Producing Accessible Ebooks
I am writing today as an advocate for greater attention to accessibility in the production of ebooks. I am aware that the level of attention and care that ebooks generally get can be described as, well, passing. Inside of many publishers, ebooks are tolerated at best. They are a slightly neglected sibling to print books. And I know that thinking about the needs of an ebook during the production process is slightly miraculous.
But I want to run right past that, and assume that all publishers feel as enthusiastic about digital publishing as this nerd does. I think about the ebook reading experience all the time. Sometimes I want to follow my ebooks home to make sure that people are using their devices effectively, that they aren’t swamped by reading systems overrides, and confused by eink touch zones. Do you think people would be alarmed if I popped up from behind their sofa to encourage them to change the typeface?
What I really want is to encourage publishers to think about their ebooks a little differently, to think about them as a democratic tool to reach and even broader, more diverse audience. In what I hope is a more didactic than scornful voice, I want to tell you about the needs of the print-disabled audience and how to reach more readers.
It strikes me that we are at a sort of precipice in digital publishing – thinking through how to communicate broadly, how to make those words beautiful and effective, but also to fulfill their Gutenberg-like democratic promise.
It strikes me that we are at a sort of precipice in digital publishing – thinking through how to communicate broadly, how to make those words beautiful and effective, but also to fulfill their Gutenberg-like democratic promise. When the printing press revolutionized 16-th century communication, it changed everything. Reading and communicating became more feasible, possible, and egalitarian.
We are on the cusp of that kind of shift again and accessibility is the key to fulfilling that promise: thinking about where we deploy our content, with which tools or restrictions, and also making certain that the content we touch is legible to as broad a cross-section of the reading public as possible
I work in trade publishing (mostly) – commercial and literary fiction and non-fiction. If you care about the reading experience, then you know that you can’t dictate the idiosyncratic nature of how people read. I absolutely want my content to be beautiful and I spend a fair bit of time thinking that through. But part of the beauty of any given book is that it can adapt itself to individualized reading environments.
My vision for the next few years of digital publishing is that all sorts of content producers start to think about accessibility – how to build it in as early as possible in the publishing process, to think about how their content will function with assistive technology, how to break accessibility out of government publishing silos.
There are things you can do now to make publishing to the print disabled audience easier. There are ways to think about your content that will make more it more accessible right now, and more deeply accessible in one, two, and three years.
Fifteen percent of the world’s population uses assistive technology because of a disability. 85% of the non-disabled market has a situational disability. There are more people with print disabilities globally then print sales for the Twilight and Harry Potter series’ combined. (from The BISG Quick Start Guide to Accessible Publishing)
Let’s break this down. A print disability can be any of a number of things: blindness or low-vision, dyslexia, mobility impairments, and attention issues. Or it can be a situational disability, like using read-aloud when you need to be hands free.
- 60% of Americans are likely or very likely to benefit from accessible tech in their work (Accessiblepractice.org)
- There is an accessible Digital Famine: 5% of ebooks in any given year are accessible. (from Matt Garish’s Accessible EPUB 3)
- 1 in 8 struggle to read conventional print
- According to the Italian Blind Association, blind people buy more books where they are accessible to them.
And there are many, many people who don’t report as print disabled who use assistive tech – everything from closed captioning on TV, to increasing the font size on their ereader.
From my perspective, the business case is very clear. Building born accessible ebooks reaches a relatively untapped market. In addition, many institutions are giving accessible content purchasing preference.
There is a famous (infamous) Ray Bradbury quote that goes, “There is no future for ebooks because they are not books. E-books smell like burned fuel.” I am well aware of the smell-of-print fetishists and please believe me when I tell you that I love print books. My house is filled to the brim with them. But this common disdain for the ebook reading experience says more about the speaker’s unexamined privilege than it does about ebooks.
The affordance of ebooks is not just their convenience but their agility. Ebooks can do more for more people.
The affordance of ebooks is not just their convenience but their agility. And this is what I would love to shift the print-vs-digital conversation toward. Ebooks can do more for more people. Sure you can pack a library onto your Kobo to travel in South America, but you can also use text-to-speech technology to have your novel or history book or science textbook read aloud instead of having zero access to that content.
I have come to really dislike the word agile, but it is relevant here. As the very smart Matt Garish says in Accessible EPUB 3, inaccessible content, or content that is sloppily built generally means you are settling for the least value you can get. Accessible content creates value in that content that is more usable is more valuable. The feature that is required for a person with a print disability to consume your content, is a value-added feature for another non-disabled reader.
Also, tech innovation comes at you fast. Content that meets accessibility standards, even low benchmarks, is ready for the next device, the format of the next screen — that is, it will be compatible with the next great unknown product innovation. Tie that to the fact that producing special versions of a book is expensive and cumbersome, creating digital content without accessibility in mind, well, it just doesn’t make sense.
Convinced? Great. Let’s talk about how.
Create an in-house team or person who is your on-site accessibilty chief. Medium and large companies always find a body to be their emergency or floor fire chief; consider thinking about a11y in the same way. It’s a thing you have to do. Eventually that person can break your various departments out of their silos, merge diverse workflows, and bring accessibility concerns to every meeting – acquisitions, editorial, production, etc.
Some thoughts for this job:
- Create and document some in-house policies
- Do some in-house publicity on accessibility issues
- Make sure that the entire publishing chain is on the same page
- Talk up your company’s new accessibility policies to vendors, clients, partners, and customers.
Evangelizing in-house will likely be the biggest part of this job. Getting all the production freelancers to work the same way is kind of a big task. Asking editors to think about image descriptions from the early editorial phase is giving another task to an already over-burdened employee. Finding money in the budget to buy some assistive technology is asking for water from a stone.
But being able to produce one ebook for all the vendors because of streamlined workflows is going to make production cheaper. And adding accessibility offerings to your marketing materials will be satisfying. Telling authors about your company’s accessibility commitment will puff you up. I promise.
The Nitty Gritty
One of the best things you can do for your content is MAKE IT LEGIBLE TO MACHINES. The gobbledy-gook that InDesign spits out, for example, needs to be fixed up. InDesign creates generic, meaningless HTML – <div> and <span> soup, I like to call it. This particular tool – while democratic in that everyone likely already has it and is using it – needs a lot of nudging to export cleanly coded ebooks. I would go so far as to say that the ID export needs a lot of heavy lifting to turn it into a well-built ebook.
So, what does that mean? STRUCTURE AND SEMANTICS. “Structure is the elements you use to craft your EPUB content, and semantics is the additional meaning you can layer on top of those structures to better indicate what they represent.” Another great quote from Matt Garish.
In the place of generic markup, add in MORE SPECIFIC HTML5 TAGS: h1-h5, figure, figcaption, section and aside. P class=”h1” is utterly meaningless to reading systems. Be cautious to use emphasis and strong tags meaningfully. The semantically meaningful tags means that content that is skippable or outside the linear flow of a books is marked as such, that because sections and subsections are marked it will be easy to locate oneself in the ebook no matter what technology or RS the reader is using.
Also, USE epub:type SEMANTICS. Think of them as the bones of the document, the outline of the elements which are common to print books highlighted for digital. This is called semantic inflection and means that reading systems can interpret the markup competently. Semantically meaningless markup ruins the reading experience, if not makes it downright impossible.
Build a full and RICH NAVIGATION. Make it go five heading levels deep. More than two levels will be invisible to most reading systems but will be available in some environments and to assistive technology. While you are building a deep navigation compile a list of figure, maps, illustrations, images, etc. Don’t be shy. Build a print-equivalent page-list, marking all the print page breaks for an even more meaningful navigation. EPUB 3 is all about being able to navigate into the content in a variety of ways. Use it to full effect.
SEPARATE PRESENTATION FROM CONTENT. This one is hard, particularly for traditional print publishers. The print design works for print and only print. Be very cautious about bringing your paper thinking onto the screen. Typographic conventions had to convey meaning in print because print is one-dimensional. These conventions are still useful for sighted readers, but are now the wrong place to be carrying meaning. Visual-only cues – colour, font size, positioning – are lost to print-disabled readers. There are dark (and not so dark) corners of the ereading ecosystem where your CSS will get separated from your HTML. Presume it will happen to every single ebook you touch by making sure that meaning is derived from the markup not just the design.
DO NOT USE IMAGES IN PLACE OF TABLES OR TEXT. Doing so addressed the situational disability of not being able to view the entire table comfortably, by creating another disability – limited visual access to the content. “Give your readers credit to understand the limitations their devices impose, and give them the flexibility to find other ways to read.”
DEFINE THE LANGUAGE and language shifts. I have heard a snippet of French in the middle of English content get read aloud in a French accent by a text-to-speech reader. Technology is amazing!
DESCRIBE ALL IMAGES, including the cover and any logos or word art. Use alt text or more complex aria-described-by. Build thinking about alt text in the embryonic stage of editorial development. Image descriptions should come from someone editorially involved in the content.
BE CAUTIOUS OF SCRIPTING. If scripting is involved in advancing the content, be sure to provide fallbacks. Make sure there are visible and/or keyboard enacted controls.
USE ACCESSIBILITY METADATA. This one is complex and a bit above my pay grade. There are a number of schema.org conventions that you can use now to make your content more discoverable. Consider using this metadata free advertising for your ebooks. Also, see this post.
In Merilyn Simond’s recent, excellent book Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, she says:
Each of the paradigm shifts that pushed human communication forward has met with stiff resistance. Even the invention of writing. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, such resistance seems incomprehensible, almost ridiculous. What kind of knob would say no to the written word?
I would go even further and wonder aloud why wouldn’t you consider tweaking your workflows to make sure that the reach of your ebooks is fuller, that the long tail of your books’ sales reverberates more resoundingly.
Consider a more thoughtful approach to the accessibility of the ebooks you produce is a service to your writers, your readers, and your bottom line.