What lessons can YBR take from the Books in Browsers talks?
Books in Browsers is a two-day, annual conference exploring trends in digital publishing, E-books, and the role of “books” in a world where content is increasingly digitized and re-mixed (1). I went to Books in Browsers 2014 with three questions:
- How are people formatting E-books these days?
- Do the formatting requirements of publishers and platforms affect the way writers write?
- Does innovation matter when Amazon controls 70% of the E-book market?
Everyone comes to conferences with his or her own agenda, and mine, of course, was poetry. Not everyone shared my central organizing thought:
— Yellow Buick Review (@YBReview) October 24, 2014
Here are my notes on the talks, more for my own future reference than for anything else. Just about all of the lectures are available on YouTube, thanks to Publishing Perspectives, and those are presented, naturally, without the tint of my own personal curiosities and viewpoints.
Peter Armstrong of Leanpub, “Standardizing Markdown Mapping to Books and Documentation”
Peter discussed the importance of formatting for publishers and designers, the irrelevance of formatting for writers, and the need for software to bridge that gap. His central thesis was that “writers should write” and not worry about formatting. “When you’re writing, as an author…formatting is procrastination.” An author who frets about page breaks in Microsoft Word only sets herself up for disappointment when her editor undoes those efforts to make a manuscript ready for InDesign on Dreamweaver.
That position makes sense for most prose fiction, much prose non-fiction, and some prose technical writing. However, it makes little sense for poetry. Even if one strips away traditional rhyme and meter, free-verse poetry remains easy to spot: Poetry is writing in which the spacing and formatting of the text tell the reader how to read the poem aloud. Poetry on a page is analogous to sheet music. Nobody would tell a composer to put black dots on a music staff and leave the tempo and dynamics to the publisher.
Our position at Bicycle Comics is that anthology publishers should communicate the features
and limitations(2) of their templates (print and digital) to their contributors as early in the process as possible. How many levels of indentation will the book use? Does the book allow different font sizes within a poem? Does the book support right-justified and centered text? Poets need to know those things, whether they are composing poems specifically for the anthology or just perusing their back-catalogs for suitable submissions. Once a poet knows the basic style guide, the rest of the formatting remains, as with prose, an irrelevant distraction to the writer.
Peter’s solution for keeping writers focused and publishers happy was to encourage them to use Markdown. Markdown, from a writer’s perspective, is an ease-of-use layer over HTML. It allows writers with blog-level typing skills to write text that translates cleanly to HTML. He then unveiled his company’s new product, Markua, which is, as I understand it, an ease-of-use layer over Markdown.
Something like Markua might—might—work for Bicycle Comics, if we could distribute such a writing environment, pre-loaded with our anthology specs, to our writers and contributors. That’s a pipe-dream, though. Established, busy, or technology-averse poets might not deign to learn a new system, especially if they already have their poems formatted to their satisfaction in MS Word.
All of which made the subsequent talk such a useful counterpoint…
Michael Kowalski of Contentment, “Designing for Intimacy”
Michael advocated passionately for the adoption of HTML5 as a backend standard, something that publishers should work to get their entire content base into. He demonstrated the panoply of screen sizes and attention spans a publisher must satisfy. Contentment works with children’s book publishers and with magazines, which both tend to be very graphic-intensive. Magazines also have tight deadlines and a desire to reuse evergreen content.
Making that content look good is partly the responsibility of browser developers, and on that front, Michael was not optimistic: “The Web browser is probably one of the crappiest apps on your mobile.” Contentment, therefore, feels that custom apps, not browsers, will deliver the best reading experience and get the most from solid HTML5 content. He discussed some of the workflows and technologies Contentment uses to create those apps for their customers.
What interested me was his refutation of Peter’s thesis: “Actually, no one wants to author in your new UI. They’re going to use Word, or they’re going to use whatever they’ve already got…” Michael’s perspective fit in nicely with our own thoughts on MS Word as an unavoidable evil in the modern publishing workflow. Basically, an anthology publisher has to accept Word…or has to accept a steep drop in submissions. Few small presses have the force of reputation to impose some other standard (3).
Even our proposed half-way measure of MS Word templates doesn’t cut the mustard with Michael: “People don’t like tagging their content… and content doesn’t always fit nicely into schemas.” That’s true. Poetry doesn’t always fit nicely into schemas, even when those schemas are designed around poetry.
The stage was set for a feisty…
Question and Answer session.
If one pulls way back, these men agree on the fundamentals: A publisher should take HTML5 content and mold that into various digital formats. The process should involve a minimum of fuss for the writer at one end and for the reader at the other. Michael said: “I take it as a self-evident truth that HTML is the only thing that works for…portable content.” Peter’s Markua and Markup workflow, under its layers, is really just creating HTML. It’s at either end of that workflow that the disagreements emerge.
On the input end, Michael doesn’t think writers can or will change. They’re going to stick with Microsoft Word, so publishers need to adopt software (Contentment) to handle .doc and .docx files pasted into their content management systems (4). Peter, however, thinks that writers might change, if they were given a writing environment (Markua) that kept them focused.
Peter: So, we’ve found people have their own tools—
Michael: Word, mostly.
Peter: Some people. The funny thing is—it’s amazing, actually—something that has existed for 20-25 years is considered a law of physics: No, you have to use Word, because there’s gravity, and oxygen, and Microsoft.
On the output end, Michael thinks browsers are hopeless, so apps (from Contentment) are the way to get the most from well-formatted HTML5 material. Peter thinks that there are too many devices and screens to track, so his software (Leanpub) offers export to a variety of standard formats: EPUB, mobi, PDF, indd, and Web page.
There was an odd moment where Peter and Michael, looking for common ground, seemed to suggest that someone could write in Markua, convert to HTML5, export to InDesign…and then take that indd file and import it to Contentment to produce an HTML5 app. (video)
It’s a lot to ask of anyone standing on a stage that he or she change his mind about something. Even more to ask when those people have built businesses on their opinions. That tension made these two talks such a great pairing. I never got the sense that I were watching commercials for two products. Instead, I saw two people grappling with the issues and concerns of people in the room. It was really good programming to juxtapose these two talks.
1. How are people formatting E-books these days?
All sorts of ways. Straight HTML5, HTML5 via WYSIWYG programs, HTML5 via Markdown via Markua, or via conversions of source files from MS Word or InDesign.
2. Do the formatting requirements of publishers and platforms affect the way writers write?
Leanpub says yes, but in as limited a way as possible. Contentment says no.
3. Does innovation matter when Amazon controls 70% of the E-book market?
Leanpub supports .mobi, so they acknowledge Amazon’s influence on the marketplace. With Contentment’s app-centered approach, publishers can probably make their magazines and books look fabulous on Kindle Fire…provided they develop and test an app for Kindle Fire’s heavily forked version(s) of Android. E-ink Kindles are another story, but not many readers would want to read a fashion magazine or an illustrated children’s title on greyscale E-ink, anyhow.
If you attended the conference, how did your perspective color these talks?
Thanks to Peter Brantley for making this conference possible and to Publishing Perspectives for recording and posting the conference videos.
(1) Officially, “Books in Browsers is a small summit for the new generation of internet publishing companies, focusing on developers and designers who are building and launching tools for online storytelling, expression, and art.”
(2) Only a fool would communicate the limitations as such. Lead with the language of possibility. Compare these statements:
a. For dessert, you can choose vanilla or chocolate ice cream!
b. We’re all out of strawberry ice cream, but would chocolate or vanilla be okay for dessert?
Good parents know a. gets you a happy kid, while b. gets you a petulant tantrum.