Everything About E-Publishing

An Interview with Nellie McKesson

Nellie McKesson, pioneering woman of the e-pub world, shares exciting new developments, discusses the future of print versus ebook, and offers us a glimpse into the challenges women face in the industry today.


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Stacey Sundar: Hi Nellie, welcome to TypeThursday! Thanks so much for being here. Can you tell us about yourself and how you got started in the ebook publishing industry?

Nelli McKesson: Hey Stacey! It’s a pleasure to be here.

Nellie McKesson, Senior Manager of Content Workflows at Macmillan

Background

I’m a philosophy major who somehow stumbled into the world of computers. I got my first job in publishing about a year after I graduated from college, after spending the better part of a year teaching English at a high school in France. I had just moved to Boston on a whim, and needed a job, and thought I might as well give it a go in publishing since there seemed to be a lot of publishing companies in town. My thought process really was that simple, haha.

I scoured craigslist and found a paid internship at a 4-person math journal publisher in Somerville, MA. I didn’t have any real experience, so I thought an internship would be a good way to get my foot in the door. After about two weeks, they promoted me to Editorial Assistant. Since it was such a small group, I got to get involved in a lot of different things — website maintenance, journal layout (in LaTex, no less!), subscription management, etc. I got another promotion within the year, but only lasted a few more months there before I switched over to O’Reilly Media. The environment there was pretty hectic and I felt like I had enough experience to level up, and I also wanted to learn more about how the big publishers operate.

Oh I just realized you said ebook, not book, which makes this story a bit longer! So:

Like I said, one of my tasks at the journal publisher was website maintenance. I had never really done much with computers (I didn’t get my first personal computer until after I graduated from college), but I had a pretty good time messing around with HTML, so I thought I’d challenge myself to learn more. I told my dad I’d build a website for him, and used that as a learning experience. I built the whole thing using tables (ugh!), but that laid the foundation.

I started at O’Reilly as a Production Editor, but ebooks really started to take off around that same time, and they seemed like a big deal and maybe a cool new thing for me to play with, so I decided to try to learn more about them. I started playing around with exporting ebooks from InDesign and cracking them open to see how everything worked, and that led to getting assigned to do special ebook design projects at O’Reilly. I got pretty good at writing CSS, so from there I jumped up to running our ebook development group for a little while as well as doing most of the print CSS development, and then from there I moved on to more general development and automation.

SS: That’s really incredible how everything fell in place for you while transitioning careers. How long have you been in the industry and what are some of the biggest advances you’ve seen?

Advances in the Industry

NM: I’ve been in the industry for about 11 years at this point. Ebooks were obviously a huge deal, but I’ve also gotten to work with the latest developments in CSS for paged media (like books), which has been really cool. There are lots of techy folks working on publishing projects, and it’s been interesting to see what problems they’re trying to solve, and who they’re trying to solve for (publishing companies, authors, freelancers, etc.). Since self-publishing has taken off as well (mostly thanks to Amazon), there’s a lot of development in the self-publishing services area.

One thing that happened under my watch was the switch from focussing on XML to focusing on HTML. This might seem a little obvious or mundane, but it actually opened a lot of doors when it comes to automation.

One thing that happened under my watch was the switch from focusing on XML to focusing on HTML. This might seem a little obvious or mundane, but it actually opened a lot of doors when it comes to automation. There’s this “white whale” in the publishing industry called “single source publishing”, which is a term that has come to mean maintaining the book content in a single file, and then “pushing a button” so to speak and magically transforming that file into the finished ebook file, the laid-out print file, and whatever else you need (for example, some publishers are publishing to the web as well now). O’Reilly had actually been doing this exact thing for many years, by using a markup language called XML: the book content was converted into XML (generally from a Word file provided by the author), and then they had all these magic scripts that could take that XML file and turn it into an EPUB, a MOBI, and a laid-out and designed PDF, without any major human intervention. Obviously the cost and time savings of using this kind of magic tool are huge, but the technology was slightly out of reach for a lot of publishers. O’Reilly is very techy, so it made sense for them, but it was hard for a lot of the non-tech companies to adopt and implement that kind of tool in a way that would make sense for their staff.

It was actually CSS that changed everything, when the CSS working group released new handling for paged media. CSS is the formatting and design language for web content, and was literally made for HTML, and it is MUCH easier to write and maintain than the code that is used for formatting XML (called XSL-fo). So, my manager and I did some brainstorming and thought, “why don’t we try out this new CSS stuff in our print books, and while we’re at it, why don’t we try out converting our files to HTML instead of XML?” And it worked!

I’ve spoken and written about this a bunch but it still gets me excited. (I got into this a little bit in my blog post for Book Net Canada, and it’ll come up again at my session at the ebookcraft conference, and I’m doing a whole talk devoted just to this subject at PePCon in May.) Using HTML for book content lets you take advantage of all the amazing developments that are happening for web content right now. In fact, O’Reilly even took a stab at building around their HTML content to create a whole new app for their authors to write their manuscripts in, and I got to be part of that team. There are still some problems to solve, and right now there are a lot of people trying to figure out how to implement this kind of thing and take advantage of using HTML and CSS for publishing, and I’m really excited to see where things go.

SS: Amazing. It sounds like a lot of your knowledge base was self taught and initiated. Do you think this is one of the reasons why you are able to deconstruct technical details so well for others?

I guess ultimately it comes down to story-telling, and guiding people to the answer instead of just rubbing their faces in it.

Process for Teaching

NM: Well, it’s not something I ever really thought about, but yeah, that seems pretty likely! Since I did a lot of stumbling around in the dark and A LOT of googling, I knew the kinds of questions I was asking, and I figure a lot of other people are probably asking those same kinds of questions. I guess I’m constantly taking note of my thought process while I’m trying to solve some particular problem, and then the documentation/articles/whatever that I write up follow that same thought process: what is the problem to solve? what are the stumbling blocks? what’s the logical progression to the answer? I guess ultimately it comes down to story-telling, and guiding people to the answer instead of just rubbing their faces in it.

But I also have a lot of trouble being assertive about “knowing” things. I guess it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome, but I also know that there a million different ways to do a certain thing, so the real value for me is in figuring out how to find your way. As Socrates said, “all that I know is that I do not know.”

But I also have a lot of trouble being assertive about “knowing” things. I guess it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome, but I also know that there a million different ways to do a certain thing, so the real value for me is in figuring out how to find your way. As Socrates said, “all that I know is that I do not know.”

SS: I really appreciate you taking the time to explain your thought process with us. It’s super you are sharing your enthusiasm for ebook publishing at the Techforum conference in Canada. I noticed they’ve taken a 50/50 pledge to have an equal number of male to female speakers. As a female pioneer in the ebook industry, what insights have you learned?

I’ve definitely experienced a lot of the classic symptoms of sexism or implicit bias, but I think my natural tenacity when it comes to problem solving helps to propel me forward and ignore the obstacles that are around me. I’m not saying that’s any kind of solution to systemic problems, it’s just how I’ve managed to handle it for myself

On Being a Woman in the E-pub Industry

NM: Yes I absolutely LOVE seeing such a diverse group of speakers! I’ve spoken at and attended a number of tech conferences in the past, where women are a minority both on the stage and in the audience, which has honestly been pretty intimidating — I have to fight both my normal imposter syndrome AND this feeling that I’m being judged a little more critically, or maybe on different criteria, because I’m a woman. My career kind of straddles this divide, where I’m in tech on one side, but still in publishing on the other; there are actually a lot of women in publishing, but as you climb higher up in the ranks, the number of women starts to thin out. I’ve definitely experienced a lot of the classic symptoms of sexism or implicit bias, but I think my natural tenacity when it comes to problem solving helps to propel me forward and ignore the obstacles that are around me. I’m not saying that’s any kind of solution to systemic problems, it’s just how I’ve managed to handle it for myself. But that implicit bias is everywhere — there’s been a lot of great writing about it recently. I mean, we’ve all read the Susan Fowler story at this point, but here’s a post I really liked that talked specifically about the expectations for women in publishing: https://www.buzzfeed.com/emilygould/most-women-in-publishing-dont-have-the-luxury-of-being-unlik?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=f54a29e393-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_01_09&utm_medium=email&utm_term=.qqXD9BNyqX#.mt67ArVOWy

And here’s another article I liked about how one company tackled the problem of bias: https://backchannel.com/how-meetup-ditched-its-boys-club-4a3a3084e72f#.sawug9yrw

It’s hard for me to say what differences I’ve brought to the ebook world, as a woman. I’m not sure if I’m capable of that kind of analysis!

SS: I appreciate your thoughtful response and thank you for those helpful links. Switching gears, in the US, are ebooks and print books equally popular? Do you ever think ebooks will overtake the printed form?

But when it comes to major commercial publishing, print is still at the top, which actually makes a major difference in how I approach my job and the projects I prioritize. In fact my current project is figuring out how to streamline our print design process.

Print Versus E-book

NM: Well, let me preface this by saying that I leave a lot the tracking of this sort of thing to my bosses. But, that said, what we’ve actually seen is that in trade publishing at least, print is still far more popular than ebooks. Ebook popularity was on the rise for a while, and then evened out with a relatively small percentage of market share compared to print. I don’t think the numbers I’ve seen take into account all the long-form reading that people are doing on the web these days, and might be overlooking a few other unwatched digital markets as well. But when it comes to major commercial publishing, print is still at the top, which actually makes a major difference in how I approach my job and the projects I prioritize. In fact my current project is figuring out how to streamline our print design process.

That’s a whole aspect of the reading experience that ebooks are missing. I think that physicality helps to ground us in the experience, and keep our focus. Maybe that gap can be bridged by augmented reality or VR, which is something I’ve been talking with some developer friends about and am really excited about; or maybe there’s a way to improve on the existing ebook formats (or even the web) and build something that demands that same kind of focus that you need for long-form reading.
Nellie and her cat recreate famed scene from Titanic

But I’m always thinking about setting us up for whatever the future has in store, and I’m honestly not sure if ebooks will ever overtake print, or if some new format or way of reading books will be developed and take over the market. I do most of my reading digitally, because the truth is I do most of my reading on the train, and I’m terrible at remembering to pack books, so I just have them all on my phone. But I recognize that the digital reading experience is missing something. There’s something about the permanence and physical space that a print book occupies — the physicality of it absorbs our senses: seeing the words, smelling and feeling the paper. That’s a whole aspect of the reading experience that ebooks are missing. I think that physicality helps to ground us in the experience, and keep our focus. Maybe that gap can be bridged by augmented reality or VR, which is something I’ve been talking with some developer friends about and am really excited about; or maybe there’s a way to improve on the existing ebook formats (or even the web) and build something that demands that same kind of focus that you need for long-form reading.

SS: It’s really interesting to hear your thoughts on the future of e-publishing. Currently, what do you enjoy most about working in the epub industry? The least?

Highlights and Challenges

NM: I think my favorite part is just how much there is still to do, and how quickly everything is changing. I love solving problems and having adventures, and pretty much every day is an adventure when it comes to publishing technology.

I found myself getting stuck as the “CSS for print” expert, and I was even going to write a book about it for O’Reilly, but I saw all these other things happening that I wanted to learn about, and I felt like making myself the expert in this one topic was holding me back and making me feel really stagnant, so I let it go.

But because things are still developing and changing, a lot of people are desperate for experts in all the different aspects of ebook creation and publishing technology in general, and actually my least favorite thing is getting pigeon-holed with one topic. This is totally selfish and for some people would be a dream, but it just isn’t who I am. For example, for a while I found myself getting stuck as the “CSS for print” expert, and I was even going to write a book about it for O’Reilly, but I saw all these other things happening that I wanted to learn about, and I felt like making myself the expert in this one topic was holding me back and making me feel really stagnant, so I let it go. The result of course is that if I’m always moving forward, I might never really achieve true expert status in anything, and someday I might decide that I need to stop, but right now I’m pretty happy.

SS: Do you think ebooks are the answer to the democratization of the publishing industry?

The magic formula is going to be finding a way to harness the tools that authors are using to write, to turn that into the formats that people like to read, and I don’t think anyone has really found the perfect solution to that yet.

Can E-books Democratize the Publishing Industry?

NM: That’s an interesting question. I think ebooks provide a convenient and approachable technological answer for many people who want to write books and skip the bottleneck of traditional publishing companies. But as I noted, when it comes to traditional publishing, print is still very much a player. The thing is that a lot of the processes that are currently built to produce ebooks in an automated way can also be adapted to produce print PDF files, using that “single-source workflow” that I talked about earlier. The magic formula is going to be finding a way to harness the tools that authors are using to write, to turn that into the formats that people like to read, and I don’t think anyone has really found the perfect solution to that yet. Design is a major factor, and in fact publishers put a lot of work and expertise into designing both print and ebooks, and that might be a barrier for some aspiring authors. But I think technology is the answer, and I think the technology to solve these problems exists today and it’s a lot of the same technology behind ebook publishing, it’s just that the perfect formula hasn’t quite been figured out. People are mysterious, and when it comes to books, you have to take into account all the different people and the relationships they have to the book: how people write, how people read, how books are sold, how people choose which books to buy. There’s so many questions, and I’ve spent most of my career asking them over and over, and I’m really excited to see what the answer ends up being!

SS: Well, thanks so much for answering all of our questions and for being here for TypeThursday. It was such a pleasure speaking with you.


Want to learn more about Nellie McKesson? Click here or follow her on twitter @NellieMcKesson or Medium Nellie McKesson

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