Electric Book Works Publishing reinvented for the digital age

Accessible publishing is a journey, not a destination

‘Accessibility’ is a big field with fuzzy boundaries. Sometimes, it refers specifically to tech and design for print disabilities. I prefer a much broader definition. Accessible publishing is about spotting and reducing any barrier that makes it hard for someone to get the most from our books.

That work is never done, because we are all learning in a changing world.

What does inaccessibility look like?

We all know the frustration of using a badly designed website. Perhaps we can’t find what we’re looking for, or links are broken, or a background image makes text unreadable. This frustration is an everyday experience for people with disabilities. When websites, ebooks, and books are poorly designed, they can be difficult or impossible to use.

This can be true for anyone, whether you’ve broken your wrist and can’t use a mouse for a few weeks, or you’re permanently blind or dyslexic. We might have differences in eyesight, range of movement, physical size, or neurological status.

There are also broader, social reasons we might struggle with access: where we live, what our society prohibits, how much money we have, the languages we understand, the devices we’re using, or even our technical confidence.

How can book-makers possibly account for this dizzying array of challenges? We can’t fully, and that’s why accessibility is a journey and not a destination.

How we think about accessibility

When you’re getting to grips with accessibility, it can be overwhelming – so many standards, technical terms, and strong opinions! It is for us, and we’ve been doing this for years. It helps to remember:

  • you are already good at making sensible decisions
  • everyone is on this journey together.

Most accessibility decisions are just common sense. For example, anyone would struggle to read a novel set in six-point type, so you avoid that despite what you’d save in paper. Accessibility is a way of thinking, first and foremost.

Accessibility is a force that drives the creative process. It can’t be ‘on or off’, and it is not a separate to-do.

Accessibility is a force that drives the creative process. It can’t be ‘on or off’, and it is not a separate to-do.

Making your work more accessible is an integral part of being a better creator. The key to improving is learning and admiring how other people live and read. The more you learn, the more sensible your decisions become, even if you’re not aiming consciously for an ‘accessibility standard’.

Real-world problems to tackle first

Fortunately, there are some obvious starting points, like the official Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which you can use as an ongoing to-do list.

In our accessibility journey at EBW, these priorities come up often:

  • When working with content, we watch for phrasing, pedagogy and language levels that limit access or exclude people.
  • Our designs accommodate a range of human abilities, especially related to eyesight.
  • We make sure our digital content can be parsed by machine-readers, which help people read, listen, or navigate books.
  • We aim to make our online books as data-light as possible, weighed against quality and effectiveness.
  • We ensure our ebooks can be navigated with or without a keyboard, mouse or trackpad as far as possible.
  • We create offline versions of our online books wherever possible.
  • We encourage free online access to books, and don’t believe that’s bad for print sales.

These priorities inform product design in our web-based books as well as our offline ebooks, apps, screen PDFs, and print books. They also encompass the principles in the Charter for Accessible Publishing.

For more concrete examples, I’ve written on the CORE Econ blog about specific recent improvements we’ve made to their textbooks.

Do we always get it right? No. When we look at our older work especially, we flinch at what we got wrong. And sometimes we can only go so far with the time and money available for a project. What matters most is that we always move in the right direction, making better choices, and baking best practice into our templates.

Do you have feedback or suggestions for us? Or your own stories about websites and accessibility? We’d love to hear from you. Tag me on LinkedIn to share ideas there. And contact our team for support or questions about accessibility in our books.

Arthur Attwell 13 July 2023