The Accessible Books Consortium: what it means for publishers
By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO
Since its launch in June 2014, the WIPO-led Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) has been working to boost access to publications for people who are blind or visually impaired. The aim is for publishers around the world to produce works that are “born accessible” so that they can be used directly by both sighted and print-disabled readers.
Michiel Kolman, Senior Vice-President of Information Industry Relations at Elsevier (Netherlands) and current President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), and Hugo Andreas Setzer, CEO of Manual Moderno (Mexico) and IPA Vice-President, share their views on what this aspect of the ABC’s work means for publishers.
Why is the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) important?
Michiel Kolman: When it comes to accessible publishing the ABC is the way forward. Now that the legal framework of the Marrakesh (VIP) Treaty is in place and more countries are signing up to it, we have to focus on producing books in accessible formats and making them widely available. That is where the ABC comes in. And that’s why we need as many publishers as possible to sign up to the ABC-sponsored Charter for Accessible Publishing so that we can really boost the number and range of works in accessible formats like braille and large print.
Hugo Setzer: My company, Manual Moderno, has just signed the ABC Charter for Accessible Publishing. We are a mid-size Mexican medical publisher. We believe the Marrakesh Treaty and the ABC are extremely important. Less than 10 percent of all publications produced every year are available in accessible formats, yet according to the World Blind Union there are around 253 million people globally who are visually impaired and need works in accessible formats. That is why it is so important that we publishers engage in the process of making our publications accessible. And even if publishers are not yet ready to sign the ABC Charter, they can still support the initiative by expediting copyright clearances requested by the ABC Global Book Service to facilitate the cross-border exchange of books in accessible formats.
What are the main concerns publishers have in relation to the ABC?
Michiel Kolman: While Elsevier was at the head of the queue in joining the ABC in 2014 – our Chairman, Youngsuk Chi, IPA President at the time, was convinced it was the right thing to do – I am aware that many publishers are worried about the impact born-accessible publishing will have on sales and revenues. These concerns are understandable, but unfounded. Sales will not plummet because publishers make books available in accessible formats, like EPUB 3 for e-books or html for journals, for a select group of customers with print disabilities.
Hugo Setzer: I agree. Publishers can really do a lot to make books available in accessible formats. Their concerns stem in large part from the fact that they still don’t quite understand what accessible publishing is all about. Many still associate the Marrakesh Treaty with a copyright limitation, which typically means a negative impact on revenue. But in this instance there is no evidence that that is the case. On the contrary, making our publications accessible could be a source of revenue. People who are blind or visually impaired don’t want publishers to give them anything for free, they want to be able to buy books but in the formats they need.
Michiel Kolman: Publishers are also concerned about the cost of moving to a born- accessible publishing environment. I realize Elsevier is a large publisher and ahead of the curve on technology issues, but smaller publishing houses that are transitioning to digital can benefit from our experience and can leapfrog many issues by using the tried-and-tested formats that are now available. These formats work very well for everybody.
Hugo Setzer: In addition to the impact on revenue and costs, publishers are also concerned about the formats required and how to address the needs of users. Many fear that a move to accessible publishing means they will have to produce two different versions of the same publication, one for the regular (sighted) market and one for people with print disabilities. But this is not the case. A publication that is born accessible can be used by everyone. It simply has a different layout and format. Signing the ABC Charter indicates a publisher’s objective and aspiration to make more books accessible to more people. If we incorporate accessibility standards into our publishing processes, which is relatively easy to do, all new publications could be born accessible. And that is what we are aiming for.
At Manual Moderno we have been working with our technology partners to solve various technical issues, but in moving to EPUB 3, the standard for making books accessible, we are seeing great potential to improve the usability and overall quality of our e-books.
About the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC)
The ABC aims to increase the number of books worldwide in accessible formats (braille, audio and large print) and to make them available to people who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled. Launched in June 2014, the ABC is an alliance led by WIPO and includes advocacy organizations, authors, libraries for the blind, publishers and standards bodies.
Partners include the World Blind Union, the DAISY Consortium, the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment, the Perkins School for the Blind, Sightsavers, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the lnternational Publishers Association, the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations and the International Authors Forum.
The ABC trains local non-governmental organizations, government departments and commercial publishers who want to produce and distribute their books in accessible formats. So far, over 4,000 accessible educational books have been produced through ABC training programs in Argentina, Bangladesh, Botswana, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Uruguay.
The ABC Global Book Service, a global library catalog of books in accessible formats, enables libraries serving the print disabled to exchange items in their collections, thereby eliminating the need (and the cost) of converting them to accessible formats. Some 165,000 people with print disabilities have borrowed accessible books through the Service’s 25 participating libraries.
The ABC is also promoting accessible book production techniques within the commercial publishing industry so that e-books can be used by both readers who are sighted and those with print disabilities. If you would like to receive guidelines for self-publishing authors or a Starter Kit for Accessible Publishing, contact Accessible.Books@wipo.int or go to www.AccessibleBooksConsortium.org.
How difficult is it to build accessibility into the publishing business?
Michiel Kolman: Accessibility certainly takes real commitment and technical expertise. At Elsevier we already had a digital workflow solution in place, so with a few tweaks we were able to move to EPUB 3 relatively easily. But clearly it is not always that easy, especially for smaller publishers.
Hugo Setzer: Yes, that’s right. Actually taking the decision to sign the ABC Charter was easy because we believe it is the right thing to do. But the next step, learning how to make our publications accessible, is not so straightforward. It is not just a question of adopting EPUB 3. That’s an important starting point, but obviously, people with print disabilities are not going to listen to the book from beginning to end. They have to be able to navigate their way through it, and search the parts that interest them, just as sighted people do. So we have to think about how a reader with print disabilities can navigate the text. This requires knowledge of technical mark-up language, web standards and specifications as well as an understanding of how people with disabilities use their assistive technologies. At present we are learning about the needs of print-disabled readers and how we can use technology to ensure they have a good user experience. But it is becoming clear that, at least in our case, we will be unable to produce all our publications in accessible format. When it comes to our textbooks for surgeons, for example, it would serve little practical value and would be very complicated and costly to produce them in accessible format. So it is all about identifying market needs and assessing where we can add most value. But we are committed to doing as much as we can. It really is a work in progress.
About the Marrakesh Treaty
The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled is the latest addition to the body of international copyright treaties administered by WIPO. It has a clear humanitarian and social development dimension and its main goal is to create a set of mandatory limitations and exceptions for the benefit of the blind, visually impaired and otherwise print disabled (VIPs).
It requires Contracting Parties to introduce a standard set of limitations and exceptions to copyright rules in order to permit the reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in formats designed to be accessible to VIPs, and to permit the exchange of these works across borders by organizations that serve those beneficiaries.
At the time of writing, 34 countries have signed up to the Treaty.
The ABC focuses on supporting publishers in developing countries, but is there a need to support small publishers in wealthier countries?
Michiel Kolman: We should target all publishers and my hope is that many more will sign up to the ABC Charter. A lot are curious but haven’t yet taken the plunge. I understand their hesitations but let’s not forget that there is no expectation for a publisher to deliver accessible publishing solutions overnight. Signing the ABC Charter is a commitment, and is certainly aspirational, but publishers can make the transition in their own time. And they can also benefit from the experiences of those who have already made the transition. If a smaller publisher needs more time, that’s fine.
Hugo Setzer: Yes, I agree. We have to consider the interests of all publishers. The IPA is fully behind the ABC and we have to work closely with WIPO to ramp up our efforts to explain its role to the thousands of publishers that the IPA represents in more than 70 countries and in WIPO’s 191 member states.
Many publishers are worried about the impact born-accessible publishing will have on sales and revenues. These concerns are understandable, but unfounded.Michiel Kolman, President of IPA
Why is it important for publishers to focus on accessibility?
Michiel Kolman: It is the responsibility of publishers to make sure that their publications are available to everybody. Ethically we cannot exclude people because of their disability. So it is about doing the right thing. Of course, it cannot be achieved overnight, but we need to work to make sure that the bulk of all publications are available in the formats that people with visual impairment need. It is part of our broader social responsibility.
What gaps still need to be addressed?
Michiel Kolman: Raising awareness among publishers about the ABC is essential. Many publishers are not even aware it exists. Although they may have heard about the Marrakesh Treaty, many are still puzzled about what it means for them. When publishers know exactly what the Marrakesh Treaty is all about and what the ABC is seeking to do, I feel sure they will sign up to the ABC Charter.
Hugo Setzer: Yes, raising awareness is hugely important. In general, publishers don’t like exceptions and limitations to copyright law. But the exception that underpins the Marrakesh Treaty is very well defined and precisely drafted. While the IPA’s endorsement of the Treaty eases publishers’ concerns, many still don’t know about the ABC or the publishing needs of print-disabled readers. If you had asked me a few months ago if an audio book was a good solution for visually impaired people, I would have said yes. I simply had not thought about the need to offer a visually impaired reader the capacity to navigate a book. For many publishers, including myself, moving to born-accessible publishing is a big learning experience.
Can the blind and visually impaired community do anything to help publishers better understand their needs?
Michiel Kolman: The ABC is the right platform for that discussion. We certainly have to do more to encourage publishers to learn from each other.
Hugo Setzer: Our first challenge is to promote the ABC among publishers and underline its aspirational nature. Then we need to start rolling out practical training programs so publishers know what they need to do to make a book accessible. This is really important and I think there is a role here for WIPO. Once publishers commit to the ABC and accessible publishing, we need to give them practical support to make the transition.
What sort of challenges do you see arising in the future?
Michiel Kolman: Just imagine a time when a good number of publishers are producing more content in the formats people with visual impairment need. How easy will it be for people with visual impairment to find the books they want in the format they need by searching Google or Amazon? I don’t think that has been addressed yet and I think it is something we need to start thinking about now. The last thing we want is for it to be difficult for people to find all the works that WIPO, IPA and others have been working so hard to make available in the right formats.
What is your wish list for accessible publishing in the next 10 years?
Michiel Kolman: I want many more publishers to sign up to the ABC and to really get going with born-accessible publishing. I want the number of publications in accessible formats to skyrocket, and for them to be easily searchable.
Hugo Setzer: As a first step, I think we need to at least double the percentage of publications available in accessible formats over the next five years. That would be a very good start.
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