When e-books first became wildly popular in 2007, thanks to Amazon’s release of the Kindle, physical books were considered to be a format whose days were numbered. Fast forward to the present day, that death knell sounded for print books was premature. According to a report by the NPD Group, e-books accounted for approximately one of every six books sold in the U.S. for the 12 months ending in June 2021.

The e-book format has opened up the opportunity to reach more readers, creating inclusivity for those who have been previously challenged in engaging with physical books. E-books have many devoted users and their relative cost-effectiveness to produce and distribute is an important component of every publisher’s growth strategy for the foreseeable future.

As newer generations of reading devices were developed and released, they began incorporating more useful features that promised greater levels of accessibility. What soon became apparent though, was that while the devices are able to support a variety of functional capabilities, not all EPUBs are being created in a manner that makes them truly accessible for all users.

There are several important aspects that publishers and content creators need to consider to improve the accessibility of their EPUB content. These guiding principles are applicable to a number of scenarios that publishers will encounter within their lists, including converting older backlist titles into EPUBs for the first time, adapting an earlier EPUB edition to align with current specification standards as well as creating EPUB content as part of a frontlist release.

When creating new digital products, you may find it useful to take an accessibility first (“born accessible”) approach. Basically, this means that you are developing your product with accessibility design and elements first vs. identifying how to make it accessible later. This will help to ensure that the project files are ingested and formatted in a way that integrates accessibility requirements into the creation process and minimizes the possibility of schedule and budget creep in the later stages of the project.

While accessible design serves all readers by empowering the user to consume your content in the way they choose, it is imperative to those with disabilities that the design meets the required standards for your product in order for it to be marketed as “accessible”.

In the U.S., federal agencies have to comply with Section 508. Then there are WCAG compliance standards for HTML-based content, DAISY EPUB accessibility guidelines, and W3C standards that are in the process of being developed, to name a few. This is where things can get somewhat complicated for the publisher. The good news here is that there are resources available to help, from design to editorial to production, to support your teams and workflows.

Structure plays a key role in the development of an accessible digital product and here is a brief outline on a few key aspects of structure and other items:

Metadata and tags: Structured metadata and tags help with discoverability in addition to making it easier for readers to navigate around your content. Take into consideration hierarchies (headings, chapters, sections, pages, etc.) so assistive technologies can help the user navigate better.

Platforms: Does your content need to be compatible with screen readers, text-to-speech programs or other reading applications, providing users the ability to adjust fonts, spacing, colors, and the speed of speech? If so, make sure your vendor is aware of which programs or platforms you intend to distribute your finished files to.

Images: While captions are typically part of the creation process, for digital accessibility, image descriptions – i.e., alt-text writing – require a specialized skill. Good alt-text writing takes into consideration several factors of how that illustration or image fits into the body of the text, and whether any text or long text best fits into that page or section. If you don’t have an available resource to craft your alt-text, check with your digital conversion partner. They will likely have the skillset to assist you.

Tables, charts and math equations: You need to think about properly structuring tables and presenting charts and equations in formats that the assistive technology can use to guide the reader logically through the displays.

Font styles and colors: Just as these are important considerations within a printed book, so too for an EPUB, since many users will want to control the size and style of the print on their device. The most common practice, therefore, is to keep your fonts simple and avoid embedding them.

There are several other factors that go into the audit and production of an accessible digital e-book, but those are some key design aspects that if considered early in the production process will more likely help you deliver a high-quality product that will serve all audiences.

Accessible digital products can open up new avenues of engagement and allow more readers to discover your valuable backlist content, including publications that are perennially strong performers such as cookbooks and other lifestyle categories that work very well for users when adapted to the electronic medium. E-books are also an excellent vehicle for capturing readers who are seeking a particular title or book series that has been adapted into a hit movie or a viral streaming sensation or for topics that quickly become top of mind due to current events.

While there are critical and sometimes complex components to creating an accessible digital product, there are resources available to publishers to help expand their digital catalog, deliver products that meet required standards and provide a quality experience for the user.

Westchester Publishing Services, which is a Benetech Global Certified Accessible partner, has the training and capability to apply the most current specifications to your digital products. We will work with you to fully understand the various ways your customers engage with your materials and address all of your concerns before beginning the project. Through this collaborative approach, we provide publishers and consumers with print products and EPUBs that offer a great value and a pleasurable user experience.

Deb Taylor, director of business development at Westchester Publishing Services


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