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Accessibility in publishing

The IPG Podcast

Release Date: 04/13/2023

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As publishers continue efforts to make their content available to all, this episode of the IPG Podcast discusses accessibility issues with Julie Willis of River Editorial, a division of Westchester Publishing Services UK. Julie offers some good advice for the benefits and practicalities of fully-accessibie content and discusses the implications of the European Accessibility Act for publishers. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Hello and welcome to the IPG Podcast. I'm Tom Holman of the IPG. In this podcast we're talking about accessibility in publishing—an important subject of course. Awareness of the need to make content freely available to everyone has grown steadily over the years, but there's still some work to be done. To talk about that is Julie Willis, who is editorial director and systems lead at River Editorial, a division of Westchester Publishing Services UK. Julie is particularly passionate and knowledgeable about this subject, and she's with us to share some good advice for any publishers who are working on accessibility projects at the moment. I hope you find our conversation useful. 

Tom Holman / Hi Julie, and thanks for joining us on the Podcast. It's great to have you. Before we talk about accessibility, maybe you could give us just a quick guide to Westchester and River Editorial and the services you offer to publishers these days. 

Julie Willis / Of course, and thank you for having me Tom. We are River Editorial, which is a part of the UK division of Westchester Publishing Services, a 50 year-old employee-owned US company. We've got wholly-owned typesetting operations in India, and we map our ethical approach to employment across those two operations, as well as in the UK. 

Westchester Publishing Services UK is celebrating five years of existence. There are two divisions: River Editorial is headed up by myself and Rosie Stewart, and we manage all aspects of book production for clients including academic publishers of books and journals, as well as organizations and institutions. The education division is headed by Rebecca Durose-Croft and has a large client base, providing upstream services like content creation, curriculum mapping and culturally responsive education reviews to name a few.

Tom Holman / Well, happy fifth birthday! I know a lot of IPG members work with you already. So why should publishers be interested in accessibility? There's a moral reason of course—that content should be available to everyone—but I guess there's some sound commercial reasons too?

Julie Willis / Above both of those reasons is that it will become compulsory via the European Accessibility Act in June 2025—but we’ll come on to talk about that a little later. Commercially, it's been demonstrated by the likes of Apple that customers will buy into your brand if your values as a business mirror their own. There are lots of different phones available on the market, so why do you buy an iPhone? Because you value the same things as Apple. The same is true for businesses that demonstrate they are prioritizing accessibility. If that is a value that your potential customer holds, then they will choose you and your books over others. There's also 80 million people in the EU with a disability—so clearly there's a market there that you can attract.

Morally, equal access is clearly a goal of modern western society. Everyone should be able to have the same user experience across all platforms, but especially digital platforms. There's no real excuse for that to be any different for anybody in this day and age. 

Tom Holman / When we talk about accessibility, what exactly are we talking about in practical terms? What are the specific things that publishers should be doing to make sure that those 80 million people can access their content?

Julie Willis / It's a really good question. Accessibility requirements extend to all digital content, so for publishers that includes their websites as well as their epubs and any other digital deliverables that they provide on a practical level. The very basic things are providing something called alt text, which is short for alternative text, and means that a screen reader can read out a description of the figures and tables. 

Alt text must be supplied for figures, so it needs to include what a person with full sight would see and interpret from those figures. Tables have to be tagged correctly so a screen reader can read them in the correct order, as you would read them as a sighted person. So for more complex titles, like education titles that have columns and so on, you can imagine that if it doesn’t have the right reading order, it wouldn't make sense. Font choice should be taken into account for neurodivergent individuals, and colour contrast for the same reason. If you've got multi-media content, then transcripts have to be available for those, and there are other considerations, like seizure warnings. That's a very basic introduction to what we should be doing, but there are many more standards and guidance points that we need to consider along with those top-level ones.

Tom Holman / There's a lot to think about there. Are there any useful accessibility standards or resources out there that people should be aware of? 

Julie Willis / Absolutely. The main one that most people are working towards at the moment is WCAG —Web Content Accessibility Guidelines—2.1 Level AA, to be superseded by WCAG 3.0, which provides standards for neurodivergence and autism. It’s an international organization and their website has enormous amounts of information and guidelines to help guide you through the requirements. 

There is also an International Standard Organization control—30071-1—which brings it all together. That goes beyond technical standards and talks about embedding accessibility into your managerial processes. If you've heard of the expression ‘born accessible’, that is the key—the goal that we're trying to reach. There's also an organization called the Daisy Consortium that provides tools and standards and advice for best practice within the publishing industry for people with print disabilities. That doesn’t just mean print—it means digital accessibility Issues as well. 

There's also an organization called PAAG, which stands for Publishing Accessibility Action Group. They have a Charter that you can sign up to, and I would encourage publishers to look at getting their house in order so they can sign up, which requires certain standards to be met. 

Tom Holman / It's good to know that there's a lot of help out there. And there's an awful lot of acronyms in there as well! You mentioned the European Accessibility Act earlier. There's a lot of talk about it at the moment, but there's also uncertainty about what it actually means in practice. I guess in some ways it's too early to tell, but what's your sense of the implications for publishers? 

Julie Willis / One element I want to get across is that the Act is already in existence. It's already been passed and we've already signed up to it. It’s enforced from 28th June 2025, so that date is a benchmark, but it’s already in existence. Key individuals in the industry that have read the Act feel that that backlist conversion is within its scope, and obviously that's an enormous task. So not only does it mean then that all books published after 28th June 2025 have to be accompanied by an accessible epub, it also looks like the backlist has to be converted. However, it looks like there's a five-year grace period in which you can get your backlist fully accessible. There’s more information online about the Act and what it means for publishers. 

Tom Holman / And finally, what can Westchester do to help IPG members on this front? There's a lot to get through, and some publishers might feel a bit daunted by it. What can you do to help with accessibility? 

Julie Willis / Well, we're a Benetech accredited supplier. Benetech is a global non-profit technology organization that validates the accessibility standards of our epubs and continues to check them annually as well. We're offering IPG members a deal to create certified-accessible epubs for them—normally they couldn't get that certification themselves, but because we are producing the files for them we can certify the files individually. We can do that for both frontlist and obviously for conversion of backlist epubs.

We're also looking to organize an accessibility webinar In the summer, and we plan to invite key individuals within the industry to discuss the European Accessibility Act in more detail and give publishers the latest interpretation of what it means for them. We'll be publicizing both of those in the IPG’s newsletter.