Last weekend, Hur Publishing converged on Toronto to take part in this year’s BookCamp, where we were typically ninja-like in our silence but took lots of notes. Here are some thoughts on the sessions we attended.
9:30 Harlequin on starting a digital business from a print business
Harlequin’s session was (perhaps understandably) a bit sales conference-y, especially for 9:30 am on a Saturday. They talked about new and existing lines and handed out free books, and usually played coy or refused to disclose when asked any interesting questions. The one interesting point made was that although all their digital content is currently locked up with DRM, they are experimenting with a DRM-free line and, if it proves successful, it could influence the company’s practices. Harlequin is a leader in the digital world and if they can demonstrate that free (as in libre) content can be profitable as well as ethical, others will follow. Also, they have a teen line. YA romance novels? I don’t know how to feel.
10:30 Michael Tamblyn for Kobo
Michael Tamblyn was an engaging speaker as always, and the early-morning wine-tasting sure helped. I left my laptop on Vancouver time, so I was faced with a clock flashing 7:30 am as I sampled my bubbly. But to get down to the actual content, Kobo has extensive statistics on the reading habits of their customers. I thought the Kobo device had no wifi, but I guess that doesn’t stand in the way of tracking and reporting reading habits since at some point you have to go on the web to buy your books, not to mention the Kobo apps available for other wifi-ready devices. The effect of this is really creepy, especially in combination with Kobo’s recent contest soliciting reading photos from customers. Do you want Michael Tamblyn to know what you’re reading in the bathtub? More to the point, do you want him knowing what you read and what you skipped, and how fast, and how many times, and what you highlighted, and so on? Maybe you do, because it could contribute to a personalized recommendation system a la Amazon.
The discussion came down to the question of monetizing reading statistics, which could be the biggest benefit to publishers and distributors of reading devices, without creeping out the consumer or violating privacy. Some ideas that were tossed around were clear opt-in or opt-out procedures and transparency around data collection/storage methods so readers know they’re still anonymous. This is key, because publishers like Harlequin have used digital formats to reach audiences too embarrassed to buy risque or pulpy titles in-store (and also because Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like are becoming increasingly creepy around privacy and people seem less and less willing to tolerate this behaviour, so anything Kobo can do to stand out from the Big Brother crowd is a competitive edge).
11:30 Book as Object
This session featured beautiful notebooks and samples from Nice Work Press and Antsey Book Binding. The highlight of this session was the pithy and charming Aurelie Collings, who said, “The ultimate metatext is how the form of the book itself augments a deep reading experience.” I had hoped for more of this discussion instead of the unexamined privileging of print forms (the book-scented candle? really?) especially since, at BookCamp, they were preaching to the choir, but things went a little limp. Worth further examination is Antsey’s interesting use of format. Examples include a spineless book of photos and blank notebooks with covers using rearranged type to create multiple meanings. The first example probably works better as a digital publication, in format if not in terms of aesthetics and resolution, and the fact that it’s printed speaks to the buyer’s social class: this is a great example of book as status symbol and publishers need to pursue this avenue. The second example works only as a print book, and demands that you literally judge a book by its cover. There is no content. The book is its package and format and nothing else. It’s a great, tangible example of the value PPB brings to a book—content and form both need to pull their weight, and at this point digital is really good at the former and still working on the latter.
Somewhat anticlimactically, the session moderators pointed out that all the work they do can be done more cheaply overseas. This problem is endemic to the Canadian book industry. This conversation should have happened, but didn’t. Why should buyers support Canadian companies that cost more? (Don’t say ethics.) If there isn’t any reason, what can these companies bring to the table that make them worth the extra cost?
2:00 Structure and Typography of Ebooks
Joe Clark and Scott Boms spoke about plans to digitize works by Marshall McLuhan. Isn’t that a little presumptuous? If the medium is the message (or, as Joe says, the massage), what makes you think you’re qualified to change the medium? It seems to me you’d have to literally translate these works to digitize them—that is, distill the essence of them, isolate what of that is contributed, complemented or amplified by the format, and find a way to achieve the same in entirely new (digital) ways. And if that’s not the plan, you’ve missed the point.
Highlight of the session: structure and typography for the web will rely on standards, and the best standards that exist to date are the DAISY accessibility standards. Jean Kaplansky made this point a while ago, and it’s just one more argument for XML. The session’s lowest point: the constant trash-talking. Mr. Clark had nothing but disparaging remarks for Kobo and good old M-Tam, which were not only baffling (given that Kobo is relatively benign compared to its competitors and, hello, is a successful Canadian company, which is always worth celebrating) but also out of place at such a friendly event. Through the power of Twitter, Tamblyn appeared halfway through the session, and I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for the conversation that happened after the session ended.
3:00 Bibliographic Data
With MPub grads! Solidarity. Points discussed: the challenges presented by digital forms, including version control (since edits and updates can be made as they happen instead of in a new edition with a new ISBN); different ISBNs are being demanded by different retailers, which defeats the purpose; inconsistent format demands from aggregators; lots more stuff. Publishing celebrity Nic Boshart (why does everyone know him?) brought up ISTC numbers, associated with content instead of format, which is a cool idea. I didn’t take much from this session because my background in bibliographic data is pretty limited, but it seems likely to play a big role in my future as a publishing intern.
4:00 The Book of MPub: Agile Publishing
What people are saying about the Book of MPub: It’s “extraordinary.” And it’s “more than just theoretical.”
John W. Maxwell did a great job presenting, which is probably why the MPub hired him (also, he is super smart). I wanted to jump in a lot to correct or expand but that seemed rude, so I only jumped in a little.
The positive response was really gratifying, especially Ingrid Paulson’s enthusiasm for automating production grunt work. Anyway, the bottom line is this: agile is the web way. Being agile means always pushing the limits, and that means making it safe to fail (smaller up-front investments of time and money, via POD and automation of tasks) and then failing over and over until you get it right—and it won’t be right for long, so you keep rolling with the punches. Technology, free/open source or otherwise (examples include WordPress, eCub, XSLPalette, the Adobe CS, the EBM, and more), put the pressplay team in a position to experiment, but attitudes and practices are a part of agility too. It was pointed out that this doesn’t scale: the project was conducted with six team members and that’s probably the limit, because communication began to break down. However, this model could be used by larger companies without hierarchical structure if project teams were small and autonomous.
Hur Publishing is super agile! But less because we want to exploit technology (although short-run digital printing from Friesens was a big part of our first project, Dragon Problems) and more because we operate outside inertial market structures (creating books that are art objects and handselling) and we work more as a team than a hierarchy (but don’t tell the boss I said that).