Publishers value readers. Without them, the publishing industry is the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. With that in mind, accessibility is a foregone conclusion. Creating content for every potential reader creates more readers. Accessibility is inclusive, and evidence suggests it’s also good for the bottom line.
Of the myriad business initiatives publishers can pursue, accessibility has the advantage of being both socially and financially responsible. Consider the audiobook surge of 2020 when according to Publishers Weekly, the spike signaled “a profound shift in listening habits.” The number of available audiobook titles increases every year, and their popularity shows no sign of waning. Audiobooks have grown so popular that their original purpose — as an accessibility tool for blind and vision-impaired readers — has faded from our collective memory.
Audiobooks are a perfect illustration of the financial viability of accessibility initiatives. More content for more readers means more product for more consumers, and the potential return on investment — in terms of financial gain — is only exceeded by the positive social impact.
In a plenary session at the 2021 AUPresses Annual Meeting entitled “Imagining Our Way to a More Equitable Literature,” accessibility emerged as a product of thinking and dreaming bigger. For publishers, creating a broader, more inclusive audience and expanding readership starts with three big ideas:
- Think nationally. Offer value everywhere — and to everyone.
- Picture diversity. When you picture your audience, imagine it more diverse than ever before. Because it is.
- Reimagine reading. Examine your assumptions about reading accessibility. Consider the challenges of every potential reader.
This is where accessibility begins.
What’s the holdup?
Publishers want more readers, and there are clearly underserved populations, so what’s the holdup? Industry hesitation may stem from a mistaken belief that true accessibility requires multiple formats of every published work. While this approach would address issues of diversity and accessibility, the cost implications are immense and, in most cases, prohibitive. But some industry experts argue, “This is not the case. A publication that is born accessible can be used by everyone. It simply has a different layout and format.”
Build accessibility into the foundation of publication and production processes to ensure equal access for every reader.
Adding accessibility to website and social media posts is a low- to no-cost way to create inclusive content and explore accommodations for a more diverse audience. Keep these general guidelines in mind:
- Closed captioning. Add captions to video content for the hearing-impaired. On most popular platforms, closed captioning is automated once the user elects to use it.
- Avoid ableist language. Words and phrases, such as “I stand with” or “crazy,” matter. Use inclusive — as opposed to exclusive — language.
- Create content warnings. Alert readers to sensitive topics, including violence, assault, abuse, or other difficult issues which might elicit an unintended response. Content warnings add the element of choice to online media consumption.
- Use alt-text and image descriptions. More than 285 million people globally are visually impaired. Using an online alt-text feature — to describe photos, illustrations, maps, graphs, charts, etc. — allows screen readers to describe visual media aloud.
These techniques make online content easier for more people to consume. Consider how these ideas could change or evolve to expand offline inclusivity as well. Think big, and employ inclusive design concepts in every publication. The goal is to maximize accessibility — and optimize the reading experience — for every potential reader.
Think of the last book you read. How did you read it? Was it a physical copy? Hard cover or paperback? Maybe it was a digital or audio version? Think about your reading experience. And then think about how your experience would differ if you were blind, hearing-impaired, or neurodivergent. What if you lived in a rural area without a bookstore, library, or regular internet access? This short list of potential obstacles presents a useful thought exercise. Can you design an inclusive reading experience to overcome all these challenges? Is an all-inclusive reading experience feasible? And what can publishers do to make sure every book is “born accessible”?