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Accessibility within the context of the book industry (2/2)

The link between accessibility and publishing – and digital publishing in particular – might not be very obvious to everyone, and the scarcity of accessible (e)books available in the market – whether paper books or ebooks – provides too few reference points to nourish our understanding of this link. The purpose of this article is therefore to explore the section of the publishing industry that commits to offering accessible content for various readerships, and will do so by focusing on the French context accompanied by some examples from other European countries.

When beginning to think of accessibility within the context of the book industry, two main questions might come to mind: What is an accessible (e)book? and, How (in)accessible is the (e)book industry? We will attempt to answer them in two articles: the first one will go over the definition of key words (book, ebook and accessible (e)book) as well as illustrate these terms through various examples. The second will provide a more analytical overview by analysing the offer and the distribution of accessible (e)books in the overall publishing industry.

Note: This article is adapted from the training on accessible publishing delivered within the framework of the Simpl4all project in September 2022 in Maribor, Slovenia.

Let us now proceed with answering the second question: How (in)accessible is the (e)book industry? We might consider that the (e)book industry is accessible if the share of accessible (e)books is capable of answering the needs of its various readerships: this is the case if there is a large offer of accessible (e)books on the market to fulfill the demand of its readers, and if this offer is adequately priced and efficiently distributed to actually reach them. Let us then have a look at both the demand and the offer of accessible (e)books, before assessing the marketability of the offer and its distribution process.

There is no clear data evaluating the demand for (e)books among readers across the various disabilities and disorders: hearing impairment, visual impairment, mental disorder and cognitive disorder. However, a survey conducted in Italy in 2011 provides some useful guiding points regarding the reading habits of readers with visual impairments specifically. It notably found that 31% of respondants read every day, 28% read several times per week or once a day, and that overall the respondants had read on average 9 books in the last 12 months prior to being surveyed. Among the (e)books read, 25% were audiobooks, 30% were ebooks with a non-optimal digital reading experience (ebooks in pdf, doc and txt formats), 10% were books in braille and 6,5% were books in large print. While this only reflects the demand for accessible books in a narrow context (readers with visual impairment in Italy), we can already observe the existence of a significant demand, and a sign that this demand is not adequately fulfilled: 30% of books offer a non-optimal reading experience.

Furthermore, of the 50 most popular books in 2013 (in terms of sales), while 35 were available in audio*, only 25 were available in large print, and still less (10) in braille. In a way, these data are encouraging since they present a more favourable ratio than before. But we will argue that ideally, the share of the offer of specific books types should not necessarily reflect the share of their readerships in the overall market, especially when “book types” are defined by their technical features rather than by their content. Ideally, all readers should have access to all publications regardless of their differences. Moreover, even (e)books that are accessible in terms of their features, might not be accessible in an economical sense. Indeed, the price characterising accessible (e)books tends to be high, in particular for readers with visual impairments: out of the 50 most popular books published in 2013, the average price for the books in braille and large print was 109,6 € and 26,4 € respectively: at least twice as much as the original publication costing 13,7 € on average.

*As mentioned in the other article, the mere availability in audio of a book doesn’t guarantee accessibility to readers with a visual impairment: the audiobook has to be paired with a reading platform or software with an adapted navigation system

This moves us from evaluating the accessibility of (e)books from the publication side down to the distribution side. Indeed, even if the (e)book industry offered enough accessible content, it might still not be accessible if these (e)books were not properly distributed to their readers. As it happens, the distribution process is also quite inefficient when compared to that of the mainstream (e)book industry. Mainstream (e)books are usually distributed to their readers both directly through the publisher’s point of sale, and indirectly through libraries where they are lent to the readers or through bookshops and other second retailers where they are sold to the readers.

Measuring the sale of accessible (e)books is a difficult task since many of them are immune to economic reality. As we saw earlier, books in braille in particular come at particularly high cost and as a result are more commonly borrowed than bought, just like various accessible resources and supplies in school are typically lent than sold to students with disorders or impairments according to their project of personalised schooling (PPS). Moreover, a larger share of publishing bodies are of the non-profit type in the accessible (e)book industry than in the mainstreaming one, meaning they distribute their content in a non-commercial way, whether subsidised or sometimes even plainly free. (p47) Last but not least, many accessible (e)books are also produced outside of a commercial framework: this is the case for the mainstream books adapted and distributed on the French national platform PLATON on an individual basis by commercial editors upon request by the person with a disorder or disability.

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