2023 Accessible Publishing Summit: Key Takeaways

On February 6-7, 2023, NNELS and the BC Libraries Co-operative brought together over 50 people involved the ebook production and distribution chain (including publishers, leaders of publisher associations, librarians, alternate-format producers, users of alternate formats, government representatives, and more) to Toronto to participate in a two-day summit focused on accessible publishing in Canada.

This was the fifth Accessible Publishing Summit, and the mission remained the same as that of past years: to create a space where those who have a stake in accessible publishing can come together to build a community, develop partnerships, gain a deeper understanding of the current state of accessible publishing in Canada, identify assets, challenges, and opportunities amongst stakeholder groups, and work on the ways in which the accessible publishing landscape can be developed and improved upon in Canada.

Detailed notes on the presentations, discussions, brainstorming sessions, and demonstrations were taken, and are forming a report which will be shared soon. To pique your interest in reading this upcoming report, where plenty of powerful, engaging ideas and discussions can be found, we’d have put together a few key takeaways from each of the main topics of discussion.

Metadata, Search and Discoverability

  • The challenges around metadata are arguably some of the biggest gaps that were discussed during the summit, which is compounded by the fact that some of the most important stakeholders in this area, like vendors and distributors, were not present. Currently, metadata does not always persist all the way down the supply chain, and therefore is frequently not shared with the user in the way publishers plan or expect– and this is a conversation that vendors and distributors need to hear about, and contribute to the solution.
  • We heard there is a lack of clarity, education, and even standardization about what accessibility metadata is and how it should be used. In order for metadata to be added, implemented, and used correctly, summit attendees discussed the fact that numerous stakeholders along the supply chain need some guidance and training – this includes publishers, conversion houses, freelance ebook creators, and even libraries and other distributors. Some summit attendees who work in this area indicated that they would continue to engage in and offer professional development around metadata, which is fantastic!
  • One interesting idea we heard was that it would be valuable to do research into the wishes and preferences of users–and this is not something that is unique to the Canadian ecosystem. The existing values for ONIX and Schema metadata are not necessarily all “human-readable”, and there is no standard about how this is translated to the reader. For example, some books are “reflowable”, meaning that the text can be resized, the font can be changed, the text colour and background can be modified, etc. But the word “reflowable” (which is the value that gets included in the Schema metadata of the book) might not be meaningful to all readers – and there is no standardized way of conveying this information. So, research into the best way to make the metadata values “human readable” will be useful, as well as research into what readers find most important, what they might ignore, if people would actually use it when selecting books, etc.
  • One positive outcome from the summit is that people were able to talk to experts, and learn about how to approach and discuss the idea and importance of accessibility metadata with key external stakeholders (vendors and distributors). And there was also great discussion around the fact that there is a lot more room for collaborative work between publishers and libraries, when it comes to accessibility metadata!
  • While there are complicated challenges ahead in the metadata realm, people at the summit definitely felt that these will be solved as long as we keep at it – which we are!

Distribution, Procurement, and Platforms

  • A large portion of the discussion in the distribution topic was around metadata, which we’ve just shared, so we won’t repeat that! Suffice to say, distributors need to be involved in this metadata conversation. While some are starting to work on sharing and displaying metadata, it is still uncommon.
  • Following the summit, some attendees noted that they now feel better equipped to have meaningful discussions around accessibility and distribution, procurement, marketing, platforms, reading systems, and more.
  • Attendees also identified actionable needs, which can be worked on, including: creating and distributing a best practices sheet for all vendors; raising awareness of accessibility needs and opportunities with all types of stakeholders who have a hand in the distribution of digital books; leveraging existing relationships to make an impact; and more.

Copyright and Marrakesh Treaty

Copyright and the Marrakesh Treaty has not been a main summit topic before, but as we move toward a reality of new books being born accessible, we wanted to get people talking about the impact of born accessibility on the copyright exemption and the Marrakesh treaty, even if we produced more questions than answers.

  • A lot of the conversation was focused on the education sector (based on who was in the group); some really good points were raised around the accessibility of supplementary materials included with scholarly texts – and one great idea that group had was to perhaps ask/require educational publishers to provide alternate format producers with “desk copies” for review. This could really help both publishers, alt-format producers, and the user.
  • There was also discussion around the impact of digital infrastructure – while the copyright act covers the provision of accessible materials, there is no certainty around the rest of the ecosystem (like reading apps, sales platforms, learning management systems, integrated library systems, and more). This discussion spurred conversation about the industry-led approach, and how the full ecosystem it is bigger than just publishers.
  • One notable point discussed was: in the context of the Copyright Act, publishers tend to have the same questions as alternate format producers in terms of understanding the mandate to produce under Section 32. This demonstrates that there is uncertainty around this topic, and it is great to get this conversation going!

The Needs of Publishers (and Capacity Building)

At the summit, one of our working groups was looking at the needs of publishers, and in the analysis of these discussions, we determined that they were strongly tied to capacity building. We have thus added “Capacity Building” to the topic.

  • The biggest takeaway here is that: while publishers have made great headway in the last few years, capacity building in Canada remains a critical step for the sustainability of accessible publishing work. There is a lot of precarity and uncertainty in the industry, particularly when it comes to accessibility.
  • For example, staff trained in accessibility sometimes move on into more lucrative careers after learning about accessibility and coding. There are also challenges around keeping up with evolving standards. Essentially, summit attendees highlighted concerns around the building and sustainment of the capacity to incorporate accessible features into all future titles (not to mention backlist remediation).
  • Nevertheless, there is confidence among the community, and people absolutely think that continued education is possible (i.e., through APLN and other sources).
  • The business case is always front of mind for many summit attendees – and similar to what we saw discussed in distribution, there are competing priorities… a publisher does not always have enough time to both learn about accessibility metadata, and do, for example, comprehensive marketing – and again, this ties into their capacity. Resources are limited, and not all publishers feel that they are equipped to keep up.
  • That said, not all publishers are aware of the resources – like APLN –that are out there. So awareness building needs to be happening among the wider publishing landscape in Canada.
  • For French publishers, we heard that there is a need for more training materials – there is no equivalent APLN for French publishers, and while ANEL is doing their best to train, it is more scattered than what English language publishers have.

Certification and Quality Assurance Testing

  • In the topic of certification and quality assurance testing, the big discussion was around costs and resources needed to do this work, with a focus on the Benetech Certification program currently offered/ran by eBOUND, and some discussion of Fondazione LIA’s title-by-title certification process.
  • When discussing gaps, the biggest noted one was that some publishers are still not knowledgeable about accessible publishing; many are even still making PDFs! For these publishers, certification and QA is currently out of the question… meaning that training and capacity building is still a huge priority.
  • If funding concludes, and industry is not ready to take on born accessible publishing, accessibility may begin to fall by the wayside, especially if legislation is not part of the equation.
  • On the other hand, if funding continues, a lot more could be accomplished, like title-level quality assurance, more support for publishers, work on complex titles, possibly training people like freelancers, who are heavily relied on in publishing, and more.
  • In general, there was a lot of concern around the conclusion of funding, given the realities of publisher capacity, and the financial bottom line of incorporating accessibility. Technology, standards, and practices are always evolving – and keeping up with this won’t be easy. Ongoing professional development is a big need.

These takeaways were drawn from the discussions and sessions at the 2023 Accessible Publishing Summit. A full summary report is in the works, but in the meantime, all notes can be accessed here: