dusty book being opened

Browsers-in-Books: The Web’s New Relationship with Print

It’s time to talk about books and the Web, but not in the way you think.

InDesign Export to PDF
The InDesign Export to PDF prompt. Assuring fewer human errors during production sine 2002.

In 1993, Adobe introduced its PDF format to the masses for the first time. This technology changed the way the publishing business was run, and quickly. For the first time, any computer (regardless of operating system) and any word-processing software could be used to create a final output. With the PDF, there were fewer incompatibilities between devices and mechanical printers, and publishers didn’t have to worry as much about missing fonts or bizarre display problems. Best of all, it was easy. Easy to create, easy to implement, and easy to edit. Now, in 2016, it’s rare to find any publisher or printer that doesn’t use PDF for its document management. Even digital ARC (advance reader copies) are more commonly distributed as PDF than print. It’s now a ubiquitous, standard format, and it would feel pretty bizarre if any publisher said “Oh, we don’t create those,” especially since many of the major book manufacturers require PDFs built to internal specifications (see page 29 of Ingram’s guidelines, for an example).

Adobe, in releasing the PDF format, probably never envisioned that it would set in motion what would become a decades-long, contentious debate between the publishing industry and Web professionals: What is the book, and what will it be in the future?

Then Came the Ebook

In 2007, the IDPF officially adopted the ePub format as its official standard. The IDPF “promotes the development of electronic publishing applications and products that will benefit creators of content, makers of reading systems, and consumers.”1 Since then, many have forecasted that publishing would go the way of mega-music corporations and newspapers, but in The Economist’s essay “From Pixels to Print,” (which is presented in a startling and beautifully modern way), the authors argue that “Analogies with the music and newspaper businesses have proved flawed. The music business collapsed in part because the bundle it was peddling fell apart: people wanted the right to buy one song, not the whole album. Books are not so easily picked apart. The music business also suffered because piracy was so easy: anyone who buys a CD can extract the music it contains in digital format in seconds, and can then share it online. Creating a digital file from a printed book by scanning each page, by contrast, is a nightmare. The fate of newspapers has been driven by the decline of advertising—a business publishers (which sell books to readers, not readers to advertisers) were never in.” Instead, the more profound changes to the publishing industry came in two ways:

  1. ePub and other ebook formats paved the way for the rise of self-publishing into the mainstream and as a viable business model;
  2. and a gradual but increasingly urgent shift away from the traditional production methods of print-to-digital, to XML-to-print.

While neither of these topics are the purpose of this particular essay, it is worth noting that both are extremely important in the context of the debate about the future of the book. It’s easy to lose the forest arguing about the trees, and in the discourse between publishing professionals, independent authors and Web professionals, it’s almost too easy to find hyperbole that misses the point.

Workflows are important. As the industry starts to demand more content distribution methods from its content, it’s not unreasonable for Web professionals to demand more efficient processes to convert that content. Indie authors have had more impetus to work in this fashion, as the majority of their earnings come from ebooks, rather than print. Therefore, when companies like Draft2Digital or Smashwords crop up, promising multiple outputs from a single origin file (and with higher royalty percentages than a traditional press would offer), those authors are the earliest adopters. But for traditional publishers, who have started to see the ebook industry stabilize in the range of about 17%, there is less drive to change a production process that has served them well since InDesign made PDF and ePub exports automatic after print design. Going back to the ideas behind PDF, and its explosive rise to being the standard in the print industry, the XML model still has a long way to go to prove input-efficiency to the companies who would have to implement those systems and train generations of staff on standards.

Second, publishing is a special market, as The Economist hinted. Unlike other industries where the focus is on growth and stealing market share, publishing is more symbiotic in its competitor relationships. Publishers and printers all specialize, which means there are few hard feelings (just missed opportunities) when a competitor signs on an author that turns out to be profitable. Furthermore, despite the pitchforks from some members of the self-publisher community, the industry can and does support multiple business models. All of those models require different ways of organization and thinking…. no one option is better than another.

So, what is the issue, exactly?

“Web is the future; Print is a relic.”

For the last decade, the argument has been about technology’s relationship with the book—web-first methodologies, digital-only formats, and the “ever-growing-decline” of print—and not about the idea that the physical book, that one printed with ink and paper, is also part of that evolutionary change. It’s likely that the nostalgic lens with which the world views the book has contributed to this close-minded way of thinking about the material form of the book: that a book is either print (static) or digital (evolving). Framing the two mediums that way is synonymous with saying traditional and self-publishing are a dichotomy, rather than two platforms that work in tandem with each other (intentionally or not).

Author Earnings Report October 2016
Compiled by The Data Guy, ebook industry trends show self-publishers rule the e-model in market share (if not earnings), even with the stabilization of the market.

In his essay “Why the Book and Internet Will Merge,” Hugh McGuire, the man behind PressBooks and LibriVox, stated, “In 2008 […] about 1% of trade book sales in the US were ebooks. In 2011 the number was close to 20%. Many expect 50% of trade sales to be ebooks by 2015, if not sooner. Books may not yet be on the Internet in great numbers, but they sure are in people’s Kindles, iBooks, Nooks, and Kobos.” But according to BookNet (at least for the Canadian market), ebooks have plateaued in 2016 at 16-17% of total trade sales. And beyond trade, independent and self-published authors are also starting to see the decline, as the Author Earnings report in October 2016 showed.

While McGuire argues that the ebook market has been crippled by publishers who are (perhaps justifiably) trying to control the e-publishing model to protect their print model, the ebook market’s decline may also be a result of a consumer shift back to print. It could also simply be a blip because of the surge of adult coloring books over the last two years.

Regardless, print isn’t going anywhere. But if Web developers want to get publishers excited about new workflows and tech, maybe it’s time to show them that it’s not just the digital realm that “gives birth to new and exciting things we can’t yet imagine.”2 Technology and innovation don’t have to be caged in the Web, because print can evolve, too.

Transmedia and the Book

There is no denying the way in which we create and consume narratives has drastically changed with the Web and the technology created in its periphery. They have provided multiple levels of interaction for singular stories, most simply showcased in the way our news is now delivered: in instant, snackable “NowThis” videos on Facebook, 140-character headlines on Twitter, full length YouTube broadcasts, longform articles on established platforms, on TV and in print.

beautiful book image
Is there more to a physical book than ink and paper? Can there be more?

From this deluge of new media forms and opportunity has come a new wave of innovation known as transmedia storytelling. Henry Jenkins, a Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, defines transmedia storytelling as “represent[ing] a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”3 An example of how this theory might be implemented is in the simultaneous print and digital-game book, The Pickle Index. Briefly, The Pickle Index uses a multitude of delivery methods to tell a story “over 10 days,” providing an immersive and subversive style of storytelling to the reader. While not a true transmedia experience, as the reader would either choose the digital format OR the print version to experience the novel, it nonetheless starts to show what is possible with the future of narrative.

It may be surprising, but print books aren’t resisting this realm of innovation. A good example of this sort of storytelling evolution can be found in S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dourst. Just have a look at their trailer to see how the narrative is being played with. In S., two (and possibly three) stories are being told all at once. One, in a fictional novel The Ship of Theseus, and another in the margins and newspaper articles, letters and notes scattered throughout the pages. Drop the book(!) and all of this will fall out of order…. forcing the reader into yet another style of investigative storytelling. Creating an environment where different kinds of storytelling can happen, such as in S., unwraps the definition of a “book” and what a book—yes, even a printed book—can do… something publishers have been resistant to.

One of the best things about these sorts of innovations in print is that there are fewer cases of incompatibility. In the case of The Pickle Index, the creators only made it for iOS systems. Why they might have done so is irrelevant, only that they, by the very container they built the system within, limit themselves to one platform. For print, there are no such limitations. Print innovations do not have to worry about shifting online technologies (if they are careful) or startup failure—even if the way something was created goes away, the book itself doesn’t stop being usable (Anyone remember CD-ROM?) They don’t have to worry about OS systems, and because of the proliferation of online shopping markets, they don’t even have to technically put their books into every brick and mortar store to reach their audience.

Best of all, with the new augmentation technologies on the market, like conductive ink and image-linked media software, print can begin to move towards a bundled, transmedia experience that can excite publishers into being more bold in their book development (and therefore put more thought and funds into standardizing XML workflows and APIs, something Web professionals have been begging for for decades).

Here are just some of the amazing projects out there right now:

So Why Isn’t Everyone Doing This Yet?

tumblr_mmsymofba51rjtabfo1_1280Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this technology, it hasn’t seen widespread adoption. Why is that the case?

There are certainly enough start-ups striving to be the unicorn of publishing technology, so it’s not about access. Among some of the more well-established companies and projects include: Blippar, Blink, The Next Ten App Book, SmartBound, Booke, Geozer, ReBook, ElectroLibrary, Nimble, Modern Polaxis and FingerLink.

It is my belief that the struggle comes down to a simple marketing problem. Much like the debate over self-publishing and traditional publishing, and the dichotomies that form in the muck of offended sensibilities, the tech industry hasn’t done a good enough job pitching their projects. Because of that, publishers haven’t seen the true merits of treating their industry more malleably. Again, the publishing industry isn’t like the music or newspaper business. But they don’t believe it themselves, because everyone telling them to innovate is screaming “Print is dead!” and “Everything has to be on the Web!” The industry has turned defensive, sabotaging the ebook market and digital development to protect print sales (McGuire)…. but they’ve never been told that digital and print can work in tandem. That they don’t have to be multiple formats over multiple devices. Publishers could conceivably ditch ePub and Kindle altogether and embrace a single-product bundle: buy a print version, get instant access to the digital (for those that prefer larger font sizes or portability)… NetGalley and other ARC (advance reader copy) distributors already use Adobe Digital Editions, where Adobe, again, created a system that could be easily implemented and is full of convenience (digital copies can expire, for example, if they’re only being rented… So, if Sally buys the print edition but is going away for the weekend, HarperCollins could give her book a unique code that lets her [alone] rent it to her smartphone or tablet for a month.) Readers win, too; they would own the book, not simply be leasing it from Amazon or other ebook providers.

In addition, using the print version of a book as a base (or platform) could open up possibilities first conceived of in book apps (but had problems with discoverability, due to the nature of how apps exist on digital devices). There could be audio and video in-book purchases (think gaming industry), book trailers directly connected to the cover images of the books they are trying to sell (book trailers are great; but no one goes to YouTube to find books—imagine instead being able to scan cover images in a store and get the trailer right there, or even an interview with the author), and the use of 3D mapping to make digital pop-up books (and not just for kids; the applications for textbooks and architectural design are immense). Publishers could even limit color printing to the digital augmentations, allowing them to curb printing costs for books that usually are quite expensive unnecessarily (again, think textbooks.)

In short, books are evolving. And what’s happening on the Web is exciting and not to be dismissed… but neither is the world of print, which has the potential to be not only cross-platform and multi-media, but free from being made obsolete as new formats come and go in the digital landscape. Like the PDF, print is here to stay.

The Book: Not a Static Object

Now that the ebook industry is beginning to level off and show a consistent market share, publishing professionals can take stock of what has worked and what hasn’t. Formats that impede innovation can be put aside (my personal preference would be to see MOBI go away. Forever.) but now publishers can also look at their print books and think more broadly of that physical format being part of the ecosystem of change. The printed book is not a relic. It’s simply a format that works. And it will continue to work… but that doesn’t mean it can’t see a little evolution itself. Just don’t give it a touch bar.

macbook-pro-touch-bar

Footnotes

1. “About Us” IDPF: International Digital Publishing Forum. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. http://idpf.org/about-us.
2. McGuire, Hugh. “Why the Book and the Internet Will Merge.” Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. PressBooks. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. https://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/book-and-the-internet-hugh-mcguire
3. Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. Web. 30 Oct. 2016. http://henryjenkins.org/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html

Citations

1. “A Brief History of the PDF File.” InvestTech. Web. http://www.investintech.com/resources/articles/pdffilehistory/
2. “Why Use PDF: A Backgrounder on PDF’s Advantages and Disadvantages.” InvestTech. Web. http://www.investintech.com/resources/articles/pdfadvantages/
3. “File Creation Guide.” Ingram Sparks. PDF. http://www.ingramcontent.com/Documents/LSI_FileCreationGuide.pdf
4. “From Papyrus to Pixels.” The Economist. Web. http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21623373-which-something-old-and-powerful-encountered-vault
5. “October 2016 Author Earnings Report: A Turning of the Tide…?” Author Earnings. Web. http://authorearnings.com/report/october-2016/
6. “E-Book Logic: We Can Do Better.” Maxwell, John. PDF. http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/bsc/article/viewFile/20761/16996
7. “Books are dead – it’s time to ditch 15th century technology.” Lewis, Benny. Web. http://www.fluentin3months.com/ebooks/
8. “Mid-Year State of the Nation.” BookNet Canada. Web. http://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2016/10/6/mid-year-state-of-the-nation
9. “How Being Published by the Big Six F*cked Me Up.” Grimes, Shaunta. Web. https://medium.com/the-mission/how-being-published-by-the-big-six-f-cked-me-up-5ae81534b98d#.hxqh8gf4b
10. “Paper is back: Why ‘real’ books are on the rebound.” Catalano, Frank. GeekWire. Web. http://www.geekwire.com/2015/paper-back-real-books-rebound/
11. “The Adult Coloring Craze Continues And There Is No End In Sight.” Harrison, Kate. Forbes. Web. http://www.forbes.com/sites/kateharrison/2016/02/02/the-adult-coloring-craze-continues-and-there-is-no-end-in-sight/#57a18c73643b
12. “Here Are the Startup Failure Rates by Industry.” Pyror, Kristin. TechCo. Web. http://tech.co/startup-failure-rates-industry-2016-01
13. “Hack This Book: The Art of Tinkering’s Conductive Ink Cover I Exploratorium.” Exploratorium. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUa9ZSG80HE&feature=youtu.be
14. “What is Blippar?” Blippar. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIPWq_sAC2M
15. “The book app and the eBook, more than just discoverability separate the two formats.” Hebbard, D.B. Talking New Media. Web. http://www.talkingnewmedia.com/2014/01/22/the-book-app-and-the-ebook-more-than-discoverability-separate-the-two-formats/
16. “What digital media could learn from online gaming (Hint: in-app purchases, for starters).” Filloux, Frédéric. Quartz. Web. http://qz.com/695888/what-digital-media-could-learn-from-online-gaming-hint-in-app-purchases-for-starters/

Episode 2: September Wrap-Up

September is long gone, but I haven’t had time to document everything that happened in September until now. If anything, that should tell you how busy it’s been! But even a month and a half in, I’m loving this program, and have no regrets in working so hard to pursue it.

The Courses

PUB 600 (Topics in Publishing Management): Absolutely my favorite course so far, PUB600 delves into management and financial considerations for publishing houses. We’ve had a number of industry guests come in (or Skype in) as well, and they’ve told us about all of those things I went into the program to learn. Marketing and PR (as the trad. presses do it), title P&L (which basically tells you whether you can publish that book you want to or not), and how to position your publishing house to succeed in the market. This course also has two “major” group assignments and presentations, which I actually found to be really enjoyable. We reverse engineered a marketing plan for an existing book on the market, and then had to work with a 40% budget cut to still make the book viable in the marketplace.

One of the nicest things about the coursework is that you can build your third project into something personally beneficial. In my case, I decided to work on a SWOT and Competitor Analysis for a magazine near and dear to my heart. That meant getting in touch with the management team and having real discussions about the future of the publication and where it is heading. I might be getting a letter grade in the course, but the document itself will keep evolving to help this company in a real way (and also help my CV!)

PUB601 (Editorial Theory and Practice): This has been a surprising course for me. I’ve done editing in the past, but have never really felt like I wanted to become an editor. However, this course is making me reconsider! PUB601 is probably the most-discussed class among the cohort, as we are learning the acquisitions process from a real book that is actually being published next year. The book we were given to analyze is in pretty awful shape (would have absolutely been rejected by a trade fiction U.S. publisher). Obviously for the purposes of the class, the author’s name and book title have been redacted, but we’ve had to write “letters” to the publisher and the author describing what we think the book needs to be publish-ready. The vast differences in everyone’s answers have been really enlightening. You really could give your manuscript to ten editors and get ten different prescriptions back. What I’m learning for self-publishers is that you all need to have more confidence in your vision, and drop editors and beta readers who don’t “get” you. For traditional publishing, I’m finding that all the experiences in editing I’ve gained by working with self-publishers is going to serve me well going forward, if being an editor is the path I want to take.

PUB602 (Design and Production Control in Publishing): Ah, design! This class, so far, has been a lot of typography and general design philosophy, though more recently we’ve had the opportunity to ogle beautiful books and learn all the ways design can run amuck. Most of my Instagram photos from the last week have come from Design.

I really like the instructor for this course, and am hoping for guidance in building up my portfolio and rebranding Country Mouse Design (that’s a project for February). I think I already know where I want to intern, and will be seeking advice from both my PUB600 and 602 professors. The other big project for this class will be a novel redesign, and I’ve chosen (because I’m nuts) a redesign of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber omnibus, because I really hated the layout of that book. Why does this make me insane? We only need to redesign the cover and first few pages of the interior. I’m doing all ten books. Because why not. 😂

PUB802 (Technology and Evolving Forms of Publishing): PUB802 has probably been the most difficult class so far, as a lot of it is simply theory so far. There is a lot of reading every week, and we use an annotation plugin to have conversations throughout the week on the various articles assigned to us. If technology in publishing interests you, you could actually read all the course materials on your own time here. One of the things I’m finding particularly trips me up in the tech class is just the idea of reading books online (any books). It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where books could be hosted by the publisher online, and the book would still make a profit. Considering link rot on regular articles, and the abundance of free fiction on the web, I sort of feel it might be too late for regular books to make their own way on the web without insulting readers with paywalls or subscriptions. (Since publishers, they say, are rarely branded, what would make a reader want to fork over a monthly fee for a specific publisher’s backlist, unless that publisher was Harlequin, Penguin, or Tor?)

Miscellany 

It was definitely a busy month. I’m just managing to keep ahead of my assignments by a couple days a piece, but others in my cohort seem to be having a little difficulty. I’m finding that not working has definitely allowed me to have the energy to take on all of the reading that is assigned, and if you’re someone who plans to apply in the future, you should definitely keep that in mind.

Other than that, I think the rest can be shared in pictures!

A minimalist cover for “The Three Little Pigs”… created in 20 minutes with my classmate:

 

Working on the editorial outline for that PUB601 manuscript:

 

The “art” installment in my department’s hallway:

 

My mailbox!

 

I got a haircut, at long last. I hadn’t had the confidence to get to a stylist for over a year. My poor hair…

 

Playing with pretty books and paper and ink! (I ended up being a huge dork and buying a bunch of sample paper packs from local presses…)

 

And then we learned about all the ways production can go wrong…

And finally, I got some glasses! My long distance vision has been deteriorating for some time, but I really started noticing it when school started. Now I finally have some glasses. Somehow, it makes me feel like more of a writer. 😉

Hope you all had a great month, too.

img_1340

Accessibility in Web Typography

An Approachable Web: Typography for All

THIS paragraph has a lot of typographic elements to it. There is a drop cap, small capitals, text choices (both in font and style), and decisions about white space. A majority of these were created using HTML; some were automatically decided by my blog theme’s CSS. If I wanted to tweak them further, I would be able to do so—as long as I understood the basic coding involved.

For bloggers and online journalists, typography isn’t always the first thing on their mind. Content is, and always will be, king. For website developers, the need for responsive layouts and white space, and limiting the areas where users can “break the code,” is preferable. One of the biggest reasons designers do typographic adjustments in CSS is to keep content and design as separate as possible from each other. However, sometimes content creators need the ability to adjust layout in minor ways: poets for poetry, authors for long-form chapters, and instructors for mathematical formulas and HTML coding display.

Often the answer to these problems is to adjust the overall CSS of a website, but for those that share their content on a pre-determined, shared-user platform, this option often doesn’t exist (for security reasons)—or, as this essay will discuss—is inaccessible to the typical content creator. For example, if a creator wanted to have columns in the middle of their article, like I’ve done here, how would they go about doing so? If the creator was hosting their blog on a website like Blogger.com or WordPress.com, they could adjust the post’s unique HTML to create this effect.
However, they would need to know the code to do it. While there are various tools in the editor to justify or change the left margins for paragraphs in the toolbar, the more refined options for typography remain invisible, accessible only to those with the background to know how to do it, or those with knowledge enough to put the right keywords into their preferred search engine. Some sites, like WordPress.com, do provide a codex of acceptable HTML and shortcodes for their platform, but the general user is unlikely to know more than a handful.

 

For the purposes of this essay, I’ll be looking at the three platforms that corner the market on blogging: Blogger.com, WordPress.com, and Medium.com. While many articles often compare Medium to WordPress.org (a self-hosted framework), I find the comparison unfair: WordPress.org is a fully customizable site, with many plugins and CSS options, while this essay is focusing purely on “set” platforms with limitations for their free users (where the bulk of casual blogging takes place). To keep myself from having to write ‘.com’ after every mention of WordPress, I make the distinction now.

Visual Punctuation

“Typography is the balance and interplay of letterforms on the page—a verbal and visual equation that helps the reader understand the form and absorb the substance of the page content. Typography plays a dual role as both verbal and visual communication. When readers scan a page they are subconsciously aware of both functions: first they survey the overall graphic patterns of the page, and then they parse the language and read. Good typography establishes a visual hierarchy for rendering prose on the page by providing visual punctuation and graphic accents that help readers understand relations between prose and pictures, headlines and subordinate blocks of text.”1

Most writers aren’t coders. Especially when it comes to journal, poetry and fiction writers, coding language is often something they’ve had very little experience with, beyond the basic <i>, <b>, <u> tags. And code isn’t something that they should have to learn to be able to use a blogging interface. Code should be limited, and having users manually inserting code all the time can bloat the system and break a site’s uniformity. (It also increases the risk that as the site or coding language changes, older posts will cease to be compliant.) Authors and publishers should be able to focus on their content, without having to learn an entire markdown language to present it in a satisfying way.

A fancy pull quote can
draw
 someone’s attention
to
 information that might
otherwise be skimmed over.

Enter Medium.com, founded in 2012 with a mission to be one of the sleekest, cleanest places to blog on the web. Medium, at least for free users, is about as bare bones as you can get (it’s even stripped some of its original functionality in the last two years, like full-bleed images wrapped behind text). Coders rejoice! The interface is a marvel, perfect for endless scrolling and distraction-free writing. There are no widgets and ads materialize then disappear, marrying the ad-savvyness of Spotify with the intent of WordPress—but advertised as a place for “ideas” over 140-characters. It’s an interesting pitch, but why not call themselves the next WordPress or Blogger, when Medium is clearly a place for blogs?

It may have something to do with that leanness coming at a cost. For free users, Medium’s typography options are actually quite slim. Some options, like buttons for creating a drop cap and small capitals (as shown in my post here), are like candy for an author. Unfortunately, the typography options basically end there. There is no justifying text, changing the color, or your fonts. There’s not even an HTML editor. Specialty articles on Medium (submitted to Publications) are the only posts on the site with the bells and whistles, and those layout options are under lock and key—you have to get through the slush pile first. So the comparison Medium made for itself as “long-form Twitter” is pretty apt: It’s a place to scroll through text, preferably quickly. It’s a place where skimming is more likely, just like on Twitter, where users may prefer to get the gist of an article over getting absorbed in its content. Visual punctuation is farther apart than on sites like Blogger.com and WordPress.com, and authors have little control over it, except to insert ‘• • •’ between sections of their piece. Medium’s editor is highly approachable, but its typography is not fully accessible.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that Blogger and WordPress are more accessible to their users. Blogger, which was acquired by Google in 2003, has not had any major interface improvements since then (besides the adoption of HTTPS in 2015). If a user wishes to do any sort of customization at all (like change the default theme) they must know code, or at least be able to fake their way through a lot of copy + paste. Independently-developed themes are plentiful, but if you want to “install” them, it can be a process (click one to see why). In terms of accessibility, Blogger fails at the user level. It is still a powerful platform with millions of active users, and its editor, which has a familiar, “Word-like” layout, is effective. People like it. But it could be more. The notification system, while not the focus of this essay, is exactly the same for users as it is for non-users unless they have installed a G+ integration—but again, these alterations are inaccessible (or incomprehensible) to the basic user. As far as typography goes, anything beyond basic style hot keys must be known in advance. It is a platform built for people already comfortable with computers, and doesn’t try to be more inclusive on that front.

WordPress takes the more humanist approach. Templates are one-click install and customization, as well as the editor, work in nearly full-WYSIWYG. Still, as someone who has taught over seventy-five writers how to create a blog on WordPress, it’s not necessarily intuitive. And just like Blogger, WordPress limits how much typography can be adjusted with a simple click of a button. Both of these platforms, however, offer a lot of typographical elements that Medium doesn’t, such as pre-formatted text (for poetry and code), pull quotes, columns, click-and-drag image resizing, up to seven header options, page jumps, and even pagination. Some of these elements can’t be applied with a button, and that should change. The first step to making the typography on the web more accessible is to stop making it hidden.

A poem, with special indentation:

Books are a Uniquely Portable Magic

Pretend you are a book, 
   Being opened from time to time; 
      Your pages being flipped, 
  They tell a comic, story, or rhyme. 
  Satisfy your readers, and always get them hooked
  You can be anything, and today you are a book.

Written by Sydney Veazie on Apr 24, 2015

Do You Really Need All Those Gimmicks?

What makes an aspect of typography essential, and what makes it a gimmick? It could be argued that the only real necessities for web typography are the ability to italicize or turn a text oblique, and the ability to block quote a text that makes it clear at a glance that it is just a quote. But what about bolding text for keywording, or using pull quotes to emphasis an important point in a long paragraph? Are they essential?

The short answer is no. Strong content writers could likely get all of their points across with only the most basic of typographical choices, just as a the best web designers will always strive to slim down a site’s code.

The long
answer
is yes.

The long answer is yes. By its very nature, content is a creative process, and is constantly striving for ways to be “heard” in a deluge of similar content that is posted across the web every day. At the moment, articles fight for visibility through graphic elements, but most sites display images in the same way, and blogs aren’t necessarily the platform for image-heavy media. After all, blogs are about ideas. They are about communication between a (typically) like-minded set of people. Text is the fuel of blogging. So, shouldn’t text, therefore, be approachable and accessible for the basic content user?

Think of platforms like Instagram, wildly popular because it suddenly turned every phone into a virtual photography studio. The application of filters drives the app’s success. Customization in the hands of the consumer is a driving force behind many successful companies, like Google, Adobe, and Firefox, and could also be more of a force on the blogging web.

So what features should exist on sites like Medium, WordPress, and Blogger (in button form)?

  • Remove justification or consolidate the buttons to save space. Add in margin options:
    • 2-column (50/50 or 40/60) and wide margins for increased white space
  • Drop caps. Drop caps are a classic typographic standard.
  • Pull quotes. Code for this is complicated and imperfect. Platforms could use their site-wide CSS to make truly stunning pull quote styles, rather than the cobbled-together HTML I presented in this article.
  • Tables.
  • Post Templates. Many blogs have recurring series of content. Being able to save a template (not just copy a post) would ensure proper stylistic structures.
  • Indents (as a paragraph style). Especially for long-form fiction, scenes with lots of dialogue end up looking pretty choppy on a screen. Having the ability to have a soft return (no white space between paragraphs) and an indent would make fiction more readable online.
  • Footnotes (linkable). This one may be harder to achieve, but even offering a sup/superscript selection for text would go a long way to a more open, but researched web.

Typography for an Accessible Web

Ideally, a solution would be created where these common typographical elements were available right on the dashboard. StagTools, a plugin for WordPress.org, is an example of what regular, free interfaces could do to improve user experiences. Minimal and sleek design is good, but not at the cost of functionality (and there’s some logic that maybe people like cluttered interfaces more than we let on).

For content creators, some additional typography selections (especially pull quotes, which are important for journalism) could diminish the need for HTML tag memorization, but also keep the web developers happy, as less code would be written manually post-to-post. WordPress and Google could learn from Medium and Hypothesis’s take on commenting or taking notes “in the margins” of posts, rather than at the very end, allowing for contextual discourse on otherwise static blocks of text, which would then transform blogging (across the web) into the best version of itself: a true conversation of ideas. Medium’s decision to display reading time (like Longform) would also be a welcome addition to the rest of the blogging web. But when it comes to Typography, Medium could put more control back in the hands of their content creators, so at least those who wanted to design the experience around their writing could, without needing to depend on publications that might accept or reject their articles. (Self-publishing as an industry is only growing, and self-publishers have fought long and hard with every venue to have the same capabilities as the traditional presses.)

Typography exists to honor content. ~Robert Bringhurst

In closing, the key to an accessible web—not just a web that caters to those that know code or keyboard shortcuts—is to make typographic customizations visible right in the editor. This is already possible with self-hosted solutions, but why not for static platforms like Blogger, WordPress(.com) and Medium? Providing solutions for content creators that are not producing typical content is important, and particularly with poetry and fiction, they aren’t demographics to be ignored. Decisions on web design should be made with the understanding that a large majority of writers are still not coders, and the learning curve to merge those two skills are steep. Even though someone can’t code doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the customization options available to visually “punctuate” their content in the way that best suits it.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


1. Lynch, Patrick J., and Sarah Horton. Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites. New Haven Conn: Yale University Press, 2008.

For my regular readers, sorry for the dense article. I wrote this as an essay response to one of my master’s courses assignments: Write about the web and an area of publishing that matters to you. If you have any additional comments, I’d love to hear them!

Otherwise, here’s a timelapse of some pretty cool cloud cover I saw this week:

giphy
Skies Over Coquitlam

Death of a Pen Name

I’ve been on the internet since the early 90s. I remember dial-up modems on my family’s Macintosh Performa, the Geocities revolution and MIDI music formats. And I remember accessing all of those sites with made-up usernames. It was simply the thing to do. From “rapturous_heart” in my early teens to “tokyoshorty” in my early twenties, monikers were simply the name of the game.

And then I started writing.

I have a confession to make. I gave a lot of excuses for using the androgynous “Alex Hurst.” I was worried about my personal security. I was worried about what friends and family might think of my writing, and if they would extrapolate every little defect of personality of the characters in my stories as some sort of deliberate condemnation (for the record, I do not write people I know into my works.) Another reason I went with a unisex name was the trends suggested that in SFF, female authors simply weren’t taken as seriously, and initialed or male-sounding names provided a passive opportunity to get rid of that bias. That’s not really true anymore. Diversity in fiction still has a long way to go, but there is so much support and celebration now that it would be silly to continue using a unisex name just for that reason.

This month (as most of you know), I started a masters course in Publishing at Simon Fraser University. At a social put on by the faculty the first week, John Maxwell and others talked about how they’d had a hard time trying to find “Alex Hurst” in the auditorium during orientation. I’d been blogging about MPub for months, but not under my real name. They were able to figure out that the initials were the same as my real name (AH). But then John asked me something else that solidified a feeling I’d been having for months:

When you start doing your academic writing, what name will you go by?

It was a simple question with a difficult answer. For a few years now my use of Alex Hurst was eroding within my design business (as I met most of my clients through Facebook friends), and then as a volunteer for Kyoto Journal. But that question made me realize something crucial: I want to be able to put my name on my work.

It’s as simple as that. I love my name. I always have. It’s unique, it carries with it a history that I treasure, and it’s me. And I’m tired of juggling the online persona that is really just me hiding, and my real life, where I am confident, free to express myself how I please, and not confuse people to death with a double-sided business card.

So, without further ado, let me introduce myself to you all officially.

Hello, my name is Ariel Hudnall.

It’s pronounced R•E•L Hud•NALL, though I don’t get angry when people say Airy•elle. 

Everything in my bio is true. I was born in Louisiana and lived near a golden river for most of my young childhood until my family packed up and moved to California. I have a ton of siblings, though the count changes depending on who I decide to count (complicated family histories will not be discussed at this point in time, haha).

I’ve lived on the road for a year, in Kyoto for six years, and am now puttering about in Vancouver as an academic.

So, no more Alex Hurst. Forgive me while all of my social media slowly goes through the motions necessary to reflect this massive change.

Thank you!

Episode 1: Orientation Week #MPub

1. Orientation Week

Week One of the Masters in Publishing is now behind me, and tomorrow starts Week Two! Last week was a whirlwind of an experience, but I stepped away feeling more energetic than ever. This year, the MPub faculty has many new faces, and of the classes I’ve been able to attend so far, they’re all going to lead excellent classes and seminars.

What They Don’t Tell You

TUITION DEPOSIT: Because the #MPub program is such a small part of the overall SFU campus, there isn’t a lot of information before the start of term. If you are planning to apply, make sure you budget about $1,000CAD for additional tuition deposits to the Publishing department before the start of term. For me, this was a huge wrench in my summer savings, and as a foreigner with a student visa, I actually wasn’t allowed to legally work before the start of school (they recommend you don’t work at all, for reasons I’ll explain), seriously hampering my ability to settle down in Canada. It may be best to work and save money in your home country, and arrive only a month before (to give yourself time to find an apartment).

CLASS SCHEDULE: The classes run on a liquid schedule that changes a lot. Any schedule you receive through the Registrar will be wrong. Expect classes to shift around a lot, as many of the classes have industry speakers who can only make certain days. Some classes even end earlier in the term to make space for the Book Project, so for the first couple months, you’ll have Fridays free, but then the project will start, and your schedule will shift again. You can see why working any job with set hours would be troublesome.

TEXTBOOKS: Textbooks will arrive in the bookstore. Don’t buy any of them. Unless you want to for your own benefit. Then feel free! If you want to do some reading over the summer before the start of term, check out Publishing for Profit‘s 5th edition. It’s cross-referenced in a few classes and is quite a solid introduction to the publishing industry.

INDESIGN: The design course jumps right into it the first day. Make sure you spend enough time exploring the program to know general layout practices. I suggest picking up a 5-6 hour course on Lynda.com with your free student access to get familiar with the software. From experience, I stress this: InDesign’s learning curve is a monster.

REPUTATION: The Publishing department has a pretty awesome reputation on campus. The advisor for the students is considered one of the nicest in the entire university, and she is a whirling dervish of information. The faculty are good speakers and personable, with varied and fascinating backgrounds. I find myself eager to dive into the coursework for all of my classes.

My First Week, in Instagram Photos

The week started on Tuesday, as Monday was Labo(u)r Day. This means that technically, tomorrow is my first time going to the Technology seminar! Orientation was a little over two hours, and was the only thing planned for the day. I walked around campus for a bit, and dropped my name in the hat for Publishing caucus representative for the Grad Council. (eeeek!)

 

I have to mention that Simon Fraser has some amazing facilities for graduate students. The Publishing cohort get three shared offices to split between 18 people, and they’re key-code protected. In addition, there is free coffee on the Burnaby campus, a student lounge with microwaves and kettles, access to a fridge for your lunch, a massive amount of study space (if you need a quiet place besides home), tons of workshops and services for writing and bookable conference rooms for larger study groups. Also, the Publishing cohort gets free printing in the Publishing wing of Harbour Centre. The facilities are amazingly well-funded.

 

As part of the first week, the Publishing faculty invited us out to Mahony & Sons pub near the Waterfront. It is a gorgeous area, and those of us that attended spent the better part of two hours just getting to know our professors in a very candid and welcoming way. I felt so supported, and could really sense the faculty’s investment in our being in the program. This year has seen some new changes to the curriculum, with students being able to choose between interning, doing a research project, or building a start-up company from the ground up, and I literally can’t decide which one sounds most awesome. Knowing me, I’ll try to do all three, haha!

…Oh, and at the pub, I was unanimously voted in as caucus rep! 😳✊

 

Thursday we finally got to take the Publishing management course and I am SO IN LOVE. Everything about the syllabus is exciting me, and I just can’t wait to gets hands on with our book and magazine projects later in the year. Woohoo!

Also, I happened to meet an upperclassman by chance a couple weeks ago, and he treated me to lunch since Financial Aid was taking its sweet time disbursing. Thankfully, now I have my money!

 

Now, on to Week Two! Follow me on Instagram for all the stories I post about #MPub. 🙂