Editorials & Commentary

Rebuilding our website: 2019 edition

It’s been too long. Back in 2013, I wrote about moving Publishing@SFU’s web infrastructure off of physical servers in my office and onto nice virtual servers on SFU’s shared hosting service. It was so nice to not worry about power outages and other physical-world hassles. It was as though those servers didn’t even exist anymore. Out of sight, out of mind.

The problem with “out of mind” is that it really is that. So over the intervening years, while our website chugged along and gathered a lot of content, we probably didn’t spend as much time keeping it all tuned up and upgraded as we should have. The inevitable would happen… and it did.

We got hacked last Thursday. Or probably at some point well before that, but the site went down on Thursday. Juan and I had a good look at the back end of the site, wondering if we could recover from it. But that server install was fully six years old, well past its upgrade lifespan. So we pulled the plug. Well, virtually we did: we requested a service ticket for someone to pull the plug. Metaphorically, I mean; really, what happened is someone at SFU IT typed some keystrokes and publishing.sfu.ca ceased to exist.

We are back, a week later, with a properly managed and backed-up host on Reclaim Hosting. Interestingly, if you read that same post from 2013, in which I talked about moving to new server infrastructure, I also remarked that we were excited about working with Reclaim Hosting for our (then) new PUB101 course. So after six years of absolutely stellar service from Reclaim on behalf of our students, we are finally moving our own stuff onto their planet as well.

As always, I can’t say enough good things about Reclaim. They are completely on the ball, their priorities are right, and they just keep getting better. Jim & Tim & crew, you’re the best!

Highlights from Tech Forum & ebookcraft 2019

Story by Jazmin Welch, Master of Publishing student

The MaRS Discovery District was buzzing with excitement this past week as I entered into BookNet’s annual Tech Forum & ebookcraft conference. I felt an overwhelming sense of curiosity, not knowing exactly what I would discover, but eager to soak in as much as I possibly could from some of the most innovative and prominent leaders in the publishing industry today. With my laptop open ready to take notes and a coffee in hand, I was all ears.

It was an absolute pleasure to see that the 2019 programming for both ebookcraft and Tech Forum had a strong focus on accessibility and diversity. Arguably publishers are still some of the most prominent gatekeepers of what content reaches consumers and therefore publishers have such an important duty in ensuring that diverse voices are heard and that the content they produce is accessible for all. I didn’t expect that I would be touched by the presentations at a conference about technology in the publishing world but it made me proud to be part of this traditionally colonial industry, whose current members are working incredibly hard to break away from the darker areas of it’s past to create a truly inclusive industry.

I had the incredible opportunity to chat with people from all over the world, including two men from O’Reilly in the States, and two women from Book Wire in Brazil, along with many young women from Penguin and Simon and Schuster among others. Their questions and comments brought so much more to the table.

Here is a recap of my highlights from the conference!

Masters of Publishing Student at Ebookcraft
Jaz Welsh gets creative at the Perler bead sign station. Photo by Yvonne Bambrick

Diversity & Publishing

Disrupting Bias

Ritu Bhasin of Bhasin Consulting Inc. was a stellar presenter, I felt like I was watching a Ted Talk, but the best part was that she gave the audience actionable tools to start using right away in order to create inclusive companies.

I didn’t realize that there were different levels of diversity. Compliance represents the level to which a company is simply following government regulated diversity legislature, diversity is the quantitative representation of groups which often feels like tokenism since it’s just looking at the numbers (for example how many women or visible minorities are working at a company), and lastly inclusion is the true qualitative inclusion of diversity into the company by allowing employees to bring their authentic selves to work. It is at this stage that anti-oppression and decolonization can really start to take place, and where employees don’t have to mask or deflect biases. At the inclusion level, companies can start to attack the system and unwind the underlying ideologies.

From here Bhasin went into a detailed analysis of bias which to her is the fundamental problem underlying the diversity issue. People are prone to bias as we are programmed to be afraid of people who are different from us. Bhasin takes care to back up her talk with neuroscience, really grounding her action steps in research. She says that to attack our own personal biases we need to start recognizing difference. The old way of thinking about diversity is to believe that we are all the same, but in order to actually catch ourselves and start to break down our inherent biases we need to make our unconscious decision making conscious. Bhasin defined a 2 step process:

  • Step One: In your brain consciously clock cultural identities
    • For example, “I am talking with an indigenous woman or a disabled person etc.”
    • Be aware of who you’re talking to. Identifying cultural identity is not the issue, it’s the meaning that your brain has attached to it.
  • Step Two: Try to determine what the meaning is that you’re attaching to that cultural identity but don’t beat yourself up about your biases. You have to probe yourself to find out why you have these biases. The presence of diversity in our midst is not being inclusive, you need to be having meaningful interactions to change your biases over time.

Bhasin also provided 4 strategies for inclusion:

  1. Change your behaviour: Start with the steps above.
  2. Expand your circles and practices: have more meaningful, deeper conversations, understand differences and acknowledge who you’re talking up versus talking down.

  3. Reveal your personal side: the more empowered you and your team is, the more innovative and creative. Think about one thing about yourself that’s tied back to your cultural identity that you don’t share at work due to cultural bias? Start to share it and feel like you belong as you are.
  4. Change the system: Change how we market books and hire staff to really create systemic disruption.

The crowd at ebookcraft
Jaz Welch talking with Dave Cramer, Liam Quin, and Keith Snyder. Photo by Yvonne Bambrick

I found the candid fireside chat that Bhasin had with Leonicka Valcius following the presentation equally eye opening. I’ve already started to put her methods into practice. As a straight white cis woman, I have a privilege that can’t be denied and although I grew up with the ideals that everyone is equal and deserves to be treated equally, I understand that there are relentless underlying biases that are so deeply entrenched that I personally have so much work to do to unravel hundred of years of sterotying, bias and inequality. One thing that can be hard is having those meaningful conversations that I recounted above. Bhasin acknowledged that people typically avoid conversations with those different from us in order to not offend. I can attest to this, I think I’m being overly nice and then just end up saying nothing which will do us no good in terms of breaking down those biases. Bhasin recommended asking for permission. for example, upon engaging with a person who told her that they suffer from bipolar disorder, she said she asked them if she could have permission to ask her about her experiences as a person living with bipolar disorder. From there the deeper conversation could begin. I thought this was a very simple and powerful tool to open up the floor for meaningful discussion.

Diversity by the Numbers

Both Noah Genner of BookNet Canada and Kate Edwards of ACP presented on the state of diversity in the publishing industry. The 2018 Canadian Book Publishing Diversity Baseline Survey shows that the industry is still overwhelmingly run by white people especially in leadership positions, and is mostly composed of women, but less so in leadership roles. Edwards noted some of the initiatives that publishers are starting to implement to increase diversity in their companies. These included:

  • New recruitment strategies and hiring practices
  • Only offering paid internships
  • Looking farther afield for candidates
  • The removal of publishing experience as a requirement for getting a job
  • Writing job descriptions to be more attractive for people in diverse communities
  • Offering mentorship and professional development
  • Hiring sensitivity readers
  • Ensuring boards have diverse members

Genner’s data looked at diversity from the book and content perspective. BookNet’s survey found that 62% of respondents say they seek out diverse books and 22% say they can’t find what they’re looking for. People want to see books that represent themselves. The results are in! These are high stats and as members of the publishing industry we should be acting on these numbers.

Discussions at tech forum ebookcraft
Jaz Welch talking with Laura Brady (right) and Clive Thompson (left) on the topic of paying interns. Photo by Yvonne Bambrick

Diversity and Data: Give the Readers What They Want!

The numbers presented by Genner and Edwards tied nicely into a presentation by Wattpad with Ashleigh Gardner. Wattpad is harnessing data and technology to bring more diversity into publishing. Because of their incredibly large user base of writers and readers they are able to see where people are located and the type of books they are reading. Emerging trends that Wattpad is tracking show a strong business case for diversity in publishing. For example a prominent tag right now is #muslimromance. LGBT stories are also growing in demand. People are looking for more diverse titles to read and love reading about strong women. The traditional publishing industry can be problematic to publishing diverse voices since publishers use comp titles to make a sales case for new books. In this model, diverse voices aren’t published simply because they haven’t been published in the past, but this issue is eradicated with Wattpad where users post their own stories and self tag them for Wattpad readers to find. If a book becomes popular and is read by thousands of people, there is no need for a comp title. The proof is in the data!

Data and Artificial Intelligence in the Publishing World

We continued to dive head first into data with a stacked panel on AI featuring Wendy Reid from Kobo, Joshua Tallent of Firebrand Technologies, Monica Landers of Storyfit, and Jens Tröger from Bookalope.

The consensus on this panel discussion of experts in the AI field was that AI will never operate entirely without human intelligence. For example you can get an AI to do your ebook tagging to speed up the process, but a human should still review it. An example provided was the website this person does not exist which showcases faces created entirely by AI, but you can still tell that a robot made them (for the most part). It will of course continue to get better, but it was reassuring to hear a panel of experts strongly concur that robots are not taking over any time soon.  

The benefit of AI, is that it can harness and review millions of pieces of data and spit out the results of that review very quickly, tasks that no human mind could ever complete.

A presentation at tech forum & ebookcraft 2019
Wendy Reid (Left), Senior QA Analyst at Kobo moderating a panel on AI, speaking with Monica Landers, CEO at StoryFit.

The panel also discussed neural net, a type of AI where there are no inputs added by the developer so the machine is let loose on large amounts of data to learn patterns on its own. This sounds like it would be great because there would be no bias that would be added inherently by the developer but unforeseeable issues still arise based on the data that the machine picks up. This can be problematic if people purposefully abuse the technology so that it learns unsavoury traits. Another example of this is the recent Amazon hiring story where the AI didn’t pick any female candidates because there were no women in their data set. Based on some backfiring AI’s, it seems like developer inputs are necessary. Since this is the case, there is a lot riding on the clean input of data. One of the panelists stated that, “if you garbage in, you’ll get garbage out” because your AI will spit your bad data and biases right back at you if that’s what data it’s been trained on.

AI’s need to be trained properly. For example, Google’s capcha is one of the greatest examples of a global AI training. Everytime you choose what parts of an image have a car in them to prove that you aren’t a robot, you’re actually training a robot to pick out objects in an image. I’ve submitted countless Kapcha surveys and had never considered that I was helping out Google in the process!

The audience for this panel was not filled with AI developers, so a key message nearing the end of the panel was to encourage all of us to jump hurdles with new tech, because the pain of learning will only become harder and harder as new technologies emerge.  

All things Ebooks and Accessibility

The future of digital reading

Dave Cramer started the day off with a discussion on the future of digital reading (full presentation here). After recapping the history of ereaders and various ebook formats, he turned to the opportunities that lie ahead. Cramer spoke candidly and did not hold back his disdain for the fixity of certain ebook formats (fixed layout ebooks primarily). He noted that even big publishers make bad ebooks and that even though ebook development has come a long way, it still has a long way to go. He argued for digital publications to move to the web and away from their EPUB containers. The future of digital reading is the removal of the reading systems all together. Web publications should be produced in a browser friendly format or BFF (how great is this term), so that it “plays nice” across all devices and platforms.

Cramer often acknowledges the developers in the room who are actively working to make more accessible publications. There was a stirring sense of collaboration throughout the day. When speakers mentioned various code initiatives they are working on, they all gave acknowledgement to those who have helped them with the project and stated that it’s open access for others to build upon and refine. One speaker also linked to their project on Github in an effort to have the community actively report bugs. With this strong sense of community already forming in the morning of day one, I knew I was in for a great conference!

What makes a great EPUB?

Following Cramer’s inspiring talk, we then jumped into some specifics about ebooks (for the full powerpoint, click here). Shannon Culver from eBOUND Canada and Sabina Iseli-Otto from NNELS (National Network for Equitable Library Service) talked about what’s needed to really make eBooks right. This doesn’t mean how they look, but if ebook are made properly they should be as accessible as possible and they should be built to last. They started out by explaining exactly what it means for an ebook to be accessible, which they defined using the following elements:

  • There need to be options for reading
  • Sales should be directed to an underserved audience
  • Consider timeliness (accessible version to be out at the same time as a print book)
  • The ebook must be findable (accessible versions are each to find)
  • Make it inclusive and equitable, benefitting all
  • Keep in mind internet connectivity, and
  • Remember there is a shared accountability and responsibility (by all those involved)

The speakers then moved into a discussion on the state of current ebooks and the challenges we are still facing with the EPUB format. These include:

  • A lack of semantic tags
  • A Lack of page numbers (how do you cite text in a reflowable eBook?)
  • Proper alt text for images
  • Broken or incomplete table of contents
  • Inaccessible fixed layout ebooks are still pervasive
  • Difficult searchability and discovery
  • Many publishers still use EPUB 2 over EPUB 3

Swag from tech forum and ebookcraft
Merch from Tech Forum and Ebookcraft!

I was surprised to learn that in many cases, especially academic publishing, PDF’s are still a pervasive format for digital texts. Page numbers are very important in academic fields, which is very problematic when faced with the reflowability of EPUB’s. This is a hard issue to reconcile for a standardized format and this presentation opened my eyes to how difficult it is to create an ebook format that works for everyone.

I really liked the quote the speakers included by Marisa DeMeglio who stated, “accessibility should be accessible”. This seems obvious, but for those who are trying to create accessible publications, the guidelines should be widely accessible and easy to find and follow. They then cited many resources to use to help you build accessible EPUB’s such as Laura Brady’s video on Lynda.com. Another issue related to creating bulletproof ebooks is that ongoing training is required, but it’s an important investment for publishers to make.

In the end, they made a case for “born-accessible publishing” which is the creation of documents that start accessible rather than it being an afterthought. Accessibility for edge cases really ends up benefiting everyone, such as the ramps that are designed to allow wheelchairs easy access into buildings that also help out the larger user base of parents pushing strollers up the ramps. Accessible ebooks benefit those with perceptual disabilities but they also improve SEO and discoverability. It’s good for everyone!

Pagination in the Browser

The following presentation by Nellie McKesson of Hederis was incredibly exciting but also quite technical. She discussed how the platform Hederis allows publishers to create publications directly in the browser (based on paged.js). Starting with uploading your Microsoft file you can convert to EPUB and print PDF. Launching in the summer designers will also be able to go into the browser based publication and typeset the document. This was absolutely fascinating to see! I look forward to the launch of the design portion and I’m marking my calendar so that I can run one of my projects through the platform. This seems like an absolutely ground-breaking and revolutionary approach to publishing that will empower all publishers to create better works without needing a strong coding background. This was one of the best parts about the conference that I was a bit intimidated about at first: programming. Even though some presentations were technical, the speakers made them easy to follow and had valuable insights for people who know very little about the coding that goes on behind the scenes in ebook production like me!

Nellie McKesson
Nellie McKesson, president and CEO Hederis, Inc. presenting on pagination in the browser.

Ebooks that Last

One problem I hadn’t spent much time thinking about before this conference is the ebook backlist. Teresa Elsey’s presentation (found here) on the issue of old ebooks and best practices to ensure the longevity of ebooks was eye opening.

The purpose of Elsey’s presentation was to empower teams to have the knowledge to create publications that can be passed down and will last longer than the teams in publishing houses that have specific knowledge. Ebooks in essence must be built to last.

One really great insight I hadn’t considered is what a bad ebook can do to sales. Elsey was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Senior Managing Editor (Digital) where she handled ebook issues that were reported back to the company where she and her team would work on resolving them. When an ebook and print book go live on Amazon for sale, an ebook user gets access to the publication right away, as soon as it’s purchased. If they see an issue with the file, such as no table of contents or some reading error with the text, it’s possible that they will immediately post a bad review about the books functionality. Meanwhile the print reader won’t have even received their book in the mail yet, and they would not likely post any kind of review about the content of the book until they are finished reading it however many weeks or months later. The ebook reviews come out immediately and a 1 star review on the day of the book’s launch can have an incredibly negative impact on online sales. The immediacy of the digital format makes it’s proper creation even more important.

Elsey went on to describe digital practices to ensure that ebooks can be effectively achieved without losing future functionality such as using Internet Archive to ensure that your ebooks don’t succumb to link rot (link rot of just 2 or more links in an ebook can lead to the whole book being rejected by a retailer).

Here are some specific tips that Elsey provided for ensuring the longevity of ebooks:

Ebook Design:

  • Don’t be cute: don’t have design elements that are fragile
  • Don’t be clever: being conservative is important when you’re implementing features into a 500+ book backlist, think about being bulletproof
  • Use html first over css

Ebook workflow:

  • Build all ebooks the same way (they should be automatable and low touch)
  • Edit source files not outputs
  • Save high-quality assets
  • Follow the standards

People talking at Tech Forum Ebookcraft
Jaz Welch talking with Keith Snyder, Dave Cramer, and Liam Quin. Photo by Yvonne Bambrick

The User’s Perspective

This presentation by Kai Li was incredibly important as he talked from his lived experience with a perceptual disability. This was a call to arms for publishers to hire people with disabilities for all stages of content creation, but not just as the companies spokesperson for people with disabilities. Just like the exhaustion that visible minorities feel to be the beacons of diversity, people with disabilities have more to offer than their insights on the issues with accessible publishing. Li notes that people with disabilities are incredibly innovative as they have had to become the ultimate problem solvers to navigate a world that is so often not accessible, they are also highly productive. Li also cited a report that found that companies who hired people with disabilities had a 28% higher revenue than those who did not.

If you’re interested in checking out more of the presentations, the live videos will be up soon, but the powerpoint presentations from each speaker are already live if you click on their corresponding event listing here.

One of my biggest takeaways from the conference… I need to get on Twitter so that I can interact more with the industry and speak to these amazing publishing professionals. It seems to be where the publishing conversations are taking place. In all seriousness though, I am honoured to be part of this incredible industry and I look forward to the future of publishing knowing that these incredible people are leading the charge. Now it’s time to put the learnings from this conference into practice!

Subverting the Genre: Connie Walker on Podcasting and Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

As Connie Walker’s hit podcasts, Missing & Murdered—”Who Killed Alberta Williams,” and, “Finding Cleo”—approach the 20 million download mark, we take you behind the stories, into the editorial decision making, and into the struggles behind one of Canada’s most downloaded podcasts. How has the media transformed over the last five years when reporting in Indigenous communities? What is the importance of understanding the role of trauma in our communities in our news and feature stories?

Following a public talk, Connie will be joined by Ryan McMahon, creator, writer, and host of the Thunder Bay podcast, for a Q&A with the audience.

Connie Walker is an award-winning investigative reporter and host of the CBC News podcast, Missing & Murdered. In 2017, “Missing & Murdered: Who killed Alberta Williams?” won the RTDNA’s Adrienne Clarkson Award and was nominated for a Webby Award. Walker and colleagues at the CBC’s Indigenous Unit, won multiple awards including the 2016 Canadian Association of Journalists’ Don McGillivray investigative award, a Canadian Screen Award and the prestigious Hillman Award for its “Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls” interactive website.

Walker is from the Okanese First Nation, in Saskatchewan. She currently lives with her family in Toronto.

This talk is presented as part of the Emerging Leaders in Publishing Summit

As Connie Walker’s hit podcasts, Missing & Murdered—”Who Killed Alberta Williams,” and, “Finding Cleo”—approach the 20 million download mark, we take you behind the stories, into the editorial decision making, and into the struggles behind one of Canada’s most downloaded podcasts. How has the media transformed over the last five years when reporting in Indigenous communities? What is the importance of understanding the role of trauma in our communities in our news and feature stories?

February 13, 2019

7:00pm  to 9:00 pm | Room 100 | Asia Pacific Hall

SFU Centre for Dialogue | 580 West Hastings Street

Admission is free, but reserve your seat through Eventbright

Join Ryan McMahon in a discussion on Indigenizing the Media

February 7, 2018

7:00pm  to 9:00 pm | Room 1430 | Harbour Centre Campus

Admission is free

How do voices from outside the traditional settler mainstream media ensure that they are properly heard and represented? How can new media forms play a role in diversifying and enriching the media landscape? Ryan McMahon, Anishinaabe comedian, writer, media maker & community activator based out of Treaty #1 territory (Winnipeg), will explore these questions and invite the audience to be part of the discussion. 

More information here.

Exploring Active Learning in the MPub Program

In the Master of Publishing program, it has always been the goal to be both current and relevant—both within the publishing industry and in how students are taught. And education is changing.

As guest lecturer Keiron Simons said at the start of the second semester, “School is supposed to be about social connection and personal empowerment.”

And so, while students can still expect to write multiple research papers, lead lectures, and complete extensive group projects, they can also expect class to run a little differently than traditional lectures as instructors experiment with active learning methods.

Active learning is a way of teaching wherein students take responsibility for their learning. They work together to explore, explain, and exchange ideas. They research what interests them. They all participate, because equality is built into lessons to make classrooms safe, engaging spaces.

In PUB 802: Technology & Evolving Forms of Publishing, we were asked to come to class having read the syllabus. We were asked to give serious thought to what we wanted the course to be about, and about what we wanted to learn.

After some discussion in our first class, our professor left for 20 minutes and instructed us to continue the discussion without him about what we wanted to learn. We were also supposed to decide who was going to be responsible for leading each class. It was up to us to mobilize ourselves. Even though we are well-educated adults, it was still difficult at first to break free of deeply ingrained institutional norms and embrace the autonomy we had been given. And guess what? We managed just fine.

Now in my other life, I work for a school board. We are big advocates of active learning, and I write about our innovative successes on a regular basis. But to be on the other side of it so completely was an eye-opening experience. By being given autonomy over our education, our class felt empowered and listened to. We knew that we mattered, and that our instructor truly cared that we got as much out of our education as possible.

It was a win for him as well, because he knew that by using active learning methods we would be more engaged in his lessons and encouraged by the knowledge that dialogue would flow in both directions. If a kindergarten teacher comes away from a similar teaching experience telling me how she learned alongside and from her students, I have no doubt that a university instructor will have similar things to say. In active learning, we all come away from the lesson with greater knowledge and understanding.

Of course, active learning goes beyond letting students have a say in what they are learning. It can be about creating a safe space for all students to speak, such as by using the annotation plugin hypothes.is to allow students to take notes on online articles as they are reading, or having them write out feedback (One Minute Essays) on cue cards at the end of each class. Or is can be about working with them as the Magazine Project evolves into the more relevant Media Project, and giving them the flexibility to design an agile media entity that will evolve throughout the semester. All of these are real examples of things taking place right now.

It’s a different way of learning for sure, but that’s a good thing. We are more than competent, and after this semester, we will be more confident too.

And the Cultural Appropriation Prize Goes to…White Writers

“Asking historically marginalized groups to do the emotional and social labor of fixing systems and structures to benefit white people is the height of arrogance, colonialism, and white supremacy. And in the instances when they’ve done the labor, they still don’t often reap the benefits of it. Editors never needed to publicly fund a pot of money for cultural appropriation—it has been funded all along.”

Read more of this article, written by Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, here.

Canada’s Greatest Storytellers: 1867 to 2017

A special Sesquicentennial show celebrating our finest Fiction Writers

With the help of superb author portraits by Anthony Jenkins appearing on-screen, publisher and author Doug Gibson roams the stage talking about our finest authors down through the years. Decade by decade, he chooses our best authors, English and French, and selects their very best books.

Each decade begins with a burst of Canadian music from the time. Then a contemporary photo reminds us of the historical setting, and a series of iconic works of art remind us of the wider artistic scene in which our writers worked. The result is a celebration not only of our writers and storytellers, but of our artists in general. The resulting reading list is now in great demand, and will be distributed at the show.

Already he has given this hugely ambitious show (with an Intermission when we reach 1967, the year when Gibson himself came to Canada) in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, and at the Toronto Launch in the Lieutenant Governor’s Chambers in Queen’s Park. After this Vancouver Launch, he will be taking the show across Canada for the rest of 2017, as his own tribute to our country and its writers, culminating in his praise of his author, Alice Munro.

WHERE   Vancouver, at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre, Room 1400

WHEN      Wednesday, May 31, at 7pm

BOOK       Free tickets at pubworks@sfu.ca


Remembering Ralph Hancox

by Rowland Lorimer

British-born Canadian, Ralph Hancox, a pilot, reporter, Studebaker Silver Hawk owner, editor, publisher, CEO, adjunct professor and professional fellow, teacher, Nieman Fellow, Harvard Management Development Program participant, and fiction and nonfiction book author, has shuffled off his mortal coil and lives on in the fond memories of his former students and colleagues in Simon Fraser University’s Publishing program. He was predeceased by his wife, Margaret (Peg), and is survived by his four children and their families.

As Ralph was nearing retirement from Reader’s Digest, his daughter Alison happened to hear a 1990s CBC radio interview of Ann Cowan-Buitenhuis, who was talking about a new Master of Publishing program at Simon Fraser University that she co-founded with me in 1995. Alison’s view was that such a program would be perfect for her father’s post-retirement career, based on his abiding interest in teaching and education.

Ann and I met with Ralph at his club on a cold, wet night in Montreal. I can still recall fearing for my well-being as we hurtled down the highway in Ralph’s Mercedes station wagon, into a darkness peppered with pelting rain and snow. The purpose of our meeting was to tell Ralph about the program. The result of the meeting was his expression of interest–an expression that led to Ralph’s later suggestion that we submit a proposal for support to the Reader’s Digest Foundation (Canada), which had been created to allow Reader’s Digest Canada to act in conformity with Canadian ownership regulations in Canada’s magazine industry. Previous to this, the foundation had assisted journalism programs, some of the graduates of which, Ralph noted, led such a concerted anti-Reader’s Digest lobby that the company had set aside a permanent office for federal auditors to review its books to ensure that Reader’s Digest Canada was not feeding funds back to its US parent company.

Ann and I welcomed the opportunity, given that we kept claiming that our proposal had the support of industry. Ironically, while that support was real, it was verbal and we walked away empty-handed from pitches to the profitable sectors of the industry. These included educational book publishers, larger Canadian and foreign-owned book publishers (one of which helped us later), and magazine publishers such as Maclean-Hunter (later sold to Roger’s). As Chair of the Reader’s Digest Foundation (Canada), Ralph delivered support of a sufficient amount that the university found itself looking more kindly on the idea of approving the establishment of its first professional social science and humanities-based professional program. As luck would have it, I was able to advise both sides on the conditions of the support, and thereby ensure that the resources the program needed were wisely allocated.

Fast forward to the program’s establishment and its staffing, and we decided that, after due diligence, we would take Ralph up on his offer to teach the publishing management course in the program without compensation. While Ann and I were willing to accept such a personal gift, the university wisely found funds to pay Ralph a token salary.

I did have misgivings about Ralph’s teaching. A major issue was that while Ralph insisted on teaching management techniques, many of our students had never held down a serious job. What utterly convinced me of Ralph’s value to the students was the increasing number of graduating Project Reports that applied Ralph’s framework to the operations in which they participated during their internships. As I read through these reports, I became familiar with the framework, and realized that other faculty members, including me, needed to up our game in providing students with tools that emphasized different frameworks for gaining insight into publishing practice.

In his years with the MPub at Simon Fraser, my colleagues and I got to know Ralph as a gracious and generous man who truly did love teaching. Each year he became more effective in his ability to convince the mainly English-major “candidates,” as he called our students, of the value of his application of process management. As a side effect, I acquired an increased sophistication in my understanding of management, and was particularly interested in hearing the other side of the Reader’s Digest Canada story. I learned how, for instance, constrained by foreign ownership regulations, Reader’s Digest Canada became a training ground for company executives placed around the world. Part of that process led to Ralph’s sojourn in Milan to get the Italian operation back on its feet.

Ralph’s retirement from teaching at 80 created quite a problem for the program. We attempted to recruit business profs. They were only interested in discussing research that critically analyzed general management practice, and might or might not have some relevance to publishing practice. We tried MBA profs, but none of them had any idea what happened within a publishing company. We tried other publishers, but they fell back on war stories. Finally, we turned to one of our graduates who had a business background and had been taught by the master himself. That worked. But then that graduate married a classmate, had a family, and moved to his wife’s hometown, Ottawa. Following that, we arranged for a New York publishing consultant to commute and teach what turned out to be business practice for publishers. That also worked out well in that our students learned lots from him, but they missed out on Ralph’s management framework. All during this time, we would bring Ralph back in an attempt to supplement the shortcomings of others. It worked to some degree, but his absence took its toll.

In Ralph’s second retirement he turned to his first love, writing. Encouraged by one of his sons to dust off a book manuscript for which he had an offer to publish to 1959, he published three books of fiction–one of which demonstrated the ability to write a whole novel using only conversation. He told me that he had to stop watching television because the tension it induced propelled his heart into arrhythmia. Writing was calmer. And of course, for a few years, he chaired his strata council, no doubt with aplomb.

Simon Fraser’s MPub benefitted greatly from Ralph Hancox. He helped to elevate the program to a truly graduate program. As a teacher; as a former executive who had been opened to management theory through his management development training and Nieman Fellowship at Harvard; as an old-school gentleman and grammarian; and as an enjoyable personage, we were all enriched. He was much loved by his students and colleagues. Like us all, however, he was mortal.

An MPubber’s Experience at eBook Craft and Tech Forum, or, What I Learned at Nerd Camp

by Jessica Riches

It’s been about a month since eBook Craft and Tech Forum, and even that is not enough time for me to have absorbed all the information the conference offered. If further evidence were required to show the sheer volume, consider that I have found myself writing a 1000+ word blog post just to begin describing it. I’ve broken it up into three parts, one for each day, but I only have one thing to say, ultimately: if you’re looking to educate yourself on ebooks and data, this conference is the absolute best place to do it.

Day One: Diving into #eprdctn

I started at base camp with the workshop day. The group was small, not even a third of what the final day would draw, but the sessions were focused on how to simplify and further the work of making ebooks. I learned about document object models, troubleshooting pagination, incorporating Javascript into ebooks, and building book apps the absolute for-dummies way. Questions swirled in my brain: Why is pagination hard to get right? How might I introduce interactivity into an ebook? How do loops work?

My highlight of the day was a rousingly polite discussion on the future of ebook standards led by Dave Cramer. Intended as a stitch-and-bitch session, it manifested with all of the stitching (literally: knitting needles were present) and none of the bitching. I found it both enlightening and refreshingly similar to what we do all the time in the MPub program: talk about problems, brainstorm solutions, extrapolate on trends to try to imagine where things are going. It was also an eye-opening example of how smart the conference attendees really are.

Day Two: The Bigger Picture of #eprdctn

The second day was decidedly less cozy, and the space expanded to accommodate the #eprdctn masses. Accessibility was a hot topic throughout the day, with various speakers weighing in. I learned about the issue from the perspectives of ebook reading apps, librarians, accessibility groups, and production people, and their combined weight went a long way to convincing me that, like ebook production itself, accessibility is not a fringe problem; it belongs at the centre of any conversation about contemporary publishing. It can be a tricky discussion for an industry that often relies on various types of privilege, but if I learned one thing from this conference, it’s that accessibility is not just a question of morality—it’s also a question of efficiency affecting the entire supply chain (and also morality). If we’re going to do something, like make an ebook, let’s just do it right the first time, no?

And again Dave Cramer rose as the eBook Craft conference all-star, at least as far as I’m concerned. He gave a fascinating and thoroughly understandable talk breaking down the process of digital-rights-management encryption. It was riddled with Moby Dick references, which probably went a long way towards comforting the book crowd during the math-heavy parts, and it was paced so perfectly that it would have been hard to avoid becoming absorbed. Not that I wanted to. It was, as I say, fascinating.

Day Three: I Love (Lieutenant-Commander) Data

Free datanerd cookiesI began the third day, the Tech Forum day, very poorly indeed. A Toronto transit meltdown resulted in me missing Noah Genner’s breakdown of BookNet data—and that, let me tell you, is a real tragedy for someone who identifies strongly as a <datanerd>. Fortunately, I was met by swag, and from that moment, I knew that Tech Forum would be the best day yet. Cookies, pins, free books: I am eminently bribable.

The free stuff was only the first sign of the great things to come, though. The second was the schedule card, which told me that, at any given point during the day, I was going to have to choose between three different sessions. High stakes, indeed.

The decision was tough, but I can speak very highly of the sessions I did attend. My favourite—of the whole conference, in fact—was Erica Leeman’s investigation of Amazon keywords. Erica, in addition to being an all-around delightful human being, is a librarian-turned-publisher who embodied a spirit of systematic inquiry that I found inspiring. By carefully and deliberately altering metadata, she was able to find a (partial) answer to the perennial question of book publishing: but what is Amazon really up to? The results were both unsurprising and somewhat irrational, but at least now we know that—news flash!—Amazon can’t always be trusted to make sense.

The conference closed with a couple of high-powered speakers, Nathan Maharaj of Kobo and Robert Wheaton of Penguin Random House, whose respective keynote talks on understanding book buyers and facing the challenges of a changing media landscape spoke to two of the most pressing issues in today’s publishing world. The presentations were, truthfully, quite reminiscent of things said at SFU’s Emerging Leaders summit, and not only because the speakers hailed from the same companies. Rather, they mirrored the kind of long-sighted, big-picture approach to publishing that the MPub program excels at. They made for a fitting close to a conference that started with hands-on learning.

Summing Up

This was an incredible conference, and I was so lucky to have the opportunity to attend it. It may have been a lot of information, but it was worth every exhausted brain cell. The balance of practical and theoretical concerns was perfect and the cookie game? That was definitely on point.

To future MPubbers: you should really, absolutely, definitely apply to go. As wonderful as our program is—and after to speaking to several graduates of other publishing programs, I feel ready to assert that our program is, in fact, the best one (#unbiasedopinion)—there is no better place than this conference to learn about ebooks and things that computers can help with. There is certainly no better place to get inspired by the people who do these things every day.

BookNet’s conference isn’t just for the nerds. It’s for anyone who has ever questioned the role that digital technologies can play, now and in the future.

My Top Five Sessions to See:

  1. Demystifying the Inner Workings of Amazon Keywords, Erica Leeman
  2. Beyond Good and Evil: The Nuts and Bolts of DRM, Dave Cramer
  3. The End of Broadcast Media and Publishing’s Hidden Radicalism, Robert Wheaton
  4. How I Built an Automated Ebook Production Platform—and You Can, Too!, Nellie McKesson
  5. Bionic Bookselling, Nathan Maharaj