Accessible eBooks, intentional workflow

Digital content is increasingly coming under fire for its accessibility – or lack thereof. However, legislation in the United States, together with legislative developments in Europe, means that digital content must be usable by all people, including those with disabilities. So, time for a rethink.

Businesses – in particular, publishers – are looking for ways to safeguard their compliance and avoid the legal ramifications that will follow if they’re not compliant. This post will examine some of the financial and operational aspects of implementing accessible digital content.

With the volume of eBook production increasing year on year, it’s important that publishers take note of their legislative obligations. The numbers speak for themselves; in an article in The New Publisher Standard, Editor-in-Chief Mark Williams claimed that the eBook market share by revenue could be as much as 28% of all books sold in the US alone (Williams, 2021). According to Bowker, the official ISBN agency for the US, over 1.6 million print books were published in the US alone in 2019.

Currently, publishers release books in various digital formats, such as InDesign, PDF and EPUB. Converting already published eBooks to fully accessible formats can be challenging, requiring time and effort that can end up being costly. There is a solution, however.

Revenue is important, and there are real and tangible financial benefits to making content accessible. However, the ethical and social commitment to ensuring content can be accessed by all should not be overlooked. This is what underpins this shift towards increasingly stringent legislation in the accessibility sphere.

So, what should, and what can publishers do to make their content accessible? And how can they achieve this in the most cost-effective way? Simply put, they should start by focusing on new publications/titles and then move on to their backlist publications/titles.

New publications/titles (born accessible)

Making digital content accessible from the outset is by far the preferred approach. Effectively, publishers are future-proofing content – and this is more cost-effective too. In essence, accessibility is made a priority from the outset – from the point at which the author is commissioned to the design, development and then the testing of content to ensure it meets accessibility standards.

This, we call an ‘intentional workflow’ and it typically involves the following three steps:

Step one:

Businesses should consider amending their contract with authors to ensure that manuscripts include alternative text for images. Authors are subject-matter-experts of commissioned titles; they clear the image rights, and they know the purpose of the image and are therefore best placed to provide the alternative text for it.

Step two:

Know your audience, as they say. And by this, I mean, identify your reader, understand their accessibility requirements and be clear on what standards and guidelines apply. In addition, test the product throughout the development process to ensure that it meets accessibility requirements.

Step three:

Select a vendor with experience and/or certification in providing accessibility services. A business that engages their people in accessibility, helping them to see the benefits and value of it, will see them champion it. That way, accessibility will more likely run through the heart of the business.

In summary, a digital product can be designed and developed to be inclusive from the start. This approach is more likely to result in a better user experience for all, including those with disabilities. But not only that, it’s cost effective as one product can then be used by everyone.

Backlist titles

Backlist conversion is the most challenging for any business. These titles will have already been published and will most likely be available in multiple formats. These titles might lack alternative text for images, or  may be standard EPUB and not fully accessible. In this instance, publishers should consider different steps to comply with accessibility regulations. I recommend the following four-step workflow – named “Backlist workflow.”

Step one:

Identify and categorise the titles as follows:

  • Important and popular to reader
  • Most sellable
  • Fewest images
  • In epub format

These titles could be the starting point for a business to convert them to an accessible format.

Step two:

Develop a plan that sees titles being converted based on their priority. Subject-matter-experts may be required to write alternative text/image descriptions or perhaps titles in image formats that require extra care before converting to a fully accessible format.

Step three:

Set aside a team that leads solely on process management while another team is tasked with quality assurance. This can be achieved by recruiting experts in accessibility or by training existing teams on the regulations and how to achieve compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Step four:

The digital publication should be tested to ensure that any accessibility issues have been resolved and that the product is accessible to users with disabilities. Involve people with disabilities in the testing process – get their feedback on the accessibility and usability of your digital content. This can help identify issues that may have been missed during the remediation process or identify factors that are not necessarily covered by standards but, importantly, improve the user experience considerably for people with disabilities.

In conclusion, accessibility is an ongoing process and should be incorporated into a business’s day-to-day workflow. This can be achieved through staff training as well as regularly testing and updating content. Putting accessibility at the heart of any business and making it integral to workflows will help to ensure that the content that’s created is inclusive and accessible to all. Not only will this help to ensure legal and regulatory compliance, but it should improve the overall user experience and ultimately have a positive impact on business credibility and growth.

Maverick’s Accessibility Program helps publishers comply with legal requirements while creating opportunities for greater discoverability and usability for all readers in the process. Contact your Maverick representative or for a free consultation.

By Will Awad

Will Awad is an experienced publishing professional with a background in the academic publishing information technology and publishing services industries, and a W3C member. He has advised on digital accessibility compliance per W3C/WCAG guidelines – and overseen access audits and remediation of digital documents (i.e., EPUBs and PDFs) ensuring they meet the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as the European Accessibility Act (EAA). Will also holds a master’s degree focused on international law.

Further Reading

Maverick Accessibility Program service sheet

Planning for the Future with Maverick’s Sustainability Program