Melissa Kaita (no relation):
So BookCamp was pretty awesome, except for a couple sessions ruined by a certain angry someone.
Actually, I “ruined” only one of them.
Last year, Scott and I gave the best presentation at BookCamp. We certainly prepared enough. But without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you what we talked about. Probably some variation of the issue that never goes away – document semantics and structure and how those apply to nonlinear and/or illustrated books of the McLuhan variety.
This year I sat through a completely unplanned and unfocussed session deceptively entitled “E-Book Reviews/Usability.” Three sinecurists of the still-new E-book industry, who of course all know each other, sat up front and made all sorts of imperious statements – e.g., the implication (denied when I challenged it) that some genres just shouldn’t ever be printed.
But was that the problem? Not really. These were.
Endless defence of shit semantics and crap copy. From the audience and from the panel (especially from Kobo apologist Ashleigh Gardner) I heard a steady stream of excuses for lousy copy in E-books.
Readers will put up with “one or two” letters awry if they can still understand the word.
Kobo relies on people reporting typos, which may or may not be corrected (with the affected book probably reissued). Maybe 300 out of a thousand titles issued each month are thus corrected.
In other words, we now have confirmation of Kobo’s true business model: Acting as a sluicegate for publishers transmitting shitty copy to paying customers, at least 70% of which copy is never corrected. (Kobo’s business model is charging you for shitty copy and expecting you not only to do post-facto proofreading for nothing but to save up your notes and somehow transmit them to Kobo.)
Publishers used to run a book through half a dozen edits; now we’re lucky to get two. But, I said, why in the world would a five-year-old book be sent to India for OCR, especially when we know for an absolute fact that method always produces shit copy? People don’t have the files for 20-year-old books, somebody shot back. “I said five years,” I replied; surely somebody has the original Quark for Windows file or equivalent.
Or, my respected audiencemembers chimed in, maybe a publisher bought out another one and the owner took his computer home. Or the designer is dead.
I’ve got no time for this bullshit and you shouldn’t either. Dude: We’ve upped our standards. Up yours.
I’m not going to sit there and listen to a roomful of publishing-industry mediocrities defend and explain lousy copy. So don’t act all surprised and discomfited that I bellowed the following at top volume: “Quit defending lousy code and copy! There’s no excuse for it – not in a print book, not in an E-book, not in a newspaper, not in a Chyron on TV, not in television captioning, for God’s sake.”
Canadians defend mediocrity to the utmost, because by and large we aren’t capable of anything better. The few of us who do know better are seen as a problem.
As predicted, character encoding is a complete mystery to these people. The so-called Typography panel seemed inauspicious even before it happened. We got shunted off to some kind of snack bar and spent half our time talking about cover art, something that only incidentally involves “typography.”
When not being challenged and interrupted, I had to explain – patiently and in an even tone – how character encoding works. First anybody there had heard of it, I surmised – or of CSS, for that matter. Nobody in the room knew how fonts in E-books are chosen and specified, why the reader has final say, and why the system is working as intended when that happens.
The professional book designer from Random House admitted he knows not a lot about “files” and still typesets fractions by hitting a letter and changing the font to an “expert set,” a practice that hasn’t been current since 2001 at the latest. (That’s why their E-cookbooks will “pop up a GIF” when you want to read a recipe. That’s wrong at least 2½ ways. But hey, nobody can reliably typeset a fraction like ½; what choice do they have?)
I was hoping I’d be able to make an announcement about an upcoming pair of articles on character encoding in that magazine for people who make “websites,” but I don’t think we’re there yet. At any rate, if you’re working in publishing and don’t have a basic understanding of Unicode, you need to either learn or get out of this business.
Hint to Peggy: It is no more difficult to include Greek (Ελληνικά) and Cyrillic (кириллица) in an E-book than it is to include the letter A. (I just did.) It does require one extra bit of markup in typical cases.
I have no problem loudly violating your liberal-feminist-consensus model
I have no interest in folding, spindling, and mutilating myself to comply with the liberal-feminist-consensus model I have encountered at every publishing event. First of all, almost nobody actually has technical skills there, but even if one does, the message is to shut the fuck up because everybody here has to feel absolutely equal. It’s a “collaborative” environment, as I was lectured several times in the Typography session.
Here is everything a roomful of women in the publishing industry will allow:
A woman may mention a problem she’s encountered.
Everyone will nod sympathetically and agree it’s a problem. (Why not? It’s a collaborative model. Everyone agrees on everything!) But nobody will actually explain what the genesis of the problem is or how to solve it.
If the problem is shit semantics in your E-books or nonexistent character encoding or just bad copy and I can explain the problem or tell you how to fix it, that’s what I’m going to do. I have no interest in making sure everybody in the room feels equally sisterly bad about how terribly intractable a problem is. I want the problem solved; here’s how to do it.
I object to the implied consensus that everyone must remain as baffled and technically backward as the least-technically-capable member of the group. It reflects poorly on this female-dominated industry (which female domination was the subject of another panel), since E-books do not know you are female and nothing, certainly not men, is stopping you from learning.
Let’s return to the semantics issue, which I refused to back down on in the ostensible Usability session. I explained the true facts of the matter, which I guess nobody had ever told these people: E-books are Web pages and you absolutely must use valid XHTML. You have to use the correct semantic element for your content, and the source of that knowledge is the Web-standards movement – weak in Canada and next to nonexistent in Toronto. Standardistas are not going to teach you semantics because they’re too busy making Web sites.
So when is your training session? a helpful voice asked. I accept the friendly amendment from the floor, I said sort of nonsensically. But here, lemme start making sense for you. I’m calling your bluff.
Training for publishers on Web semantics
You may think I’m a total fucking asshole. In reality, I’m an asshole only some of the time, and perfectly charming and amusing a lot of the time. And I am an ace teacher. Believe it.
I was going to say that only the subset of attendees of the Usability session who actually make E-books need this knowledge, but I never believed that. Everybody who works in E-books has to have enough knowledge of HTML semantics to mark up a manuscript. Anything less, to paraphrase Don DeLillo, is like being the founder of the field of Hitler studies without being able to speak German.
Here, then, is the offer.
We will start small and I will train up to six publishing-industry professionals in an informal setting – like a meeting room at the Bloor-Gladstone Library, or maybe the bank vault at the nicest Starbucks in town (at Dupont and Christie). Training will cover necessary HTML semantics and character encoding. I swear to God I’ll have you basically competent for typical fiction and nonfiction titles in one hour flat. Some parts of these topics are complicated but the basics really are not.
Don’t want to take this course because you don’t like my attitude? I just finished telling you I have different levels of “attitude.” Besides, nobody else is giving this course. Nobody else here can; I know everybody in town with this knowledge and neither of the other guys will give you the time of day. It’s me or it’s nothing. Please make your selection now.
And yes, this early session, of which there will be at most one, will be free. That isn’t because I don’t think I should be paid (I do) but because you don’t think I should. Complain about your low publishing-sector pay all you want, but fundamentally you believe you deserve to be paid for your work but I don’t. What I’m offering is a free sample. Take it and learn something or leave it and nod understandingly to your book-industry sisters about how terribly difficult E-books are.
The HTML training session happens whenever you can get your act together to ask for it. I’ll have a soyaccino, thanks.
Nic Boshart, this is all your fault
I had a nice coffee with unshaven Alsatian metrosexualist Nic Boshart a year or two ago. Whatever professional amity we might have nurtured was vitiated when, much later, he invited Josh Tallent to a planning session at his office but, by his later admission, deliberately kept me away. Josh and I have a nice bit of schtick going where I tell him to raise his rates and he pretends to be offended by the idea, but let me just state here I am actually offended by Boshart’s policy of exclusion and drive-by defamation.
But, ladies, isn’t he adorable? And so nonthreatening for an heterosexualist male. Just the way you like ’em.