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Category: Coding and other skills

John Pettigrew

Get ready for the Day of Code 2019: interview with John Pettigrew

On Friday 22 November 2019, before this year’s Futurebook conference, 40 delegates from across the publishing industry will attend the very first Day of Code at Hachette HQ in London. There, under the guidance of a team of 15 coaches, they will work in teams to build their own websites, and discover the power of code in practice. In this interview, Day of Code coach John Pettigrew previews the event and explains why coding is important for today’s publishers.

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Anna Cunnane

What publishers need to know about git (distributed version control system)

Git is a free to use distributed version control software for tracking changes in software development. However, the benefits of using a fully-fledged version control system like git don’t just apply to writing software. Whether it’s a bug fix or a paperback edition both publishers and software developers are constantly shipping new products and revising older ones. This means that every day we perform similar sorts of tasks:

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digital publishing

EPUB 3.2 – What is it and should we care?

EPUB is the open standard that defines exactly what an ebook can be, and EPUB 3.2 – the first real update to the EPUB format since EPUB 3 in 2012 – has just been approved by the W3C Community Group and Business Group (the clever people that decide on such things).

If you are the sort of person who enjoys reading specification documentation then you can get up to speed with the full list of changes here. Otherwise, let me explain the main points of what has changed…

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Learn to Code

How to begin coding for free (or nearly free) in a few minutes each day

This is a guest post by Anna Cunnane. Anna is Systems and Data Manager at Abrams & Chronicle Books. Anna was winner of the Trailblazer Awards 2018, she is part of BookMachine Team Unplugged and was Chair of the Society of Young Publishers (2015-16).

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Learn to Code

What is blockchain and how can publishers benefit from it?

Anna Cunnane is Systems and Data Manager for Abrams & Chronicle Books where she specialises in metadata. She was a London Book Fair Trailblazer Award Winner in 2018 and is a member of BookMachine Team Unplugged. Anna is interested in publishing and technology and is currently learning javascript. Anna first had this published on the Geethik blog.

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future of publishing

“The future of publishing is in your hands” – coding for all [EVENT]

Abbie Headon runs Abbie Headon Publishing Services, and offers a range of skills including writing, editing and commissioning, alongside social media, website development and publishing management. She champions fresh approaches to solving the industry’s challenges and can be found mingling at most publishing events. Abbie’s also BookMachine’s Commissioning Editor and sits on the BookMachine Editorial Board

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Tech in Publishing

Content is still king: The first State of Media and Publishing in Digital meetup

Francesca Zunino Harper is a linguist, translator, and publishing professional. She worked in the British and international academia researching on comparative literatures,  translation, and women’s and environmental humanities for several years. She now works in the Humanities and Social Sciences area of publishing. You can follow her @ZuninoFrancesca.

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Sara O'Connor

Interview with Sara O’Connor [Full Stack Developer]

Sara O’Connor worked in children’s publishing for 13 years and is now a full-time web developer. Frustrated with the cost and creative limitations of outsourcing good digital ideas (check out this article), she decided to retrain as a programmer. She now works with Emma Barnes at Consonance (the new name for Bibliocloud), helping to build the software she wished she had when she worked in publishing. Sara will be joining our panel at BookMachine Unplugged 2018: Talking Tech.

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Interview with Janneke Niessen [angel investor, board member, mentor for startups]

Janneke Niessen is a serial entrepreneur, angel investor, board member and mentor for startups. She has started and sold 2 international tech companies and is currently working on her third: Berlage. She is co-initiator of InspiringFifty, an initiative that aims to increase diversity in tech by making female role models more visible. As part of the InspiringFifty initiative, Janneke has published Project Prep, a novel for young girls in conjunction with an award winning child book’s author. Jannekke will be joining our panel at BookMachine Unplugged 2018: Talking Tech.

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Do-it-yourself scanning: how we got into OCR and you can too

Nick Barreto works where books and technology intersect. He’s managed and built apps, is as an expert on ebook formats, metadata and workflows. He is committed to automating all the repetitive tasks to free up more time for the work that matters. Nick is one of Canelo’s co-founders and the Technology Director. @nickbarreto

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Making a groundbreaking animated and interactive children’s storybook

This article is by Ken Jones of Circular Software. Ken is running the Understanding eBooks day on 25th April 2018.

I’ve been involved in making beautiful and interactive fixed layout ebooks since before there was a standard for such things. But trust me, this one is different… It is truly the finest example of interactive children’s story telling I have ever seen, it contains custom movies on every spread, background audio, professional narration and read aloud text highlighting, placed web code, personalisation, interactive animations and puzzles!

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Preserving our digital future

John Chelsom started the XML Summer School in 2000, and continues as a board member and lecturer at this annual event. Since 2010 he has been the lead architect of the open source cityEHR product – an XML-based electronic health records system which combines clinical data with medical knowledge bases and is currently used in a number of hospitals in England.

2016 saw the unearthing of the oldest written document yet found in the British Isles – on a wooden Roman tablet from about 50 AD. We put huge effort into creating the digital text published today, but how much of it will still be around to read 2000 years from now?

At the XML Summer School over ten years ago, someone asked our expert panel to give guidance on the best way to archive digital publications. The most creative answer, from Robin Cover (a renowned digital archivist!) was that we should carve our text on tablets of stone, marked up in XML. I can still remember laughing heartily at his suggestion, but now I’m beginning to think he was right.

Robin’s argument was that text alone is not good enough for representing the information we want to preserve – we also need some representation of structure and metadata. For that he proposed XML – its encoding is just plain text and given a sufficiently large sample, its logic can be decoded without having the original specifications. His proof was to go back to digital assets of the 1960’s – how many of us would have software available that could read documents created way back then? Well if those documents were marked up in GML, the Generalized Markup Language invented by Charles Goldfarb at IBM in 1969, we would find it could still be read by any software that handles XML, the Extensible Markup Language descended from GML. Such software is all around us and much of its is free, including any web browser or plain text editor. Try doing the same with a proprietary word processing, desktop publishing or typesetting format, where the original application ceased to exist even ten years ago.

As for the tablets of stone, if we found a 50-year-old GML file what are the chances we’d be able to read the media it was stored on? Preservation of our digital assets is dependent on the technology used to store it, and even in fifty years we have seen many technologies come and go; paper tape streamers, tape drives and floppy disk drives will no doubt be followed into the dustbin of technology by DVDs and USB sticks over the next fifty years. So in thousands of years time, when the electricity has been switched off and archaeologists are picking over the debris of our silicon age, its still more likely they will find the text written on stone, rather than tapes, disks or chips. You may think this sounds a little crazy, but the Memory of Mankind project in Austria is aiming to do exactly that – preserving contemporary human knowledge on stone, buried deep in a salt mine for future generations to find.

I sometimes tell people that publishing should be viewed as an investment in digital assets – the more value we can create in those assets and the more we can reuse them, the greater will be the return on our investment. Our most cherished digital assets deserve to be preserved for the future, if only to protect our investment in producing them. And though many of us won’t be ready just yet to carve our documents in stone, we should at least be thinking about the first step of representing those documents in XML.

Take a look at their website for more information on the XML Summer School and their events.

A day in the life of a programmer

Emma Barnes taught herself to code after founding her own independent publisher, Snowbooks. She went on to build Bibliocloud, the next-generation publishing system. Now she’s on a mission to promote tech skills within the publishing industry and beyond. Emma is also on the newly-formed BookMachine Editorial Board.

6.50am Wake up, wonder what day it is and remember – great! It’s the one day this week that I can dedicate to programming. I’m the MD of the indie publisher Snowbooks, and I’m CEO of Bibliocloud, responsible for sales, finance, and customer success, so each day is very different. But I reserve at least one day a week for slipping the needle in and luxuriating in single-minded programming. It so happens that it’s a Saturday, but that’s when the emails stop… context switching is my biggest foe.

8am First coffee, and a read through the opening chapters of the new Sandi Metz book about object-oriented programming in Ruby. It’s great when you find a book that directly addresses the real-world problems you’re facing. I click through to a podcast that she’s on to hear more.

11am Tests. Yesterday I discussed a piece of code that needs some attention with my colleague, Andy. The code is a method which returns a collection of external URLs that gets displayed in Bibliocloud. The URLs take you to a book’s Amazon.co.uk page, or Amazon.com page, or Wordery page, or British Library page, and so on — a handy and quick way to check what data is out there in the wild. The method doesn’t have automatic test coverage yet, so I’m going to start by documenting current behaviour. I do this using an integration test which mirrors what a user would do. We use Cucumber which gives us a common language between non-technical team members and programmers. I start by creating a new branch of the code based on our master branch, and create a Cucumber feature which literally reads “When I visit the ‘Autodrome’ page in Bibliocloud, and I click on the Amazon.com link, then I should be taken to the ‘Autodrome’ page on Amazon.com”. I then write some code to translate that into automatic test steps.

1pm The grand refactor. The Sandi Metz book has given me a couple more clues as to how this method could be improved, and I’m trying to hold all the concepts in my head so I can look at the problem squarely. Sandi Metz talks about finding the right level of abstraction, so I’m trying to think about which objects this problem is actually concerned with. Is it the validity of the ISBN that is key? Or the destinations themselves? Or the structure of the URLs? Some are built using the ISBN10, others with the ISBN13. Will there be a future case where the URL is built using an ISSN, or a DOI, or an ASIN, or an ISTC, or an ISNI, or an ORCiD iD? If a book belongs to a series, can we say that the book has an ISSN? If its authors have ORCiD IDs, can we use those to create external links for the book? What about linking to the client’s own website?

Or is this a case of YAGNI (‘you ain’t gonna need it’)? All this matters because I want to put the code in the right place, named properly, so that we can find, and change it easily, later. Maintainability, in a large, active system such as Bibliocloud, is probably the most important thing. I start by working with David to sketch out the problem (see the picture), then create a new Ruby class by adding a text file to my local code repository called external_links.rb.

Like the common language provided by Cucumber, the challenge so far has been approached not with code, but with language, reading, grammar, discussion, and story. I reflect — not for the first time — on how relevant publishers’ skills are for programming.

Emma Barnes
Practical Object Oriented Design in Ruby by Sandi Metz 978-0-321-72133-4

Emma Barnes
Sketching out the problem

2pm Lunch and back to the other Sandi Metz book I’m reading: Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby. There’s a good bit on page 93 where she talks about duck typing, which I wonder might be relevant. The idea about duck typing is that “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck”. So my ExternalLinks class doesn’t need to actually be handed an actual book object in order to build the URL. It only expects to be able to get an answer when it asks “what’s your ISBN?” (even if it’s “nope, I don’t have one”). I could similarly give ExternalLinks a display spinner, or a CD, or a cassette audiobook: just so long as it can say what its ISBN is. I’m going to use this idea to write ExternalLinks so that it’s not tightly coupled to the Book class itself – though I’m a bit worried that this is another case of YAGNI. I commit this code to my local branch, glad that I’ve named it “spike/external_url_refactor” so that I can discuss this approach with my colleagues before considering it for a merge into our production system.

3pm Iteration. I run the test that was passing earlier and it fails. Huh. I abandon the integration test and start unit testing at a deeper level of the code. I realise that there’s a requirement I hadn’t understood: some of the destinations are dependent on format, as well as ISBN type. Writing the tests illuminate some of the nuances of the domain and I jump between revising the tests and revising the code (avoiding doing both at the same time which is a recipe for misery).

4pm Leave to pick up my son, as I do every day of the week. Programming allows for flexible hours. It’s the sort of job that benefits from a bit of percolation, and fitting it around family makes me happy that I can experience life and motherhood as it happens, rather than only working hard for some imaginary future.

8pm Share today’s programming. Bedtime is done, and I look at the code again, but I think I’ve got as far as my brain will take me today, so I push the code to a branch on Bitbucket, our remote code repository, and raise a pull request with my colleagues. I’ll look forward to discussing this approach with them on Monday and seeing if they notice any glaring or subtle errors, and suggest better ways to structure the code. [Postscript from the future: on Monday, we found no errors as such, but we improved the test suite and I got a lot of clarity about separation of concerns from my code review with Andy.]

10pm Bit more of that Sandi Metz book. It really is very moreish.

Jessica Ballance

Coding for publishers: taster course

SYP member Jessica Ballance combines her work as a bookseller and manager of Daunt Books in North London with the role of associate editor at Dodo Ink, an independent publisher of daring and diverse literary fiction. In September she attended the first Coding for publishers: taster course – here is her review.

For a long time now, I have wanted to code. Like, seriously code. Yet I’ve been continually procrastinating or chickening out or never “finding the time”, as though time were that bit of loose change you find in the pocket of your winter coat when you dust it off again in mid-October. I am drawn to languages you never have to actually speak, and the structural logic minus the performance anxiety of actually speaking it are reasons why I studied Latin into University. Zero performance anxiety.

I have been wanting to attend classes, learn the whims of the different languages, manipulate data and write my own code and programmes and do all sorts of clever things that would make me a more flexible and diverse publisher, not to mention a better human. I looked around, admittedly exhaustively, and spoke to a few friends and friends of friends, and a quick bash of key terms into a search found a few groups on MeetUp, WomenWhoCode for example. I cannot big this group up enough – they host events in association and in the offices of Twitter, ASOS, Sky etc. and have built a community of such strength that their events book up ridiculously quickly and there are sizeable waiting lists of hopeful would-be attendees hoping that some early bird drops out last minute. But many of these women work in tech industries or use programmer languages and deal with data and other such analytics-y things (can you tell I don’t yet?) and glancing over the summaries for each event, as it pings into my inbox (you can opt in for email updates, don’t cha know), there is often a scary amount of jargon for my layman brain to handle.

I am probably hooked up and plugged in to the internet for more hours in a day than I would care to mention, lest any prospective employers are reading this, and through my work with independent publisher, DodoInk, I have had the privilege of working with the wonderfully savvy people at PigeonHole. I read the posts from FutureBook as they land in my inbox and my mind expands and broadens as I take in all the innovative and creative ways people are redefining what it means to be a publisher and how we share, access, and experience books. But like a puckered old balloon, after the excitable expansion, an inevitable deflation ultimately sets in.

If any of you reading this are getting sick of my overuse of the past pluperfect: NO LONGER. Emma Barnes has supplied me with the training wheels to make coding far less intimidating. In her intensive workshop we spent the afternoon getting to grips with four basic (ish) programming languages: HTML, CSS, Java and finally, and youngest of all, Ruby. The way Barnes evangelises about Ruby I think this may be her favourite of the bunch. Just a hunch.

I learnt the jist of when and where to use the different languages, and what they were responsible for in terms in the make-up of a finished, functioning, and hopefully stylish, webpage.

  1. HTML, or Hyper Text Markup Language if we’re being formal, is basically your bread and butter. From my limited understanding it seems to be the main structural element of the four, expressing the information you want on your page — and what’s a webpage with no information? Pretty useless, that’s what.
  2. Probably among the most fun and easiest to play around with was CSS which essentially controls the look of your page allowing you to customise and make it feel even more like your own. Tinkering with this you can alter the font, font colour and size, background colours, etc. Once you find a Hex code database your palette becomes pretty endless.
  3. Java script seems like the most complex of the bunch, and also the most dynamic, enabling your static pages to come to life with smoothly collapsing dropdown information and far more interactive movement elements. Java script also executes within the page as opposed to sending out a request.
  4. Finally: Ruby. To quote Barnes, Ruby is “like poetry”, beautiful and elegant and spare and an extremely coder-friendly language. It also allows you to dynamically find the information you want by utilising a wealth of open-source data resources such as APIs (or Application Programming Interfaces).

As we progressed we applied each stage of our new-found knowledge to build a functioning website, that would be able to mine GoogleBooks’ API data to create our own user-friendly search engine (not too dissimilar from Barnes’ own Bibliocloud). The project based ‘learning by doing’ suited me down to the ground and I didn’t quite realise how quickly I was accruing my new skills — though, don’t get me wrong, I still have a ways to go!

Barnes was backed by an immensely helpful team who were on hand to answer any question, no matter how silly, and help us spot the seemingly indiscoverable errors in our script within seconds of glancing at our screen. They are an impressive bunch, and hugely supportive. In fact, the whole day lacked the often parodied frustration of rage-bashed keyboards and technological tantrums, and was buoyed along by Barnes’ clear enthusiasm and passion for her work, finding joy in the possibilities that code offers, and giving us a glimpse of her curiosity-driven mind.

Barnes eyes would flit over passages of code that were, to me, largely unintelligible and exclaim: ‘oh now THAT’S cool’, or ‘Hmm, THAT’S interesting! I wonder what else I could make that do’. At the end of the day, thanks to Emma Barnes and her team, BookMachine, and FaberAcademy, I think we all left wondering a similar thing: That was cool. Now, I wonder what else I can do…

If you would like to take part in the next Coding for publishers course, sign up to the BookMachine mailing list and we will let you know when tickets are available.


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