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Print design and ebook development

9 Reasons Why We All Need Accessible Ebooks

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Following the shuttering of the Digital Book World blog, I'm reposting recent pieces about Accessibility. 

Books want to be read. They don’t care who reads them, or what skills or challenges readers have. The more people curl up with a paperback or a Kindle or a browser, the better for all books.

But not every book is readable by every potential consumer. This is true of books in every format: all kinds of print, audiobooks, and ebooks.

Accessibility lets us make one book for all users. Instead of having the print edition and the braille edition and the large print edition and the audiobook, we can include everyone in our audience with one format: the ebook.

In previous posts (links below) I’ve described the legal and business reasoning for making fully accessible ebooks, but that discussion doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. We want to be making books that can be read by anyone who wants to read them, wherever and however they want to read them.

By the way, a term that is often swapped in for accessibility is A11Y.  Where’d it come from? It’s an abbreviation of the word “accessibility.” The first letter in the word is A, it’s followed by 11 letters, and concludes with Y: A11Y.

Who Benefits from Accessible Ebooks?

A11Y-conforming EPUB3 ebooks open the door to many underserved populations, populations we are all part of. Here are nine of them.

  1. Blind readers are locked out of the print reading experience. That’s why an ebook reading device’s text-to-speech engine is such a boon. Well made ebooks go far in providing a quality experience.

  2. Another audience: those with poor eyesight. They don’t necessarily need to use text to speech, but they can do with some help with text legibility. Ebooks are fantastic alternative for these readers. Font choice and resizability, device orientation alternatives, white vs. sepia vs. night viewing,  all contribute to making content more seeable. There are best practices in accessible ebook-making that take advantage of how devices are used.

  3. The population is aging. Wherever you are, whoever you’re selling to, there are older people who could use some help with reading. Whether they utilize text to speech, large font sizes, or a combination, they can continue reading as much as they ever did. Well thought-out ebooks create a great opportunity to keep these readers engaged.

  4. Color-blind readers can be underserved in print as well as ebook editions. While using color to give editorial meaning in print can be problematic, it’s downright wrong in ebooks. For one thing, e-ink devices don’t display color. For another, telling color-blind readers that the red column in a table indicates stop while the green column means go makes the content all but useless. Again, A11Y-conforming ebooks that are well planned and executed avoid these problems.

  5. Dyslexic readers are helped by fonts designed with their needs in mind. For example, OpenDyslexic is a Kindle font that has been included in the software for a couple of years. Here’s a screenshot of a paragraph in OpenDyslexic on the Kindle App for Macintosh, with sepia background (from Eat Pray Eat, by Mona Wasfy; available on the Kindle store).

  6. Customers with motor skill impairments benefit from correctly structured ebook files. They use a keyboard or voice or eye commands to move through a book, and the success of that depends on well-made files.

  7. The deaf can benefit as well. Digital books that contain audio should have captions built in so all content is readily available. Video should be described as well. In short, there should always be a fallback way for every reader to access the content.

  8. People listening to a book with text-to-speech will not have visual cues that a new language has been introduced. Language shifts — when the dominant language is interrupted by a word or phrase in another language — should be tagged in the markup so a reading engine knows to access its dictionary, if one is installed.

  9. And then there are the treadmill readers: folks who listen to books while exercising or driving or cooking or holding a crying baby, for example. They switch between sighted reading and having content read to them depending on the situation they find themselves in (hence the term ‘situational reading’). Making an ebook accessible just provides another way for them to consume content.

Like Pedestrian Curb Cuts, Accessibility Is For All Of Us

A common analogy to fully accessible ebooks is the pedestrian curb cut. When I was in Toronto for ebookcraft this Spring, I walked a mile from the train station to my hotel, pulling my suitcase behind me. About halfway along I realized how easy it was to navigate downtown. Every corner had a very generous curb cut. I’m used to curb cuts, but at home in New York I’m aware of intersections without them, or with broken or what seem to be very small cuts. In my neighborhood, I sometimes see elderly people with their walkers in the street, because there was no cut available to get up on the sidewalk.

So with ebooks. When we make every ebook as accessible as possible, we ensure their usability for everyone who wants to read them, when they want to read them.

Make Friends With A11Y

I’ve mentioned well made ebooks, properly built ebooks, well thought-out ebooks. In my next posts I’ll look at what that means for the publishing team. Editors, designers, production editors, and authors already have the know-how; they just need to re-orient how they look at a book to make it A11Y-friendly.


BISG Quick Start Guide to Accessible Publishing

An informative recent epubsecrets A11Y post

EPUB3 Accessibility FAQs