Tech Forum and Ebook Craft 2016

3 jam-packed days, 42 incredible speakers, and more nerdy tech puns than I could count—this year’s Tech Forum and Ebook Craft blew me away.

I walked into last week’s Ebook Craft and Tech Forum with no idea of what to expect. I’d skimmed the schedule in the weeks preceding, so I knew I’d be hearing my fair share of ebook tips and market research. But the sheer number of three-letter acronyms and coding languages in the event descriptions had discouraged me from reading anything deeply, and as I rushed to my first workshop, I was completely unprepared for what lay ahead. Bleary eyed from a late flight but  trying to appear as “professional” as possible, I grabbed a cup of coffee, silently thanking the folks at BookNet for their foresight, and stumbled into the unknown.

Three days later, I walked out of that same building feeling inspired, impressed, and curious to learn more. I’d heard presentations from more than 40 talented speakers, including neuroscientists, type designers, app developers, coders, and even a resident sketch artist. Even more impressive than the speaker roster was the sheer breadth of topics they covered. In just 72 hours, I gained some basic javascript fluency, watched live CSS3 animation, and learned how to orchestrate cheap and effective ebook UI testing.

But as amazing as the presentations were (and many of them truly were incredible), it was the Ebook Craft/Tech Forum community that really blew me away. Never before had I witnessed such a constructive and collaborative relationship between speakers and listeners, never before had I experienced so much engagement between those on and off stage. Presentation after presentation, speakers paused to acknowledge the work of a colleague or previous presenter; urged audience members to contribute opinions on controversial questions; or asked friends in the crowd to help debug difficult code. Rather than simply teaching some skill or concept, speakers started conversations—ones which, in many cases, were continued well on the coffee break, in the Twittersphere, and, eventually, at the pub around the corner.

Laura Brady’s talk on ebook accessibility and Kaya Thomas’s presentation about her new app, We Read Too, were just two of the conversations that blew me away at the event. In Ebook Accessibility: Why, How, and What For, Brady introduced us to what she calls the “accessibility famine” in today’s ebook marketplace. While fully 15% of the reading population currently uses assistive technology due to a disability, she explained, only about 5% of the ebooks that are produced every year are meet accessibility standards. This number is even more shocking when we consider that an additional 12% of people struggle to read print at times, and as much as 85% have situational disabilities. Brady went on to present a strong case for why publishers should focus their efforts on producing more accessible products. Libraries, she argued, actively favour accessibility; designing ebooks to specification thus adds to their value. And because accessible code is more adaptable to future developments in technology, accessible ebooks are more agile than non-accessible ones. By following best practices such as incorporating deep navigation and meaningful tags when designing ebooks, publishers can reach a broader community of readers and ensure that their products will thrive in today’s marketplace and beyond. With her obvious knowledge and passion, Brady opened my eyes to an industry-wide problem I’d never even considered before.

Thomas’s talk, Tech as Equalizer, likewise addressed the problem of inequality within publishing.  A lifelong reader, Thomas was frustrated growing up by how difficult it was to find books featuring non-white characters. She wanted to read about kids who looked like her, kids she could relate to. Now, she’s working to remedy the problem with We Read Too, a cultural literacy app she designed to help readers find books written by and about people of colour. Fully searchable and with a built in “Discover” function, We Read Too brings kids, parents, and educators to books they might otherwise never know existed. The app now features more than 600 different titles, and is growing. Thomas’s skill and dedication were inspiring, her efforts to make diverse books discoverable was both moving and thought-provoking.

Three days, forty-two speakers, and countless nerdy puns later, I’m back home in Vancouver. But as the walls of the MaRs centre fade from my memory, I find myself thinking back to the many conversations, questions, and snippets of brilliance I experienced there. And while I don’t think I’ll ever master all of those three-letter acronyms, the wisdom I gained from that community of amazing creators, I hope, is here to stay.