Publishers and the Print Disabled in Canada: Some Get It, Some Don’t

It’s no secret that the print-disabled are a under-supported group. While those who are not print challenged have are able to read all the literature that we understand, print-disabled readers only have access to a small percentage (1-7%) of the world’s published books. There are many efforts underway with:

However, the group that can and does have the most impact on accessibility of books is publishers.

Before I get farther, let me step back for a moment.

Some Background

What is a Print-Disability?

The simple version is that a print disability prevents someone from reading the printed words due to something out of their control, typically a visual impairment, physical disability (e.g. not being able to hold a book), or learning disability (which includes dyslexia and other reading disabilities).

How Do You Determine if Someone is Print-Disabled?

The question to ask is:

can someone “read” the book simply by changing the format? If yes, they have a print disability.

What is an Accessible Format?

At the very heart of it, it’s a version of the book in a format that allows a person to “read” the book. Typically, it’s some form of ebook (PDF, EPUB, etc.), e-text (HTML, RTF, TXT, etc.), or audio (MP3, DAISY, etc.).

For more information, you can take a look at a rundown on accessible formats, which includes more background information.

Access to Electronic Copies

Like any other company or organization, people won’t buy or consume content they can’t get access to. So the first thing is to make sure people can get access.

With publishers, I believe that would primarily mean that major distributors give some assurance that their sites and apps are accessible.

Unfortunately, a lot of the content providers are not accessible (enough) for print disabled readers to use. While it may have improved, I’ve heard of people having issues with site and apps for Kindle, Overdrive, and others.

Ideally, content is DRM-free so that if the site or app itself is not accessible, other people can help print disabled readers transfer the (audio)book to their preferred program or app. Unfortunately, that is not usually the case.

Side note: I love that Overdrive made their audiobooks DRM free. It’s just too bad that their e-books are not.

Permanency of Access

Many (probably most) publishers distribute on platforms where titles can be pulled at any time. Amazon famously deleted 1984 from users’ accounts and kindles back in 2009, and this incident is not singular.

When electronic copies of books can taken from readers and organizations even after purchase, is it any surprise that many of them will still buy paper copies if they really want to keep it? However, print disabled readers don’t have this option, and neither do organizations purchasing titles on behalf of print disabled.

It’s a much bigger issue in academic organizations that deal with subscriptions to journals and articles, so many academic libraries are part of LOCKSS and other similar programs. However, I have not heard of anything similar in public libraries for their electronic content.

What still amazes me is that e-book and digital audiobook pricing is frequently much higher than a print book or CD, when electronic copies can be pulled, have more restrictive use rights, and in the case of libraries, have an annual fee attached, but the major advantage would be that print disabled readers are more likely to be served.

E-book Accessibility

Assuming that a print disabled reader has access to the content, now they can read it right? Well, not necessarily, because e-books vary a great deal when it comes to accessibility.

Both PDF and EPUB can vary greatly in its accessibility. I won’t go into all the details here, but at the worst, the PDF or EPUB is simply a container for multiple images (of text) and at the best, has all the aspects needed to be accessible.

Regardless, again, it helps if readers can transfer the files to their preferred reading program/app, but if they must be read in a distributor’s site or app, then accessibility software (such as text-to-speech) should be able to “see” the content.

Giving the Responsibility to Someone Else

The ideal is that publishers make their content more accessible, but understandably, that’s not always for them to do, and even if they do, many patrons still need it in an accessible format (such as DAISY) that publishers would never produce.

Frequently, there is no electronic version of the book the reader is interested in. While I understand there are many reasons why publishers don’t have electronic versions for sale or distribution, they will have a digital version of some sort. So, they can give it to a public organizations to deal with.

However, publishers need to understand that giving that responsibility to a single organization does not meet the needs of print disabled.

Too often I have been referred to other private organizations, such as Bookshare. Yes, Bookshare is in the business of converting publisher files to DAISY format, but they are a business, and a subscription service. You cannot buy a single book and keep it. You have to pay an annual fee to access Bookshare. What’s more, the documentation they require (I have been told) does not allow public organizations in some provinces to act as a middle man because it would violate the province’s privacy and security act.

Some publishers refer us to another public organization. Granted, the fact that public organizations are not sharing (which I admit can be difficult when it’s another country) is another issue altogether and not the publishers’ fault. Nevertheless, what benefit do they get from working with one organization and refusing others? I would honestly like to know, because I do not understand it.

Benefits and Demystifying “Problems”

AERO’s pamphlet for publishers gives a good overview of how their service works and some of the reasons why publishers should participate, including that

  • publishers are not charged in any way
  • provides a single point of contact representing many other public organizations, and
  • has minimum impact on current business practices.

Let’s add to that list. Publishers also get:

  • good PR (at NNELS we create reports on who responds (and who doesn’t), and we thank publishers on twitter),
  • more readers,
  • better morale for authors (because authors want more readers; once had a publisher refuse even though the author directly requested it),
  • more word of mouth (and we all know how that works),
  • books being more likely to be chosen for book clubs and similar programs,
  • more participation by readers in book clubs and similar programs,
  • and more (if you can think of more, please let me know and I’ll add to this list).

These can all lead to more profit!

Myth 1: But by giving you a “free” copy, it means less people buying copies and publisher losing out on profits!

Readers are not going to buy your book if they can’t read it.

On top of that, libraries have already bought one or more copies of the book. It’s when libraries and other public organizations have a copy and there is no e-book or audiobook version (that their print disabled readers can use) that they request it from their accessible format production organizations.

Granted, publishers might lose out on a single purchase, because by providing the digital copy to an accessible format organization, the organization does not have to buy a copy to chop and scan (if they do that at all; many organizations use book scanners that do not require destroying a copy), but I am fairly sure that is not what they are worried about.

Myth 2: By giving you a copy, it could leak all over the internet!

Actually, I won’t deny that. Yes, there is a chance that what publishers give organizations will be the source of a pirated copy. However, if an organization scans a copy of the book, then puts it up on their site, it doesn’t make a difference does it? I do not believe that giving a copy to an accessible format organization increases the chances of a book ending up being pirated. If anything, restricting access can promote piracy.

More than that, we have great security. I would like to say, more so than many distributors (like the ones that send usernames and passwords insecurely; and compromised logins are usually the most common problem to keeping content secure).

Myth 3: But you can’t just scan a copy, it’s against the law!

Actually, it’s explicitly stated in the Copyright Act (Section 32) that non-profit organizations can create accessible format versions for print disabled readers.

In order to ensure that copyright is in fact respected, organizations typically check for commercially available formats first. For example, if someone requests any digital text version (PDF, e-text, EPUB, etc.) then the print disabled reader is directed to their library or asked to purchase it. Similarly, if someone requests an audio version, organizations check for an audiobook version.

Take Away

Hopefully publishers will begin to understand that providing access to print disabled through as many methods and organizations as possible will help their business, customers, and authors.

Author: Cynthia

Technologist, Librarian, Metadata and Technical Services expert, Educator, Mentor, Web Developer, UXer, Accessibility Advocate, Documentarian

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