Supporting an Industry-Wide Shift Towards Universally Accessible Reading Experiences

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Arthur Thompson and Martin Klopstock of Kogan Page share their thoughts on the evolution of accessibility following the publication of EPUB3.3.

The recent publication of EPUB 3.3 as a W3C Recommendation marks a milestone in the evolution of ebooks. This iteration of EPUB, over three years in the making, is the culmination of a dedicated working group’s efforts to create the final version of EPUB 3 – any further changes would break backwards compatibility – and make accessibility an integral part of the specification. 

With the standard now stable and aligned with the European Accessibility Act, which requires products and services to be accessible for persons with disabilities by 2025, this feels like the right time for publishers to begin creating and supporting EPUB 3, if they aren’t already.

Publishers aiming to improve the accessibility of their books have an ever-growing pool of resources available (including courses and practical guidance) and an active and welcoming community at their disposal. In addition, growing commercial and legal incentives are beginning to force the issue on decision-makers, as reader preferences and expectations change to reflect the growing prevalence of accessible tools and content.

In short, there are few reasons to delay creating and supporting EPUB 3. But beginning the process and transitioning to a new standard can be challenging, because publishing has traditionally (and understandably) been focused on print, treating accessibility and ebook production in general as an afterthought – something to be carried out at the end of the production process. But these legacy workflows are costly, time consuming and untenable in the long term if accessible ebooks are the goal.

Six years ago, Kogan Page was also facing these challenges, until we made the decision to futureproof our production workflow by foregrounding accessibility. Initially, this meant supporting EPUB 3 (then EPUB 3.1) as our main ebook output.As a publisher of professional and academic books, it was important to ensure that we were supporting universal access to education and learning for all students and practitioners. It was equally important that we were providing the widest possible readership for our authors.

We have since created an award-winning born-accessible book production process, which produces highly accessible EPUB 3 products.We have become a visible part of the community engaged in communicating and supporting the wider publishing industry’s accessibility efforts; regularly attending the UK Publishing Accessibility Action Group (PAAG) and presenting at books fairs and industry events. And for two years, we have received Benetech’s Global Certified Accessible accreditation (the gold standard for accessible publications).

It was an edifying and fruitful journey, but it was not a small project. It required executive support (financial and strategic), the wholesale reinvention of our book production process, additional resources (such as alt text generation) and training for publishers, copyeditors and typesetters.

The building phase is over for Kogan Page. We now maintain and incrementally update our processes to keep in lockstep with best practice – we follow the quarterly GCA Technical Bulletins published by Benetech for this purpose. Most recently, we tweaked the schema underpinning the production workflow to support EPUB 3.3, with minimal effort.

However, our journey is far from over, and we are not alone. As of June 2023, Benetech’s GCA programme has 52 accredited publishers from around the world, proving that our experience reflects a broad trend – publishers of all sizes are making commitments to, and heavily investing in, accessibility.

This has put the onus on the downstream supply chain, because accessible ebooks are only as accessible as the platform they are paired with. If an ereader is not compliant with the latest web standards, the user experience and accessibility of the ebook will be compromised. This presents a significant challenge for publishers. Kogan Page sell ebooks into 185 countries via 26 main sites and platforms, many of which have multiple ereaders for different contexts – e.g., desktop browsers, Android/iOS apps and hardware such as the Nook, Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Libra devices. In such a complex ecosystem, there are too many routes to readers, and as a publisher we cannot guarantee the same level of accessibility for everyone.   

Vendors, aggregators and providers of ereaders are all at different stages of readiness vis à vis accessibility, and there is no way of grading the accessibility credentials of every link in the chain. But it is possible to spotlight champions – the platforms that are accessible, attractive and easy to use. On our website accessibility page, for example, we recommend the VitalSource Bookshelf and Redshelf platforms.We also refer readers to the ASPIRE verification service, which collates and ranks the accessibility statements of publishers and platforms. Here readers can look at the accessibility credentials of platforms to check if they meet their needs – e.g., which platforms are screen-reader compatible and include image descriptions.

Accurate accessibility metadata is also crucial, as it communicates how user-friendly ebooks are for readers with different needs. We support the potential alignment of ONIX metadata (List 196), which is distributed to the supply chain, with EPUB metadata ( to provide readers with consistent, reliable information.  

EPUB 3.3 takes us a step closer to towards a more accessible, inclusive future. But real-world success hinges on collective action. Publishers, vendors and technology providers, with the aid of industry organisations, must accelerate dialogue to raise the bar for accessibility.

Kogan Page will continue to advocate for industry-wide developments, because only together can we begin fulfilling the promise of accessible publishing: providing equal, exceptional reading experiences for every reader, everywhere.

Resources and Notes

This article was written for the International Publishers Association and has been cross-posted with the kind permission of the authors.