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Accessible EPUB 3 by Matt Garrish

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Chapter 1. Introduction

If you’re expecting a run-of-the-mill best practices manual, be aware that there’s an ulterior message that will be running through this one. While the primary goal is certainly to give you the information you need to create accessible EPUB 3 publications, it also seeks to address the question of why you need to pay attention to the quality of your data, and how accessible data and general good data practices are more tightly entwined than you might think.

Accessibility is not a feel-good consideration that can be deferred to republishers to fill in for you as you focus on print and quick-and-dirty ebooks, but a content imperative vital to your survival in the digital future, as I’ll take the odd detour from the planned route to point out. Your data matters, not just its presentation, and the more you see the value in it the more sense it will make to build in accessibility from the ground up.

It’s a common misconception, for example, that any kind of data is accessible data, and that assistive technologies like screen readers work magic and absolve you of paying attention to what’s going on “under the hood,” so to speak. Getting the message out early that this is not the case is essential to making EPUB more than just a minimally accessible format and preventing past mistakes from being perpetuated.

It’s unfortunately too easy when moving from a visual medium like print to treat digital content as nothing more than yet another display medium, however. The simple path is to graft what you know onto what you don’t. But it’s that thinking that perpetuates the inaccessibility of content. Everything starts with the source. All the bells and whistles your reading system can do for you to assist in rendering and playback ultimately rely on the value of the content underneath and the ability to make sense of it.

Treat your data as a second-class citizen and eventually you’ll be recognized as a second-class publisher.

But try and turn your brain off to the word accessibility as you read this guide and focus instead on the need to create rich, flexible, and versatile content that can make the reading experience better for everyone.

Inaccessible content typically means you’re settling for the least value you can get, so get ready to think bigger.

The Digital Famine

Before getting into the best practices themselves, there are two subjects that it would be a lapse for me to not talk about first. The digital famine is the first, as it will hopefully give you some real-world perspective on why accessibility matters.

You’re probably wondering what the famine is, since there are some impressive statistics emerging to show that the ebook revolution isn’t slowing down any time soon. Unfortunately, the numbers aren’t where it matters most yet if you believe in universal access to information. Sales are rising exponentially year over year, but the number of accessible ebooks available at the source is still small.

A commonly cited statistic in accessibility circles is that only about 5 percent of the books produced in any year are ever made available in an accessible format. Although there are signs that this rate is beginning to tick upward with more ebooks being produced, the overall percentage of books that become available in accessible formats still remains abysmally small. Fiction bestsellers are a bright spot, as they’ve been the first to receive the digital treatment, but there’s more to reading than just fiction.

Picture yourself in the situation where you’ll only ever have a spattering of books at your fingertips in any given subject area, and probably none in the more niche topics you delve into. It’s not a matter of finding another bookstore or reading application; those books just aren’t coming and there’s nothing you can do to change it. This dearth of content is what people refer to as the digital famine.

Not a pleasant thought, and it’s a reality that many people are forced to live right now; it’s only imaginary if you’re fortunate not to be affected. The ebook revolution holds out the promise of improvement, as mainstream publishing finds itself suddenly charting the same path as accessible producers, but there are still a number of factors that will contribute to this paltry number for some time to come, including:

  • New workflows haven’t yet emerged to facilitate the transition. Mass retail ebook production and consumption took many people by surprise, the author included, after earlier failed attempts. Tools and production systems are not optimized for high-quality multi-stream output production, making internal conversion of print to digital costly.

  • Accessible ebooks can become inaccessible after ingestion into a distribution channel, whether via reformatting to less feature-rich formats or for feature-reduced reading.

  • The inaccessibility of online bookstores themselves can hinder the ability to obtain ebooks.

  • Libraries for the blind and other republishers don’t have the resources to completely re-engineer the print-only books still being produced. And this model is a failing one for the long-term ideal of full content accessibility.

But, while depressing in the short term, none of these issues are insurmountable, and none are antithetical to producing good content. It’s only to say that there are interesting times ahead, and to reinforce that there remains much still to be done. The existence of EPUB 3 alone does not cure this famine.

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