of bias which to her is the fundamental problem underlying the diversity issue. People are prone to bias as we are programmed to be afraid of people who are different from us. Bhasin takes care to back up her talk with neuroscience, really grounding her action steps in research. She says that to attack our own personal biases we need to start recognizing difference. The old way of thinking about diversity is to believe that we are all the same, but in order to actually catch ourselves and start to break down our inherent biases we need to make our unconscious decision making conscious. Bhasin defined a 2 step process:

  • Step One: In your brain consciously clock cultural identities

    • For example, “I am talking with an indigenous woman or a disabled person etc.”

    • Be aware of who you’re talking to. Identifying cultural identity is not the issue, it’s the meaning that your brain has attached to it.

  • Step Two: Try to determine what the meaning is that you’re attaching to that cultural identity but don’t beat yourself up about your biases. You have to probe yourself to find out why you have these biases. The presence of diversity in our midst is not being inclusive, you need to be having meaningful interactions to change your biases over time.

Bhasin also provided 4 strategies for inclusion:

  1. Change your behaviour: Start with the steps above.

  2. Expand your circles and practices: have more meaningful, deeper conversations, understand differences and acknowledge who you’re talking up versus talking down.

  3. Reveal your personal side: the more empowered you and your team is, the more innovative and creative. Think about one thing about yourself that’s tied back to your cultural identity that you don’t share at work due to cultural bias? Start to share it and feel like you belong as you are.

  4. Change the system: Change how we market books and hire staff to really create systemic disruption.

Jaz chatting with colleagues at Ebookcraft

I found the candid fireside chat that Bhasin had with Leonicka Valcius following the presentation equally eye opening. I’ve already started to put her methods into practice. As a straight white cis woman, I have a privilege that can’t be denied and although I grew up with the ideals that everyone is equal and deserves to be treated equally, I understand that there are relentless underlying biases that are so deeply entrenched that I personally have so much work to do to unravel hundred of years of sterotying, bias and inequality. One thing that can be hard is having those meaningful conversations that I recounted above. Bhasin acknowledged that people typically avoid conversations with those different from us in order to not offend. I can attest to this, I think I’m being overly nice and then just end up saying nothing which will do us no good in terms of breaking down those biases. Bhasin recommended asking for permission. for example, upon engaging with a person who told her that they suffer from bipolar disorder, she said she asked them if she could have permission to ask her about her experiences as a person living with bipolar disorder. From there the deeper conversation could begin. I thought this was a very simple and powerful tool to open up the floor for meaningful discussion.

Diversity by the Numbers

Both Noah Genner of BookNet Canada and Kate Edwards of ACP presented on the state of diversity in the publishing industry. The 2018 Canadian Book Publishing Diversity Baseline Survey shows that the industry is still overwhelmingly run by white people especially in leadership positions, and is mostly composed of women, but less so in leadership roles. Edwards noted some of the initiatives that publishers are starting to implement to increase diversity in their companies. These included:

  • New recruitment strategies and hiring practices

  • Only offering paid internships

  • Looking farther afield for candidates

  • The removal of publishing experience as a requirement for getting a job

  • Writing job descriptions to be more attractive for people in diverse communities

  • Offering mentorship and professional development

  • Hiring sensitivity readers

  • Ensuring boards have diverse members

Genner’s data looked at diversity from the book and content perspective. BookNet’s survey found that 62% of respondents say they seek out diverse books and 22% say they can’t find what they’re looking for. People want to see books that represent themselves. The results are in! These are high stats and as members of the publishing industry we should be acting on these numbers.

Jaz chatting with colleagues at Ebookcraft

Diversity and Data: Give the Readers What They Want!

The numbers presented by Genner and Edwards tied nicely into a presentation by Wattpad with Ashleigh Gardner. Wattpad is harnessing data and technology to bring more diversity into publishing. Because of their incredibly large user base of writers and readers they are able to see where people are located and the type of books they are reading. Emerging trends that Wattpad is tracking show a strong business case for diversity in publishing. For example a prominent tag right now is #muslimromance. LGBT stories are also growing in demand. People are looking for more diverse titles to read and love reading about strong women. The traditional publishing industry can be problematic to publishing diverse voices since publishers use comp titles to make a sales case for new books. In this model, diverse voices aren’t published simply because they haven’t been published in the past, but this issue is eradicated with Wattpad where users post their own stories and self tag them for Wattpad readers to find. If a book becomes popular and is read by thousands of people, there is no need for a comp title. The proof is in the data!

Data and Artificial Intelligence in the Publishing World

We continued to dive head first into data with a stacked panel on AI featuring Wendy Reid from Kobo, Joshua Tallent of Firebrand Technologies, Monica Landers of Storyfit, and Jens Tröger from Bookalope.

The consensus on this panel discussion of experts in the AI field was that AI will never operate entirely without human intelligence. For example you can get an AI to do your ebook tagging to speed up the process, but a human should still review it. An example provided was the website this person does not exist which showcases faces created entirely by AI, but you can still tell that a robot made them (for the most part). It will of course continue to get better, but it was reassuring to hear a panel of experts strongly concur that robots are not taking over any time soon.

The benefit of AI, is that it can harness and review millions of pieces of data and spit out the results of that review very quickly, tasks that no human mind could ever complete.

a presentation at Ebookcraft

The panel also discussed neural net, a type of AI where there are no inputs added by the developer so the machine is let loose on large amounts of data to learn patterns on its own. This sounds like it would be great because there would be no bias that would be added inherently by the developer but unforeseeable issues still arise based on the data that the machine picks up. This can be problematic if people purposefully abuse the technology so that it learns unsavoury traits. Another example of this is the recent Amazon hiring story where the AI didn’t pick any female candidates because there were no women in their data set. Based on some backfiring AI’s, it seems like developer inputs are necessary. Since this is the case, there is a lot riding on the clean input of data. One of the panelists stated that, “if you garbage in, you’ll get garbage out” because your AI will spit your bad data and biases right back at you if that’s what data it’s been trained on.

AI’s need to be trained properly. For example, Google’s capcha is one of the greatest examples of a global AI training. Everytime you choose what parts of an image have a car in them to prove that you aren’t a robot, you’re actually training a robot to pick out objects in an image. I’ve submitted countless Kapcha surveys and had never considered that I was helping out Google in the process!

The audience for this panel was not filled with AI developers, so a key message nearing the end of the panel was to encourage all of us to jump hurdles with new tech, because the pain of learning will only become harder and harder as new technologies emerge.

Ebooks and Accessibility

The future of digital reading

Dave Cramer started the day off with a discussion on the future of digital reading (full presentation here). After recapping the history of ereaders and various ebook formats, he turned to the opportunities that lie ahead. Cramer spoke candidly and did not hold back his disdain for the fixity of certain ebook formats (fixed layout ebooks primarily). He noted that even big publishers make bad ebooks and that even though ebook development has come a long way, it still has a long way to go. He argued for digital publications to move to the web and away from their EPUB containers. The future of digital reading is the removal of the reading systems all together. Web publications should be produced in a browser friendly format or BFF (how great is this term), so that it “plays nice” across all devices and platforms.

Cramer often acknowledges the developers in the room who are actively working to make more accessible publications. There was a stirring sense of collaboration throughout the day. When speakers mentioned various code initiatives they are working on, they all gave acknowledgement to those who have helped them with the project and stated that it’s open access for others to build upon and refine. One speaker also linked to their project on Github in an effort to have the community actively report bugs. With this strong sense of community already forming in the morning of day one, I knew I was in for a great conference!

What makes a great EPUB?

Following Cramer’s inspiring talk, we then jumped into some specifics about ebooks (for the full powerpoint, click here). Shannon Culver from eBOUND Canada and Sabina Iseli-Otto from NNELS (National Network for Equitable Library Service) talked about what’s needed to really make eBooks right. This doesn’t mean how they look, but if ebook are made properly they should be as accessible as possible and they should be built to last. They started out by explaining exactly what it means for an ebook to be accessible, which they defined using the following elements:

  • There need to be options for reading

  • Sales should be directed to an underserved audience

  • Consider timeliness (accessible version to be out at the same time as a print book)

  • The ebook must be findable (accessible versions are each to find)

  • Make it inclusive and equitable, benefitting all

  • Keep in mind internet connectivity, and

  • Remember there is a shared accountability and responsibility (by all those involved)

The speakers then moved into a discussion on the state of current ebooks and the challenges we are still facing with the EPUB format. These include:

  • A lack of semantic tags

  • A Lack of page numbers (how do you cite text in a reflowable eBook?)

  • Proper alt text for images

  • Broken or incomplete table of contents

  • Inaccessible fixed layout ebooks are still pervasive

  • Difficult searchability and discovery

  • Many publishers still use EPUB 2 over EPUB 3

Merch from Tech Forum and Ebookcraft!

I was surprised to learn that in many cases, especially academic publishing, PDF’s are still a pervasive format for digital texts. Page numbers are very important in academic fields, which is very problematic when faced with the reflowability of EPUB’s. This is a hard issue to reconcile for a standardized format and this presentation opened my eyes to how difficult it is to create an ebook format that works for everyone.

I really liked the quote the speakers included by Marisa DeMeglio who stated, “accessibility should be accessible”. This seems obvious, but for those who are trying to create accessible publications, the guidelines should be widely accessible and easy to find and follow. They then cited many resources to use to help you build accessible EPUB’s such as Laura Brady’s video on Another issue related to creating bulletproof ebooks is that ongoing training is required, but it’s an important investment for publishers to make.

In the end, they made a case for “born-accessible publishing” which is the creation of documents that start accessible rather than it being an afterthought. Accessibility for edge cases really ends up benefiting everyone, such as the ramps that are designed to allow wheelchairs easy access into buildings that also help out the larger user base of parents pushing strollers up the ramps. Accessible ebooks benefit those with perceptual disabilities but they also improve SEO and discoverability. It’s good for everyone!

Pagination in the Browser

The following presentation by Nellie McKesson of Hederis was incredibly exciting but also quite technical. She discussed how the platform Hederis allows publishers to create publications directly in the browser (based on paged.js). Starting with uploading your Microsoft file you can convert to EPUB and print PDF. Launching in the summer designers will also be able to go into the browser based publication and typeset the document. This was absolutely fascinating to see! I look forward to the launch of the design portion and I’m marking my calendar so that I can run one of my projects through the platform. This seems like an absolutely ground-breaking and revolutionary approach to publishing that will empower all publishers to create better works without needing a strong coding background. This was one of the best parts about the conference that I was a bit intimidated about at first: programming. Even though some presentations were technical, the speakers made them easy to follow and had valuable insights for people who know very little about the coding that goes on behind the scenes in ebook production like me!

a speaker at Ebookcraft

Ebooks that Last

One problem I hadn’t spent much time thinking about before this conference is the ebook backlist. Teresa Elsey’s presentation (found here) on the issue of old ebooks and best practices to ensure the longevity of ebooks was eye opening.

The purpose of Elsey’s presentation was to empower teams to have the knowledge to create publications that can be passed down and will last longer than the teams in publishing houses that have specific knowledge. Ebooks in essence must be built to last.

One really great insight I hadn’t considered is what a bad ebook can do to sales. Elsey was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Senior Managing Editor (Digital) where she handled ebook issues that were reported back to the company where she and her team would work on resolving them. When an ebook and print book go live on Amazon for sale, an ebook user gets access to the publication right away, as soon as it’s purchased. If they see an issue with the file, such as no table of contents or some reading error with the text, it’s possible that they will immediately post a bad review about the books functionality. Meanwhile the print reader won’t have even received their book in the mail yet, and they would not likely post any kind of review about the content of the book until they are finished reading it however many weeks or months later. The ebook reviews come out immediately and a 1 star review on the day of the book’s launch can have an incredibly negative impact on online sales. The immediacy of the digital format makes it’s proper creation even more important.

Elsey went on to describe digital practices to ensure that ebooks can be effectively achieved without losing future functionality such as using Internet Archive to ensure that your ebooks don’t succumb to link rot (link rot of just 2 or more links in an ebook can lead to the whole book being rejected by a retailer).

Here are some specific tips that Elsey provided for ensuring the longevity of ebooks:

Ebook Design:

  • Don’t be cute: don’t have design elements that are fragile

  • Don’t be clever: being conservative is important when you’re implementing features into a 500+ book backlist, think about being bulletproof

  • Use html first over css

Ebook workflow:

  • Build all ebooks the same way (they should be automatable and low touch)

  • Edit source files not outputs

  • Save high-quality assets

  • Follow the standards

The User’s Perspective

This presentation by Kai Li was incredibly important as he talked from his lived experience with a perceptual disability. This was a call to arms for publishers to hire people with disabilities for all stages of content creation, but not just as the companies spokesperson for people with disabilities. Just like the exhaustion that visible minorities feel to be the beacons of diversity, people with disabilities have more to offer than their insights on the issues with accessible publishing. Li notes that people with disabilities are incredibly innovative as they have had to become the ultimate problem solvers to navigate a world that is so often not accessible, they are also highly productive. Li also cited a report that found that companies who hired people with disabilities had a 28% higher revenue than those who did not.

If you’re interested in checking out more of the presentations, the live videos will be up soon, but the powerpoint presentations from each speaker are already live if you click on their corresponding event listing here.

One of my biggest takeaways from the conference… I need to get on Twitter so that I can interact more with the industry and speak to these amazing publishing professionals. It seems to be where the publishing conversations are taking place. In all seriousness though, I am honoured to be part of this incredible industry and I look forward to the future of publishing knowing that these incredible people are leading the charge. Now it’s time to put the learnings from this conference into practice!

The Tech Forum and Ebookcraft event banner