An Interview with Laura Brady

Laura Brady has been a cutting-edge ebook developer since 2009. The founder of Toronto-based Brady Type, Laura is also the new editor-in-chief of EPUBSecrets; one of the primary planners behind ebookcraft (an industry event for ebook producers in North America); an active member and leader of the #eprdctn group on Twitter, and a devoted fan of the Toronto Blue Jays.

How do you describe yourself professionally?

At my core, I’m an ebook developer. I like to work, get my fingers dirty in the code, and make ebooks. I do other things as well: I’ve taken on EPUBSecrets, I do conference planning, and I do consulting and training, but I consider them secondary to making ebooks. I’m an ebook developer first and foremost.

How did you start down this path?

A lot of people who are ebook developers are web people who’ve been asked to take on this part of the publishing process. My journey is a little bit different. I’m an old-school typesetter. I used to do the insides of books and do text design and page layout. I had been doing that freelance for many years and found that the freelance market was getting challenging. In about 2009, I started to investigate ebooks and found that there was burgeoning market there, and that it was a fun place to be. That’s how I pivoted. So I come to ebooks from a design point of view, which I think is a little bit different than many ebook developers.

Is there any recent ebook design work that stands out for you? Any hallmarks of the craft?

There are a couple of different things. There are people who are thinking about fonts and font treatments and how to optimize fonts for digital books. They’re coming at it from deeper than just the design experience of ebooks. They’ve gone really deep into thinking about how thin the minimums on serifs should be, and that kind of thing. Typographers like Steve Matteson and Charles Nix from Monotype are doing really interesting work. So that’s one part of what’s going on in the ebook world, and I’d love to see more of that kind of thinking through fonts for the digital reading experience.

I have another colleague named Jiminy Panoz, from France. He’s really interested in typography experience in ebooks, but he comes at it from a deep knowledge of how ebooks and reading systems are supposed to function. He’s a really great follow on Twitter, though he expresses a lot of frustration because nothing works as it’s supposed to or as it’s anticipated. He’s got a huge GitHub repo of CSS investigations that he’s done. It’s very cool. I don’t know he finds the time to do all this work, to tell you the truth.

What would be helpful for publishing students to learn about ebooks before we emerge into the professional world?

There are a couple of things. One, it’s valuable to explore other ways of doing ebooks. For example, iBooks Author is a much maligned software tool in the ebook development world, but those iBooks Authors books can be really interesting, really multimedia, and much richer with audio and even interesting typography. I think there’s a lot of potential there.

Moving the general EPUB format into something that’s a little bit richer could be really interesting. There’s an organization called Visual Editions who are making really interesting ebooks. They’ll hardly work in any of the traditional reading systems, which is a bummer. It means that it’s not a very practical format, but it’s still interesting to see what they’re doing, and how they’re pushing the envelope.

But my other main focus in what I do is really thinking about accessibility. Accessibility is still an afterthought in most people’s workflows, but people need to be thinking about alt text and complex long descriptions and incorporating accessibility best practices into workflows at every single stage. For the most part, I see people going back and trying to fix that once it’s done, and that’s a real problem, partly because that’s more expensive to do, but also because it should be built into the editorial and the production process right from the start.

At the ebookcraft conference in Toronto a few weeks ago, there were a couple of speakers, Amanda Karby from the University of Michigan Press and Kristin Waites from the MIT Press, and they talked about how to incorporate accessibility into every step of your workflow, and how to make accessibility part of an organizational shift. They were fascinating. Those conference videos are online, and you should try to watch that one. They were very dynamic speakers, who had really thought it through and had a step-by-step process of how to make accessibility part of how you think about publishing.

What should authors understand about ebooks?

Again, a couple of things: A friend of mine, Derrick Schultz, wrote an article for EPUBSecrets called “Dogfooding.” The main idea of that is that publishing executives and editors, people high up in the publishing food chain, should be reading ebooks as their readers read them. Via a Kindle, on their phone, in a Sony ereader, if that’s where their readers are. And I would say the same is true of authors. They should be reading ebooks so that they understand the reading experience, and understand where it works and where it fails. Not to tailor their content, but just to have a really clear understanding of what ebooks do.

I work with a fair number of small publishers and self-publishers who don’t understand ebooks. It’s a big barrier. I end up having to do a lot of hand-holding and education, because they don’t read digitally, so they just don’t know. I would say it’s really important to eat what you produce, and to understand the reading experience from a variety of different standpoints, not just print.

I think that digital publishing and ebooks can be a kind of Gutenberg moment, but we really have to think through how it’s done. The main tragedy of digital publishing at present is the walled gardens of Amazon and Apple, locking content in. That said, I think people in publishing still don’t understand what it’s like to read on a Kindle, and to have a typographically unsophisticated reading experience.

As somebody who wants to make a beautiful reading experience, how do you contend with the challenges of reading devices where so many things are out of your control?

I put my best efforts into making a well-made EPUB that looks good when it’s first opened. If you have 50 different readers, they’re going to read it in 50 different ways. They’re going to change the font, they’re going to change the font size, they’re going to mess with the line spacing and justification, and that is their right. I can’t dictate how they read. I make clean ebooks, and I design them as well as I can, understanding that the CSS is going to get overridden many times, and that’s the way it goes. People who choose to read on a Kindle E Ink device understand how that reading experience is going to be, and that’s their business, not mine. My business is to make a cleanly coded, future-proof ebook that is accessible to all readers.

What’s your feeling about interactivity or extra forms of media?

I think that those kinds of things can really make a dynamic reading experience. I tend to be leery of interactivity and multimedia experiences if they’re done just for the sake of bells and whistles, but thinking through a more interesting reading experience for ebooks is worth putting on the table to pursue. A few years ago, the New York Times came out with an article called Snowfall. It was a really dynamic reading experience, and we were all blown away. Now it’s become common to make web articles like that. But I think ebooks need a moment like that, where we have a real rethinking of how we’re going to read, and interactivity is what’s going to bring it. We have to deal with device fragmentation: Interactivity isn’t going to work on E Ink devices, it’s not going to work well across the device spectrum. But I still think that there’s a place for that kind of richer reading experience. I haven’t seen it done super well just yet. I think it’s still yet to come.

I was reading something recently in print, and I pressed a word to get a definition, and I thought, “Oh, my god, you idiot, you’re in print – the dictionary is not going to come up! That’s not how this works!” There’s a lot to be said for the print reading experience, but once you switch to digital, you get used to being able to look up a word on the fly, or to magnify an image and look at it in fine grain detail and that kind of thing.

What are some of your main tools? What are you using for a text editor now?

The text editor I use is Oxygen XML Editor. There are a lot of text editors that are free or very cheap, and this one isn’t (it’s subscription-based), but I really like it for a number of reasons. It has an EPUB3 validator built in; it has HTML and CSS validation built in, so if you somehow miss the closing angle bracket or something, it will red-line it and point to it right away. And it also has text and code view, so you can look at an HTML document or CSS file in a number of different ways, right from within the software. It’s very powerful, and still really lightweight, so I prefer that. A lot of people use Dreamweaver or Sigil or one of those kinds of software, but I don’t go near them. I have an ancient prejudice against Sigil and Calibre for messing up the code; I can’t allow them in my life, because I don’t want to have to clean up any HTML. So I use Oxygen mostly.

How helpful is it to have something XML-coded ahead of time?

Honestly, I’m a bit leery of it, because I want things coded exactly right, and I don’t want to have to clean up the code that I get. That said, I’ve never really worked in an XML workflow. I’m a freelancer, so I get sources in a variety of different ways; I’ve never gotten HTML or XML as a source, so I don’t know how that would be. I have a client now who gets a basic conversion of their ebooks from an overseas vendor and then sends it to me to fix up. And I’m not crazy about that, partly because I have to go in and fix a lot of the stuff they’ve done, and I feel better decisions could have been made from the get-go.

There are ways to bend InDesign to your will, and I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting that process, getting better HTML out of InDesign, and even finding scripting solutions to generate better HTML. But a badly made InDesign file means some pretty crappy HTML.

What makes you hopeful for the the future, and what makes you apprehensive?

It has been really wonderful to see how ebookcraft has grown over the last few years. Every year it’s bringing in new populations of people. This year, we had a whole bunch of publishers from Norway, and it was really nice to see lots of people interested in the artistanry of developing ebooks and how to make it better, and interested in the talks that we were presenting. So that gave me a lot of hope.

I get frustrated frequently by the stagnant nature of the reading systems, which is a real thorn in any ebook developer’s side. So far as I can tell, here’s not a lot of will to develop them, or make them more robust, or make a better reading experience. But I can’t control that.

There are people working away, like Micah Bowers at Bluefire. He was instrumental in the Readium, and the Readium Foundation, and he has a new EPUB3 reader called Cloudshelf. It’s great, and he’s really thinking about the reading experience and pushing the envelope and trying to make it better. So people are working, but it’s hard to effect change. You’re never going to move the mountain that is Amazon. They don’t care about the reading experience, I think that’s pretty clear. Given that they have such a huge market share, it’s hard to even know how to approach them, even to complain.

Is there anything else that you’d like to pass along to authors or to fledgling publishers?

One of the things I tell people, in addition to dogfooding, is to think about consuming an ebook that you’ve produced, or some content that you’ve written or created, via assistive text, so the you have a glimpse of the experience that a print-disabled reader has. In workshops that I do, I put an ebook on my iPhone, turn on the text-to-speech voiceover, and have the phone read content to me. It’s a real revelation. People have no idea what that experience is like, and how difficult it is, and how sometimes the code interferes with even a basic decent reading experience via assistive text. So my last thing that I would say, is that’s really important to consider doing that. Try to consume it in the way that a print-disabled reader would have to.

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