New tricks

New tricks

Recently I was asked by a curious intern for a bit of a look at the inner workings of an ebook. I found myself giving a short lecture on HTML and XML.

She was young, bright, and had an MA in Publishing. But she had next-to-no understanding of the basic underpinning of an ebook (and, by extension, of the world wide web – ePUB is made up of the same languages that make up the web).

Now I don't expect every publishing graduate to be coding in JavaScript or styling CSS, but at the same time I found it odd that a basic understanding of HTML was not part of her course. 

I'm used to it. When I'm looking at the source HTML file of an ebook, colleagues see this as code, a foreign language they don't understand. They switch off, ignore it, or just shrug and say "I don't really get this stuff". They think I'm programming, rather than doing something more recognizable to them, which is applying a markup language. 

This is a distinction which is important to make, and the reason you don't need a degree in computer science to understand HTML. In fact, the odds are that if you work with editorial and proofreading symbols, you already have a solid grounding on a markup language. I'd argue that at its core, markup languages like HTML and XML are no harder to understand than these editorial and proofread marks.

Of course, if you get into namespaces and encoding, or you start trying to apply Javascript, or interactivity, it gets more complicated, and quickly. But it is my strong belief that given the importance of the internet and the growth in ebooks, it will become increasingly important for those who work in publishing to have a grasp of these technologies: not only to understand how they work, but also what they are capable of. 

I think Pearson's Plug and Play APIs are a brilliant idea, but to make the most of such ventures we need to start seeing a foundational understanding of technologies in editorial departments. And, as degrees in publishing become more common, these technologies have to be a core part of the syllabus. We've got new dogs, as it were, but we're not teaching them new tricks.

There are some great resources out there, not the least of which are a recent couple of free ebooks from O'Reilly, What is EPUB3? and HTML5 for Publishers. If you're interested, these are short and easy way to get you started, although the latter of the two assumes you have at least some knowledge of HTML to begin with, making the former a bit more accessible for anyone.

Once we have this awareness, we can see innovation happening organically, from the commissioning process onwards, rather than in segregated digital departments. And when this happens, we'll start to see the commissioning of a new future of our industry. I'm sure we'll find a place for Dan Franklin in there somewhere.


Image Credit - Jesper Rønn-Jensen