Frequently Asked Questions

Welcome to our FAQ page! Below you will find some of the most common questions that we receive from publishers and other ebook creators. To submit a question, please fill out this FAQ Request Form.

Image Descriptions

Should cover images be described?

Yes! Cover images are designed to give the reader an idea or feeling about the book, and what’s to come. They often help build excitement and intrigue, and all readers should be able to know what is on the cover of the book. Include a description of the cover in EPUBs and audiobooks.

Should we describe [insert detail here]?

Maybe! Image description is much more of an art than a science, and what to include and exclude in the description will often come down to context. In general, considering why the image has been included in the book might help to hone in on the crucial details. 

Can I hear my alt-text in synthesized speech?

Yes! Once you have added alt-text to the images in your EPUB, we recommend using the free program Thorium Reader (available for Windows 10, MacOS, and Linux). Open your book in Thorium, and click on the speaker icon at the top of the program. This will activate the built-in read aloud feature, and the program will automatically begin reading the book out loud. If image descriptions have been included, these will also be read out, and you will be able to hear what a screen reader might sound like when synthesizing the speech of your image descriptions!

Note: not all screen readers are alike, and there are numerous settings that people might use based on their personal preferences. The way that Thorium Reader announces the text will give you an idea of what it might sound like, but acronyms, punctuation, voice, pace, and more, can be very different, so what you hear will not be the universal experience!

Does my image need alt-text if it has a caption?

If an image has a caption, it still needs alt-text. Often, captions will not describe the photo, so a description still needs to be included. When the caption does describe the image, the alt-text can be minimal. For examples, see NNELS’ Guide to Image Descriptions: Captions.

My image breaks over two pages – how do I deal with this?

One way to do this is to write a single description for the full image, and insert it into the alt-text for the first image. Then, add a note in the Alt-text for the second image indicating that the transcription is in the alt-text of the previous image, i.e., “This image is a continuation of the previous image. The scene was fully described in the previous alt-text”.

Making Ebooks

We’ve only ever made print books, or had a third party create ebooks for us. If we want to make accessible ebooks in-house, where do we start?

First things first: We highly recommend going through Laura Brady’s course: “EPUB Accessibility Using InDesign”, available through LinkedInLearning, formerly Many people will have access to LinkedInLearning courses through their local public library, or may be able to do a free trial month.

NNELS has also created a text document which goes through a lot of the same information as Laura does: Adobe InDesign Best Practices: Creating Accessible EPUB Files, but in handy dandy text format.

Using the above resources, you should be able to start building in accessibility as you layout your book.

After creating a book and exporting the EPUB from InDesign, there are a few accessibility features that can only be worked on Post-export, in the code. These include

We have developed a list to help ensure the accessibility of your book, on our Accessibility Features Checklist.

Books don’t need to hit every single mark to be accessible – having robust, usable headings, image descriptions, accessibility metadata, a usable table of contents, and publishing in reflowable EPUB3 format is a really strong start. 

How do I know if I have done a good job?

Once you are happy with your EPUB, and your book meets many of the criteria on our Accessibility Features Checklist, we recommend running your book through the EPUB Validator, and using Ace by DAISY. These checkers may highlight some outstanding issues that need to be squared away before publishing. 

How do I work on the code?

When you are new to this kind of work, diving in to the technical side of things can certainly be intimidating! In fact, getting started is very simple and straightforward, and even a little bit fun! 

Some common things you might be doing within the code include:

  • Updating document titles . Some e-readers will announce a document’s title when a new section is opened, or on command as a kind of “Where am I” feature. So, the title tag should always hold the name of the chapter or section contained in that document. Usually, the text found in the first heading of each section works nicely here.
  • Adding metadata [see NNELS’ guidance on Metadata, or the metadata information on the DAISY Knowledge Base]. Metadata can tell potential buyers and readers what accessibility features the book offers. These features range from basic text access to full semantic markup and described images.
  • Including an ARIA role of presentation for decorative images [visit NNELS’ Image Descriptions: Decorative Images section for guidance]. In addition to having no alt-text ( alt=””) for decorative images, including the ARIA role of “presentation” provides a second level of insurance that the reader’s device will skip the image. It is simple to include this code in an EPUB.
  • Declaring the language . Ensuring that the language is correctly declared in all of the necessary places will mean that screen readers will pronounce (most of) the text correctly.

These kinds of things can easily be done in a completed ebook using a simple text editor, like BBEdit, or an ebook editor like Sigil (these programs are both free).

Can I optimize my original Word document for accessibility?

If your ebook creation software is InDesign, then there is definitely a way to start incorporating accessibility early on in the editorial process, beginning with the Word document. Check out our video tutorial on Optimizing Word Documents for EPUB and Accessibility.


Where do I need to declare the language of the book?

For maximum accessibility, the language should be set in three places (note: the third “place” is actually multiple places!):

  • In the OPF file, in the package: <package version=”2.0″ xmlns=”” unique-identifier=”bookid” … xml:lang=”en-CA” >
  • In the metadata section of the OPF file(package document): <dc:language>en-CA</dc:language>
  • In the HTML header of each XHTML document (every chapter and section, including the navigation file): <html xmlns=”” xmlns:epub=”” xml:lang=”en-CA” lang=”en-CA”>

Be sure to add both xml:lang=”en-CA” and lang=”en-CA” your XHTML files (using the language of the book) as some programs and technologies may only recognize one or the other. Do not include lang=”en-CA” in the OPF file.

To view a demonstration, check out this video tutorial on language declarations.

What do I do when my book has a little bit of text in languages other than the main language?

This is definitely a tricky question! We’ll give an example of how to deal with the technical side of this in just a moment. But first, you need to consider: Does this piece of text in another language need to be synthesized in that language? 

The reason that this needs to be considered is because it can be very jarring when you are listening to a text and the synthetic voice suddenly switches for only a word or two.

The way we deal with language in at NNELS right now is: we only markup phrases/sentences, or blocks of text. Proper names, places, and even common idioms like “joie de vivre” etc. do not need to be marked up.

When you do need it, the way to markup a language shift is by using lang and xml:lang attributes in a span tag:

<p>René Magritte is famous for his surrealist artwork. One in particular is quite well-known: a painting of a pipe, with text below it that reads <span xml:lang=”fr” lang=”fr”>Ceci n’est pas une pipe</span>.</p>

Where can you find the language code for the language you are marking up?

Search the IANA Language Subtag Registry for your language, and use the subtag as the language code. If your language is not on this list, then the language shift cannot be marked up.

Is there markup for Indigenous languages?

Screen reader support for Indigenous languages is very limited currently. However, an Indigenous languages technology project is underway, so this will hopefully change in the years to come. Nevertheless, if the language has a subtag on the IANA Language Subtag Registry, do mark it up, and it will be ready for the future!

Working with Conversion Houses / Ebook Producers

How do I know if my conversion house is creating accessible books?

If you outsource EPUB creation work to a conversion house, independent ebook producer, or another third party, you might not know how much attention they give to accessibility. If you haven’t already, we recommend getting that conversation started! We have put together a list of questions that you can ask your producer about: Assessing the Accessibility of Conversion Houses & Ebook Producers.

Formatting Advice

My poetry books use the placement of text to indicate meaning. Can this be conveyed to someone using a screen reader?

Formatting poetry is a unique challenge, and unfortunately, there is no easy way to share the meaning conveyed by how a poem is laid out. The only solution – for now – is to include a producer’s note (perhaps in the form of a footnote or endnote) that explains the layout of the poem. 

The ultimate solution is to record narrated versions of the poems, and create an Enhanced EPUB (which can include media, like audio) for distribution.

Getting Help

Where can I turn for help with my super specific questions?

If you are having trouble finding answers to your questions you are invited to submit a question using our FAQ request form, and we will reply as soon as we are able!

If you are able to articulate your question in 280 characters or less, we also recommend posting it on Twitter. If you add both of the hashtags: #eprdctn and #a11y, you will almost certainly have an answer within minutes!