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So You Want to Work in Digital Publishing: Getting an Internship in eBook Production

It’s that time of year, when a couple dozen eager publishing students are released from Humber’s Creative Book Publishing program and begin hunting for an internship in the wilds of Toronto’s publishing industry. Digital publishing has become a more and more popular option as the traditional avenues of editorial and marketing positions become scarcer. Digital publishing, although it has stabilized in the past few years, is still a growing aspect of the publishing industry, and some of the more exciting changes in publishing are happening here. It seems pretty natural that keen young publishing students, with strong grasps on social media and technology, turn their prospecting eyes to the semi-uncharted waters of e-publishing. Maybe that’s just how I felt when I was a new graduate, as I felt that my publishing school education had sort of skimmed over some of the important aspects of digital publishing when I began looking for internships. What are the components of an epub? How do you QA an epub? What is metadata, really? Whatever brief lessons we had on making epubs (with Sigil lol) didn’t seem like it actually translated into helpful experience when I was job-hunting. I did, however, have experience with coding and eReading, and all sorts of other computer skills.

Via Kobo on Instagram
Via Kobo on Instagram

I landed an eBook Production internship at Random House, a Publisher Operations internship at Kobo, and later a full-time job wrangling ebooks and metadata. My knowledge skews heavily towards the retailer end of ebooks, but I also have some experience with the publisher side; I’ve worked with ebooks at every stage of their lifecycle, from conversion to epub to deactivating out-of-print titles. Now that I’ve been working with eBooks for over two years and have been on both sides of the interviewing table, I have some advice for breaking into eBooks. I’m going to avoid basic job application and interview advice, such as doing your research on the company and asking knowledgable questions, and stick to what you should know for ebooks in particular.

Excel

My number one piece of advice: Get some excel skills. Like, don’t just say you know how to use excel if you’ve opened up a spreadsheet once or twice. You don’t need to be an expert (I use it every day and I’m not!) but hands-on experience goes a long way. Learn how to use fomulas. Learn how to do a vlookup. Learn the glory of a pivot table. Filters are your friends. Chances are you’ll be working with spreadsheets with lots of data on a daily basis, so get comfortable with the features of Excel. If you had called me up when I was in university and told me I would have favourite Excel tools (Text to Columns and Compare, fyi) and never use Word documents in a professional setting, I probably would have thought you were crazy. As an employer looking for an intern, show me that you’ve got some solid excel experience and I will swoon.

eReading Experience

Needless to say, probably one of the most basic things you can do if you’re hoping to work with ebooks in publishing is to actually read ebooks. Ideally, if you have a specific retailer or publisher in mind, you should read their ebooks, and be familiar with their devices and apps. What kind of ebooks and devices/apps are they selling, and what sort of features do they have? What kind of features do you wish they had? If you come to an interview without having ever read an ebook, or mention that what you’re actually more interested in print books, or not know the difference between a Kindle and a Kobo, you are not proving yourself as a strong candidate.

Metadata

Metadata is great. It’s the core of ebooks and you can do a lot of cool stuff with it; more complete metadata pretty much means your book has a better chance in hard-to-browse ebookstores. I’ll let you in on a secret: no one likes working with it. ONIX is the industry standard and it’s the worst to look at, unless looking at rows of impenetrable, always-different, non-standard lines of code is really exciting to you. Pro tip: you’ll never have to build an ONIX feed from scratch, no matter what your publishing teacher tells you. You will have to crack open publishers’ ONIX feeds and poke around, though. Know what a composite is, what the difference between ONIX 2.1 and 3.0, and what sort of information is transmitted through metadata. Take a look on booksellers’ websites and see what kind of information they display for a book – there is a 99% chance that information came from the publisher’s metadata. Each ebook retailer also has a proprietary, non-standard Excel-based metadata sheet (see, I told you that excel knowledge would come in handy) that some publishers use in place of ONIX.  Editeur, BISG and Booknet all have good ONIX resources. In lieu of actual experience with metadata feeds, experience with coding (XML, CSS, and HTML are all good; mine was in HTML and TEI (lol)) can make up for it.

ePubs

This is the standard (non-Amazon) file type for ebooks. It’s supremely helpful to know what’s inside one (it’s basically just a bunch of HTML files, images and CSS zipped up), so I’d suggest buying one and cracking it open to take a look. There are different kinds of epubs: reflowable and fixed-layout, epub3, ebooks with “enhanced content” like audio and video; be aware of these different formats and if your prospective employer makes or sells them. I know a lot of publishing schools have their students build epubs from scratch but it’s highly unlikely you’ll have to do that in your internship, as most ebook production is outsourced to conversion houses. The most I ever had to do as an intern was unzip, make a minor change, and rezip, so make sure you know how to do that. Find yourself an epub validator that you like (my favourite is Pagina). It’s best to know what a standard reflowable ebook looks like on the inside, and how to make changes, but if you can figure out what’s wrong with a broken ebook, I will be impressed.

All this might sound like a tall order, especially if your digital publishing courses were less than spectacular. However, employers know that it’s hard to gain practical experience with such specialized files, so if you can show them that you’re ahead of everyone else by demonstrating interest and experience, and the ability to learn quickly, it can give you a real leg up. It’s also important to know that your employer will train – it’s an internship after all! Do you have any questions about getting an internship in ebooks and digital production?

reviews

Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House) is an uncanny psychological thriller that delves into the secretive world of underground filmmaker Stanislas Cordova to explore the relationship between the constructs of truth and fantasy.Pessl_Night-Film

Night Film follows discredited investigative journalist Scott McGrath as he attempts to discover why Ashely Cordova, the daughter of super genius, super reclusive, and super disturbing filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, has killed herself after mysteriously appearing to him. Aided by Nora and Hopper, two teenagers who also had contact with Ashley before her death, McGrath wades through an ever-twisting series of leads involving witchcraft, an escape from a mental asylum, Satanic rituals, matching tattoos, disappearing witnesses, a false priest, and rumours of child mistreatment. All clues seem to point back to the mysterious Cordova, who seems to be loosely based on Stanley Kubrick, and who haunts the novel through his absence, frequently slipping out of McGrath’s reach just as he nears the truth. Perhaps the most uncanny sequence in the novel when McGrath and crew infiltrate Cordova’s estate and seem to enter one of Cordova’s films. The consistently eerie scenarios (such as the disappearance of all interview subjects and evidence files overnight, or the mysterious black figurine that McGrath finds planted on all children connected with Ashley, including his own young daughter) and characters (the cryptic Cordova, the son with three missing fingers) keep the novel engaging and delightfully tense.

Example of Night Film's media
Example of Night Film’s media

One innovative aspect of Night Film is its media: mockup pages of online articles, websites, police reports, scraps of paper and photographs augment the text in a way that reminded me of Lemony Snicket’s Unauthorized Autobiography. Initially I was disappointed that the URLs on the webpage mockups didn’t lead anywhere when I typed them into my browser; perhaps, I thought, my transmedia expectations were too high after The Lizzie Bennet Diaries or Sherlock’s The Science of Deduction and John Watson blogs. However, I was happily surprised when I reached the end and discovered that there was a decoder app I could download to scan the bird symbols I’d noticed in some of the images (pleasingly, the app works on the ebook version too!). This revealed an extensive amount of extra content, more than I had been expecting: case reports from Ashley’s time at Briarwood, transcripts from court proceedings, recordings of Ashley’s music, even a syllabus for Beckman’s class on Cordova. Pessl’s YouTube channel also has “found footage” from Cordova’s films. I wish I had discovered this content before I finished the book, as it would have added even more depth to Scott McGrath’s investigation. As it is, all credit to Pessl and Random House for undertaking this transmedia project.

I had conflicted feelings about Pessl’s previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics: I really liked the first two-thirds, but hated the ending. So I approached Night Film with caution, afraid of getting burned again. But no fear! Night Film delivered a strong, strange story that kept me eagerly reading from start to finish.

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Longbourn and Pride & Prejudice

Longbourn (Random House of Canada) is a delightful revisiting of the Bennet household, examining social questions and historic conflicts in a different light than Pride and Prejudice.

The novel follows the Bennets’ below-stairs help, particularly the housemaid Sarah and her relationship with the new manservant James. Besides an interesting servant’s perspective of the Bennet family, other new characters and downstairs drama add colour to the classic novel.longbourn-cover-1

Longbourn is true to Pride and Prejudice and Baker’s attention to detail allows the reader to easily map the events of the novel to the original. I learned a lot about how housework was done in Regency England – I’m quite thankful laundry no longer involves handwashing everything in vats of boiled water and lye. Despite Baker’s obvious love for the novel, I’m not sure if I liked the histories she invents for some of the original characters, Mr. Bennet in particular; however, I accept that our headcanons are different. One addition I really enjoyed was the character of Ptolemy Bingley: the dynamic he brought helped broaden the scope of the novel beyond the Bennets’ kitchen, where I felt a lot of the action was (fairly or unfairly) centred.

Baker’s novel is a wonderful retelling of  Pride and Prejudice with a Downton Abbey twist. I enjoyed seeing the Bennets from the perspective of someone who might not hold them with the same kind of reverence as modern fans might (although it was a relief that Elizabeth and Jane, at least, passed the test). Longbourn captures what I love about Pride and Prejudice and creates a rich look at love, work, and ambition in a Regency-era household.

I was fortunate enough to win tickets to Jo Baker on Pride and Prejudice, thanks to Random House of Canada and Indigo Events. The event was wonderful; following a screening of Joe Wright’s 2005 film Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker and Eleanor Wachtel (host extraordinare of CBC’s Writers & Company and TIFF’s Books on Film series) discussed both Baker’s new novel Longbourn and the film adaptation.

It was not my first time seeing this version of Pride and Prejudice (far from it), but my first time seeing it in theatres. The film was beautiful as always. During the opening remarks, Baker said that what she enjoyed about Wright’s movie was that it was “grittier” than most period films since it showed the dirt and livestock that were a part of everyday life. She suggested that this time around that we pay attention to the servants in the background, and the handkerchief. Baker considers the scene which follows a housemaid – the equivalent of Sarah in her own Longbourn – singing softly to herself as she moves throughout the Bennet house a “beautiful moment.” It was wonderful to see the movie on the big screen; the audience lent a new energy to the film on my umpteenth viewing and reminded me how funny this version actually is (possibly my favourite audience member was the man who had clearly not seen the movie before and laughed loudly at the funny parts).

Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Jo Baker. Photo by Monique Mongeon
Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Jo Baker. Photo by Monique Mongeon

Following the film, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Jo Baker, with the conversation ranging from where Jo Baker’s interest in service came from (her grandmother was a housemaid), on what subject was her Ph.D thesis (Irish literature, particularly Elizabeth Bowen, who writes about the country house and social class in a manner not totally divorced from Austen), and whether Baker would consider adapting another Austen novel from the perspective of the servants (no). When Wachtel noted Baker’s apparent fondness for Mr. Collins, she said she could relate to his awkwardness: “We all have awkward moments, his is just lasting a lifetime.” Following the interview was a Q&A and a signing. It was wonderful to spend an evening in the company of so many people who love Pride and Prejudice.

You can watch Jo Baker talk about Longbourn here.