I caught up with Laura while she was developing a slew of new books, about to have a photo shoot and just plain busy. What delighted me was how much time she made for this interview and how generous her responses were. Laura has been working on ebooks for some time and is a contributor to ePub Secrets, a website dedicated to becoming a hub for knowledge and thought on ebook development. Her knowledge is extensive and she has earned her wounds and experience, as we all must do. I was very interested in gaining some insights from her and she certainly delivered! So, without further ado, here is Laura in her own words!
So, how did it all get started for you, Laura?
I have been working as a book designer and typesetter for trade publishers in and around Toronto since 1994, and as a freelancer since 1999. Around 2009, when the freelance market effectively dried up, I was casting around for new work, or kinds of work. Ebook development was a natural segue for me as I started my typesetting career working in SGML in a UNIX environment. I spent some time figuring out the ebook world using tools like lynda.com, eBound Canada workshops, and a seminal set of workshops in Austin run by eBook Architects' Joshua Tallent.
How would you describe the ebook development scene in 2009?
The ebook industry in 2009 was in such an infant state that no one knew which way was up. The first generation iPad hadn’t yet been released and the market was dominated by Kindle, Sony and some reading apps like Stanza. When I set out to learn how to make ebooks then, there were almost no resources. In July 2009, I came out to a two-day workshop at Simon Fraser University (sfu.ca) on digital books but it was too theoretical and not hands-on enough for what I needed. (They had a designer address the crowd who had never designed for digital. Even SFU was still in figuring-it-out-mode.)
At the SFU workshop, Indigo’s Robert Hyashi announced that Shortcovers would convert ebooks for their publisher partners for free for their participation in the incipient program. Pessimist that was, I went home thinking that that move negated any space for developers like me in the marketplace. In the Fall of 2009, I worked on a digital assets project at the House of Anansi Press where I got to know their Cross-Media Manager, Erin Mallory, a little better. She was instrumental in pointing me in the right direction. She told me which resources were worthwhile and let me work on some of her ebook conversions.
Many people in 2009, and still today, make a point of saying that ebooks will never replace print books, as if the two formats were at odds. What do you think about the ebook medium? What potential does it offer? Where would you want to see the format develop further? What do you think of the print/digital relationship?
I think it’s absurd. Digital books support print sales and vice versa. Print is not going to go away because of digital — there will always be people who will only read in print, and books that you will want to own in print.
In a way, I think that this notion of digital cannibalizing print is a knee-jerk reaction from print fetishists — true in 2009 and true still. I think there’s an excellent chance that that slice of the reading population doesn’t know that it’s possible to make lovely, typographically sound ebooks. And that it’s entirely possible to buy a $30 hardcover whose design isn‘t worth a fraction of the cost.
In 2009, the sophisticated readers that I knew were reading fiction digitally, and non-fiction in print. I would say that complex non-fiction has come of age and that sound complex reflowable content is readily available in digital format.
I think there’s an excellent chance that that slice of the reading population doesn’t know that it’s possible to make lovely, typographically sound ebooks.
Today, I see the digital format as a place to push content further. Print replica ebooks are well and good, no question. But the advantages of digital are still up for discussion. Richer content — not just bells and whistles, but deeper, more complex ways of presenting content — is the next step for ebooks. How that will look and the form it will take is an open question. But making a digital version of a print book that is value added is, I think, the next stage for ebooks.
What are the biggest challenges facing developers like yourself to making value added ebooks?
Honestly, the biggest challenge for most publishers is in the planning and assets. Digital should be thought about from the start of any title’s planning process. And all the relevant people — production, editorial, marketing — should be thinking about the assets required. This means simple things like keeping the source files clean and well-formatted. (This sounds so straight forward but is a major stumbling block for almost everyone with whom I work.) Thinking to keep the colour version of all the pictures in the b&w print book. Thinking through the extras in the books that were edited out of the print version for space reasons that could add nice lateral depth to the ebook. Ebooks, particularly when destined for the tablet, benefit deeply from visuals. This fact should be noted and planned for very early in the editorial process.
Because digital is still very much an ohmigosh* process, these things often can’t be resuscitated.
*Ohmigosh the on-sale date is two weeks away. Do we have an ebook yet?
What have been some of the biggest challenges for you personally, as an ebook developer, and how would that translate into advice for emerging developers?
It’s a funny business. When ebook development is done right, it is a combination of right-brain/ left-brain. It is a marriage of creativity and exactitude — the rigour of code, a clear understanding of what the various ereaders and formats can do, and how to wring out the most beautiful, semantic book from within those strictures.
When ebook developers come from the print world, they are frustrated with the constantly shifting sands. Conversely, people from the web world are overwhelmed with what they can’t do with straightforward, well-established web coding practices. There is a strong seam of jokes in the Twitter #eprdctn group about drinking as release from our frustrating quotidien work. Bring on the rum!
When ebook development is done right, it is a combination of right-brain/ left-brain. It is a marriage of creativity and exactitude — the rigour of code, a clear understanding of what the various ereaders and formats can do, and how to wring out the most beautiful, semantic book from within those strictures.
I have found a couple of things useful as a new ebook developer. I work hard at connecting with the community of people working on ebooks. This makes the task of dealing with developing standards much easier and, frankly, more enjoyable. There is a Twitter group that meets for commiseration and support on Wednesdays at 11am EST. There are a couple of Facebook groups for longer posts and queries. Conferences are an important way to connect and learn, in equal portion.
I've also compartmentalized my education, tackling one format at a time. Some of this stuff can be crazy complex. It sounds silly, but know your limits. If you take in too much detail as you try to learn ebook development, you will break something. In my case, I needed to be told something several times before it sunk in. I take copious notes at workshops and refer back to them regularly. Something new, which I was theoretically already supposed to know, inevitably jumps out at me.
Above all, as John Maxwell says, be simple and consistent in your development work.
Rum certainly helps! Especially when our books go to device testing. There are multiple points in the process that a developer can be unhorsed. What about your tools? Which do you prefer, ideally, to work with? Any strong recommendations?
I love my iPad, my Kobo Glo and Dropbox. I couldn’t live without those tools. EPUB-Checker, a Kindle, and my copy of Liz Castro’s HTML5 and CSS3 are pretty handy as well. The revamped ePub Secrets website is fast becoming an important reference tool, as well.
I have been lucky enough to preview a new tool coming soon from Joshua Tallent and Ebook Architects called FlightDeck. I think it’s going to knock the socks off of newer ebook developers.
The EPUB 3 situation? It has been quite a struggle for some time. Do you have any thoughts on it? Are you still developing books in EPUB 2 mostly? How do you see the future of EPUB 3, or at least what would you like it’s future to look like?
This EPUB 3 thing is so frustrating, maybe even absurd. I keep trying to switch to it but have to pull files backwards because a retailer won’t accept it, or it’s incompatible with a publisher’s own retail system, etc. A major ebook retailer recently told me that more than 50% of their retail partners won’t accept EPUB 3. I hate to say it out loud, but I think it will be years before we can use the new spec seriously. I would be very happy to be wrong, and I can’t grok the reasoning. But there it is.
A major ebook retailer recently told me that more than 50% of their retail partners won’t accept EPUB 3. I hate to say it out loud, but I think it will be years before we can use the new spec seriously.
On BradyType’s Facebook wall, you quoted someone saying: “The enhanced books are conceived as a collaboration between creative and tech teams and aim to produce an entirely new reading experience.” What do you think that new reading experience is, and how do you think developers should be preparing for it? Should we be developing for this new experience, driving it even? In other words, should we take a leadership or visionary role in the industry? I am asking this because I think you are right that a new reading experience is possible, but authors won’t necessarily know what’s possible unless we educate them and the platforms will by and large conform to the market and to demands, putting us in the middle, which may or may not be an advantageous place to be.
You ask all the good questions, Kaleeg. Whenever I can insert myself in the decision making process — either by invitation or otherwise — I do. I have opinions about other people’s content and which formats will suit it best and I do like to share those opinions. I really do think that the earlier a developer can get involved in the acquisitions and editorial process, the better. I can see some of my colleagues pushing changes and I admire them deeply for it. As a freelance conversion house, I am a bit stuck with developing to the client’s needs and budget. But I do push my clients where and when I can. Try to stop me!
Sorry Laura, have to ask this: You are on a ship sinking near an island. You can take two songs, two ebooks, two recipes, and two poems with you. Which would they be? And which device would your ebooks preferably be on?
Ebooks: the Oxford English Dictionary (can I say that?), and Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald.
Recipes: my mother’s Rice Pudding, and Pad Thai.
Poems: I like poetry that uses “Tiperrary” as a rhyming metric.
Thank you for this interview, Laura! My last question: What is your own personal gold standard in ebook development?
When I grow up I want to be India Amos. Or Joshua Tallent. Or Colleen Cunningham. Or John Maxwell. Or Anne Kostick. Or Erik Christopher. Or Derrick Schultz. Or... well, you get the picture. This is a fun business — tricky and frustrating, sure. But also fun. And filled with smart, gracious people who share their experiences and knowledge and who earnestly work toward making this professional field a better place to labour.
Laura Brady runs Brady Type, an ebook conversion house and book production company, based in Toronto, Canada. Drawing on old-school typesetting and book layout experience, BT brings the art of book design and typesetting to the rigorous code requirements of ebooks, marrying left- and right-brain functionality in the creation of your ebooks and print books. Her conversion house strives for experience, curiosity, and excellence in the print or digital format. Her twitter and Facebook links are included in the footer of this site.
About The Gold Standard
TGS is dedicated to one goal: to deliver informative interviews with the top professionals working in the ebook development community. We hope that these interviews will contribute to the ebook community and will help us all learn more about our work and about each other. Most of all, TGS wants to promote excellence in ebooks and wants to celebrate those who have dedicated themselves to the hard work of learning to make ebooks and to make them well. “A thing of beauty,” said Keats, “is a joy forever,” and there is no reason for us to settle in our work for anything less than beauty in code and design. This website was designed and built by Kaleeg Hainsworth, owner and operator of Bright Wing Books, a conversion house located in Vancouver Canada. Please check back often, as this site will develop (a lot!) and our interview archives will grow!
Please make all enquiries to gold (at) brightwing.ca.
Links to stuff we support:
R.I.P. — Sigil (2009 - 2013) - We loved you.