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Think Digital and Get Accessible for Free

Today brought news of the release of a "Save to Daisy" add-in for Microsoft Word, and while a new Word add-in wouldn’t normally be news for publishers, there’s a bit more to this story.

Among the benefits of distributing content digitally is that it ostensibly makes the content more accessible to alternate reading devices. It’s not difficult to see how — compared to a printed page — text marked up for computers to read (think HTML) would be much easier for a computer to read to a human (like Braille readers or text-to-speech). Indeed, for some time now we’ve offered audio versions of many O’Reilly articles and blogs (including this one). But in reality, format diffusion and DRM has often frustrated accessibility efforts (and by extension, consumers).

The industry migration toward EPUB has the potential to address this — any (non-DRM) EPUB file should in theory be readable by a variety of accessibility devices, with no added conversion cost or delay.

But first there’s a shift that needs to happen, and that’s a shift on the part of publishers from building books primarily intended to be consumed in print to building books that are intended to be consumed digitally. When we first learned of the "Export to EPUB" feature in InDesign, there was premature optimism internally that it was the answer to a lot of questions about how to present some of our most popular content in a more digital-friendly form. The reality though is that simply exporting EPUB from InDesign files designed for print created essentially useless output. Our contacts at Adobe helped clarify that a huge part of getting good EPUB out of InDesign is about designing the content with that format in mind — something very few designers are doing yet that I’m aware of. There’s a serious education issue here, in that most people who hear that InDesign can export to EPUB assume it’s as easy as "Save as…" and it’s not. For example:

… when threading together text fields, they will always be exported in the correct order. However, they will also always be in one flow. All of the layout editing that you have done to place the text boxes with respect to each other or the page is discarded. You will have to style the layout of the EPUB manually, after export.

There’s growing inertia behind EPUB (I like to refer to it as the "mp3 of ebooks"), and when ebooks become a primary delivery format, rather than a secondary one, expect to see much more content available in an inherently accessible way. Here’s hoping the next version of Word includes "Save as EPUB" from the start. (For now you can try the free DAISY pipeline to convert those exported DAISY Word files into EPUB.)

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Comments: 3

  1. don’t you see the bait-and-switch happening here?

    first the promise that .epub is a “master” format.

    then the twist that “of course, you have to
    design the content with that format in mind”.

    there are any number of formats that’ll serve well
    — including ones simpler than .epub’s xhtml/css —
    if one simply agrees to first “design the content”
    with the elements of the master-format in mind…


  2. @bowerbird — I’m interested in hearing what other existing formats you think are better suited for ebooks. XHTML+CSS doesn’t seem particularly onerous to me, especially since there’s so much by way of existing tools and expertise to build on, but I’m always open to hearing about new approaches.

  3. andrew-

    i like light-markup formats (e.g., markdown), but
    a focus on formats is wrong-headed to begin with.

    let’s start with actual _programs_ that give us
    the _capabilities_ that we want, and then see
    how their formats made those capabilities work…

    the current model — where format wonks who
    might or might not understand precisely how
    their format affects the programmers who will
    be implementing it — is clearly broken, badly…
    we’re _still_ trying to make web-browsers uniform.

    programmers are the creative element in this mix.
    let them display their talent.

    when we treat programmers as robots who simply
    execute the instructions given by the format,
    we’re cheating ourselves out of our best asset.