Notes on ebookcraft and Tech Forum 2015 (Part 2)

Take it easy on your team, but make it easier for your readers.

Baldur Bjarnason, Unbound, “When All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like JavaScript.” (video)

A lot of #eprdctn people are casual with the word “code,” but Baldur came to reclaim it with his talk about JavaScript (1). Of the three low-level technologies for creating E-books—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—JavaScript surely is the least-used and most-misunderstood. Partly that’s owing to its relative (lack of) importance. It’s hard to conceive of an E-book without HTML, and few E-books these days abjure all CSS styling. But JavaScript is optional and even a bit scary. Baldur wants us to try some. He offered a very direct thesis statement for his talk: (2)

My goal is to convince you of two things:

1. That software projects should start small and scale up.

2. That JavaScript is the tool for the job.


There are two hurdles to widespread JavaScript adoption: Some E-readers can’t handle it, and some E-book developers don’t understand it. The first hurdle is resolving itself as old and outdated E-readers fall out of use. To clear the second hurdle, Baldur asks that E-book developers reject a “wait and see” approach and replace it with a commitment to incremental learning. He recommends production teams start with one JavaScript tool to automate one common or tedious task. As with most new concepts, the first step is the most daunting and the most important. To help us overcome any trepidation, Baldur made liberal use of Muppets in his slides:

While Baldur facetiously implored us to “JavaScript all the things!” he really advised us to start with “small, hacky tools that solve one problem and improve over time.” Even forward-thinking publishers who have extensively automated their workflows with JavaScript have done so incrementally. Baldur talked about the technical/developmental reasons not to start with a long, complicated, or prefabricated library of JavaScripts. Implied in his talk, though, were the human reasons: few workers are thrilled by complex and dramatic changes to their daily tasks. Starting small can help everyone on the team re-map unfamiliar tools to familiar chores.

Rebecca Springer, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, “User experience for illustrated nonfiction ebooks” (video)

Rebecca oversees production of cookbooks at Houghton, and her first challenge has been to get print designers to realize just how much “user experience” work they have always done, just not under that name. India Amos had introduced this theme earlier in the conference:

Rebecca framed much of her talk in terms of good manners, or at least in terms of holding the needs and experiences of the reader foremost in mind when creating E-books:

Part of this process comes down to picking one’s battles—based not on what design challenges are easy for the designer to solve, but which design problems are hard for the reader to overcome. “E-books that crash are kind of a deal-breaker for most readers,” she deadpanned. I was reminded of Mark Horstman’s maxim: “Communication is what the listener does.” (If the listener or reader didn’t understand the message, then the messenger failed in some way.)

The importance of modular content shone through in unexpected places. As an example, Rebecca showed us a color photograph of a chicken dish that had labels and captions on it. If these captions were rendered as part of the image’s pixels, then the text of the labels could become too small to read on some screens. If the labels were kept as text on a separate layer, they could (usually) scale up or down in a way that would still be meaningful to the reader. (And would also be more accessible to people and devices that had difficulty with pictures.)

Publishers and production teams might chafe at all of this fuss over things that were (are) intrinsic to print design. “The reading systems that make up most of the commercial market have been created for what’s called ‘formless content….’ Without the contextual relationship of elements on the page, meaning is going to get lost.” It may be of some consolation that many of Rebecca’s tips for readability and compatibility also went far towards making E-books more visually elegant. Real fractions, smart quotes, and sensible hyphenation rules prevent misunderstandings and are also aesthetically sound. (No coincidence that; we’ve evolved sensibilities to be partial to stuff that is, well, sensible.)

Cookbooks have long been one of my best allies when explaining the Yellow Buick Review project to people who don’t read much poetry. A cookbook just wouldn’t work as straight paragraphs of text. Formatting matters a lot in recipes: “Add in the sugar…[device-inserted page break]…two teaspoons at a time” could spell disaster for a distracted chef. The challenge of digital cookbooks can be a useful on-ramp for people who mistake for foppery a poet’s insistence on formatting.

1. Most E-book designers occasionally slip and refer to HTML/CSS as “code.” Partly that’s because the words, numbers, and mathematical punctuation of HTML/CSS look like gobbledygoo at first and take a little analysis for the average person to read (though the same might well be said of poetry). But JavaScript changes, interprets, and creates information. HTML/CSS just define and decorate information.

2. All presentations with more than five slides should have one clearly identifiable “Thesis Statement” slide. That the speaker knows the purpose of his talk doesn’t mean the audience does.

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Filed under Look and Feel, Publishing Industry

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