Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pepcon 2012

I'm writing this on the plane on my way home from Pepcon 2012. I'm tired and annoyed with the TSA, but even they cant take away my appreciation for having gone. As much as I love and value the connections and communication that happens online, there's something about meeting people in person that somehow makes it all real.

I wanted to write a little about what it was like so those who couldn't go could get a feel for it.

I didn't get to Pepcon until almost 3pm on Monday due to some prior commitments. But there were some sessions still going on when I got there, and I listened to part of Mike Rankin's top ten Long document tips and then a bit of Bob Levine and Keith Gilbert's presentation on DPS. One of the hardest parts of most conferences for me is wanting to listen to multiple presentations at once. My solution is to wander from one to the next, but it's imperfect at best.

Let me confess that I don't know a thing about DPS, but my first impressions aren't that great. It feels like a dead end to me, and I personally can't stand subscription programs; I don't want to be locked in month after month, I want to own. And it's all images, even the text?? No. I want standards so that my content doesn't get lost under proprietary formats. I don't want all my eggs in anyone else's basket.

After the sessions I took part in the first of two meetings with the senior InDesign engineers from Adobe. I've been on the InDesign beta team for a while so their names were familiar, but this was the first time I had met any of them in person. I was totally impressed. They asked us what we wanted (in terms of InDesign support for EPUB) and then carefully listened as we debated the merits of different solutions and the problems of various strategies. They didn't make any promises and they didn't make us sign any NDA forms, they mostly just listened and gave us feedback about our complaints.

One of my big complaints was that the CSS that InDesign generates has too many default values, and doesn't take advantage of CSS' power of inheritance (the cascade). It's tricky, because you can have an unending hierarchy of styles based on other styles in InDesign but the most obvious way to translate that to CSS involves using multiple classes, which are unfortunately not supported by all ereaders. There is limited cascade without multiple classes though there is the body, the p elements and then individual classes.

Throughout the course of the two meetings (almost four hours) we talked about a lot of issues. We didn't come to any firm conclusions and they made no promises but I think the important bit was helping them talk with people who actually use the tool to make EPUB files—probably Ron Bilodeau and Colleen Cunningham were more useful in this regard than I was.

And I don't mean that in a flippant way. In my own personal experience, it's a challenge to both write about how to create EPUB and actually create EPUB files. I imagine that it's even harder writing software that creates EPUB files and actually creating EPUB files. I'll come back to this point.

After the meeting with Adobe, I went to the Pepcon Ignite session. My favorites were the ones by MarisaKC and by Kelly Vaughn, whose presentation on creating crazy shapes with various weights and kinds of strokes reminded me a bit of my own exhaustive report on the possibilities of iPhoto.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned food yet. I went up to my room and ate some of the lovely fruit that Anne Marie and David had left for me. but I didn't go out to dinner because I still wasn't done with my presentation despite my promises to myself not to leave it to the last minute. Having to stand up in front of people and say something relevant is a really good way of proving the difference between having an idea and actually having a presentation. I knew what I wanted to say, I knew where I wanted to put the emphasis, but when I started to practice out loud, I realized (yet again) how much work it is to put those ideas into a shape that makes sense to other people. Easy is hard, and all that.

I didn't get to sleep until 11:30pm local time, which was 2:30am in my head, and I had been up since 3am the night before because I had left on an early flight. Note to self: really, really finish your presentation before you go to your next speaking engagement.

I woke up at 5am, thanks to a call from my non-time-zone-aware-daughter, but then took advantage of the time to really finish my talks, and practice them all the way through.

During the morning session, while hearing the brilliant ID scripter Kris Coppieters, admit that he “isn't an InDesign user”, and then watch several more presenters describe features I've never used and sometimes never heard of, the difference of using a program and creating the program (or teaching others how to use it) became even more clear. It's really hard to do both.

I think of the morning sessions, it was Gabriel Powell's that was the most helpful in terms of EPUB stuff: “Preparing Images for ePub/eBook”.

At lunch, I had a nice chat with Ron Bilodeau and Felipe Santos, the former from O'Reilly in Cambridge, and the latter from Brazil. These are the moments that make a conference special: catching up with people face to face that you might know online (like Ron), and learning different perspectives and needs from people you're meeting for the first time (like Felipe).

At 1:30, I gave my first talk, on Enhanced Ebooks. I started by talking about what sorts of books are encompassed by that term, and then talked about how to embed audio and video in an EPUB file with InDesign, using the techniques shown in the blog post that I published that same day. I was pretty jazzed to be able to explain to these InDesign-centric and perhaps code-cautious listeners that they could create enhanced ebooks without cracking their EPUB files and looking at the dreaded HTML.

Then Matthew Diener joined me to explain what EPUB 3 has in store, wisely showing some nice examples on both Azardi and Readium. Then I gave a more nuts and bolts look at exactly what EPUB3 code looks like. It's not that different from EPUB2, you'll be happy to hear. There were many fewer listeners in the EPUB3 talk than the Enhanced Ebooks presentation. I think people are wary of future technologies that are not yet implemented. But as I mentioned yesterday, EPUB3 is now supported by the iBookstore, and Apple is using it in standard ways to provide a better user experience. It's time to make the move.

After my talks, we had another two hour meeting with the InDesign crew, in which we discussed indexes at some length. One of the issues we argued about was how to label references to content. That is, if you go look up EPUB3 in the back of a print book, you might see something like:

EPUB3 12, 45-67, 78, 92

In an ebook, of course, there are no discrete pages, and so at first glance, you might be inclined to do away with those references altogether and use something like:

EPUB3 1, 2, 3, 4

But I argued that even though the page numbers themselves might be an artificial construct, they still give us information about what we might find there, that is lost in the replacement solution. In the example above, I might expect a short introductory mention on "page 12", a more thorough treatment on "pages 46-78", and less introductory, but still short mentions on "78" and "92". How do we convey that information without the actual page numbers? The short answer is, we don't know yet.

Finally, it was time for dinner. I was looking forward to meeting EPUB coder extraordinaire Rick Gordon for the first time, and had put out a call on Twitter to see if anyone wanted to join us. It was a really interesting bunch in the end (about 10 of us) who made it to the Jazz Bistro Les Joulins, just down the street from the hotel. The food was good, and the conversation interesting, and heavy into code :)

Not quite done, in the morning, I spent an hour at the Meet the Author's table with Steve Werner, InDesign expert. I'm not sure people really knew we were there, but I got to talk to a few people who wandered over.

The last thing on my agenda was to talk to Kris Coppieters and see some of his amazing scripts in action. He kindly came out to give ma demo and I was totally enthralled. While I had originally talked to him about a script that converts blogs to InDesign documents, I was most interested in his CSS Geometry which spits out the coordinates of the text blocks in an InDesign document and might be very useful in generating Fixed Layout ebooks from InDesign.

And I did get to see a cablecar!

San Francisco Cablecar

Many thanks to Anne Marie Concepcion and David Blatner for inviting me, and in general for organizing the conference and getting so many interesting people together! (And thanks to Matthew, whose nicest tweet ever is still making my day.)


  1. Thank you so much for this update on Pepcorn, enjoyed reading about your experience. Am truly perplexed by indexes in ebooks as we have no page numbers and it's hard to capture the subtley of meaning we are used to.

    I read today something about page numbers in epub...?
    Would love it if you wrote more on this topic :) ana

  2. You write: "How do we convey that information without the actual page numbers? The short answer is, we don't know yet."

    Well, we need something to click on and, as you indicate, and it helps if that something has meaning. A page span certainly isn't ideal since a brief mention could span two pages, not to mention that pages have little relevance in an ebook anyway.

    One possibility, when an index reference spans several paragraphs, would be to give a paragraph count as the link to be clicked on. A final option might improve on: the chapter number followed by the paragraph count. Almost every book, whatever its format, has chapters. That'd also make it easier to spot the chapter where most of the content is.

    I'm delighted that Adobe's InDesign team was interested in spending so much time discussing EPUB with you. InDesign seemed to have gone astray with CS5's emphasis on Flash, but it seems to back on track with CS6. I skipped 5.0 and only reluctantly bought 5.5, but when I saw the new features in 6.0, I immediately knew that I wanted it.

    Unlike you, I hate working in HTML and dream of a two-app workflow: Scrivener for writing/editing and InDesign for layout and all output formats, print and digital. We're certainly getting closer with ID CS6.

  3. Great post, Liz.

    Let me assure you that DPS is not a dead end and compared to other forms of publishing it's in its infancy.

    If you caught my 20 minute presentation at pepcon you may recall that I demonstrated HTML with DPS including a full article created entirely with Dreamweaver.

    This resulted in flowable, selectable text. While I wouldn't recommend it for everything, HTML, IMO, is clearly the format that we will be depending upon for almost all publishing in the future.

    When outputting from InDesign you can choose to use a PDF format which will retain your layout and razor sharp text. Unfortunately, it's not selectable or searchable but I do believe that's the direction it needs to go in.

  4. What ereaders don't support CSS using multiple classes? I know Kindle mobi doesn't (or Kindlegen, rather, since that's where all the CSS support is for that format), but are there others?

    I'd like to see Adobe support the standard as best as possible, rather than working around other people's bugs.

  5. Btw, in terms of how digital indexes can connote which sections explain the concept the most, physical copies of Lonley Planet display page numbers in red in the index for pages that go into the topic the most; other pages are in black to connote they mention the topic in passing. Perhaps something similar can be used for digital indexes?

    Brad Neuberg


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