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