Self-publishing an accessible book: printed, audio, Kindle and ePub

2017 is already well underway and looks set to be a very exciting year in web accessibility. With updates to WCAG 2.0 in the W3C WAI pipeline and the eagerly-anticipated W4A2017 conference coming to my home city of Perth in just a couple of months, this year has lots to look forward to and I’m looking forward to continuing the accessibility conversation as it goes along.

To kick off the first column for the year, I wanted to discuss a topic which I’m hopeful will help others considering a similar journey to the one I took last year… self-publishing a book. I used some of the many online publishing services available, and waded through the challenges that can occur when trying to ensure the final product remains accessible across a number of different document formats and publishing platforms.

In the end, publishing my book outrunning the Night – a life journey of disability, determination and joy turned out really well with a wide distribution channel. Yet there were a number of accessibility challenges along the way.

There’s a lot involved in writing the content of a book, and for anyone considering doing so, the first piece of advice I’d pass on is to find yourself a great editor. I was very fortunate to have the support of MAA contributor Chris Mikul and thanks to his guidance, getting the book written was an exciting journey. The upshot is that if you think you have a story to tell, give it a go!


Selecting the right self-publishing tool

The focus here though is on what happens once you get to the point of saying ‘okay, I now have a book written – how do I get it out there? And how do I preserve its accessibility in the process? There’s a lot of different self-publishing options available and depending on your audience you may favour one over another. For me, after doing the research it came down to choosing from two options: CreateSpace and Lulu. 

Both of these self-publishing services offer a wide variety of ways to publish your book with Lulu having more publishing choices such as hardcover and a greater variety of e-book distribution channels. Create space is owned by Amazon and as such has a focus on getting your book on, Kindle and into bookstores. For me, the choice came down to two very important considerations: where did I want my book to end up, and which platform was the most accessible?

In the end, it was mainly accessibity that won out, and I found Create Space’s website much easier to use from an accessibility perspective. It’s certainly not a beacon of accessibility as I’ll explain later, but in my opinion it did offer the best combination of ease of use, book distribution and an accessible web portal that made me feel reasonably confident that I could successfully self-publish my book.


CreateSpace: all good except the cover

Once I signed up I worked my way through its publishing wizard. The first step was to get a free ISBN number and barcode, then confirm the title, author name and other associated details of the book, which was fairly straightforward. The next step was to choose the book’s dimensions, and I stuck to a pretty standard paperback size. The third step was the one that ended up being quite involved – the interior of the book.

The good news is that once you select the book’s dimensions, you have the ability to download a document template which has a number of things like headings and formatting pre-filled. I’d strongly recommend doing this, as it takes out the guesswork in trying to calculate margins, spacing, formatting etc. From there it was mostly a job of copying-and-pasting in the content, then making sure that the document was visually ready to be printed.

A tip I’d provide at this point is for you to try and prepare your document as best you can accessibility-wise. While the printed version of your book won’t need correctly styled headings or alternative text, doing it at this compositing stage into the layout, will save you an immense amount of time later on, if you’re considering e-book formats.

Once the book was finished, setting aside the front and back covers for now, I uploaded it to the CreateSpace website where my document was then checked for publishing readiness, and it came back saying that some of my images weren’t of high enough image quality to be printed.  After rescanning a few old photos and inserting them with the appropriate alternative text, that issue was solved, and the interior of my book was ready and visually it looked great.

The next step was by far the hardest part – the cover. The front and back cover could be done in one of two ways – either upload a pre-prepared PDF or you could use their built-in cover editor. From an accessibility point of view, I found the latter pretty much impossible and I needed a fair bit of help with this. While CreateSpace tries to make it easy by having a number of templates you can select, the designer wizard was very graphical and my assistive technology just couldn’t handle it.

This was really the only part of the process where I struggled and the advice I’d give to CreateSpace to fix it, is to provide the simple pre-made templates in the main book wizard, and save the cover designer for people who want to spend more time specifically designing a unique book cover. In the end, I paid a designer friend to create the cover and I was really happy with how it turned out, but was a little disappointed that I couldn’t do it myself due to the online accessibility issues that I encountered.

From that point, it was on to doing a few checks and reviews before submitting the final version to order a proof paperback copy sent back to me. While a few more tweaks were required before the final product was ready, it ultimately turned out well thanks to the mostly accessible web interface and a helpful Word document template.


Next step – Kindle

As CreateSpace is owned by Amazon, one of the best things about it is that your book will end up on and associated websites both as a paperback, and if you wish, a Kindle e-book. CreateSpace inferred that this was a really easy process – just click on the button that exports your book to the Kindle format, sign up to the publishing portal, and you’re good to go. Well it seemed quite simple in theory.

However, once I did that, I was horrified to discover that the page breaks between chapters had mostly disappeared, the table of contents didn’t work at all, and the worst part was that all the alternative text on my images had disappeared! While the Kindle publishing wizard didn’t care and was more than happy for my book to be published on Kindle anyway, I was really concerned from an accessible point of view and needed to backtrack to work out why it had gone so wrong.

After doing a bit of digging, I realised the first major issue was that there’s a huge difference between a document that is formatted for print and an e-book. For starters, the margins in the print book are formatted with the assumption that the book will be bound and the page breaks and spacing are adjusted accordingly. As such, much of the formatting just didn’t come over to the Kindle version when CreateSpace tried to export it.

Secondly, my headings hadn’t correctly connected with my auto-generated table of contents, so that had to be redone. Yet the biggest issue was the missing alternative text, and this took a fair bit of research to resolve. The issue relates to recent versions of Word in which there are two fields for labelling alternative text on images – one is called ‘Title’ the other ‘Description’. As it turned out, only the ‘Description’ field carries over to Kindle and the ‘Title’ field is completely removed. Exporting to other formats in Word can have similar problems but I didn’t expect it for Kindle, so I made sure that all my alternative text was present in the description field and it was happy from that point on.

As mentioned earlier, one good thing about my Kindle experience was that most of the accessibility was correctly set-up in the original document. So to fix the formatting I could basically copy-and-paste the paperback interior file into a new blank document which fixed all the margins and structural issues, and after fixing up my table of contents and alternative text, I was largely good to go. 

If I publish another book in the future, I’d now know how to fix these from the start, meaning the only major change I’d need to make from the book interior file to Kindle is to copy-and-paste all the contents into a new blank document and upload to the Kindle publishing portal. The final thing about Kindle and accessibility is to make sure that you don’t select ‘Copy Protect’ or add ‘Digital Rights Management’ (DRM) to your book. If you do, it’s likely that people using screen readers or read-aloud features, will no longer be able to use them with your book.


Other formats – HTML, PDF and ePub

When I started on the self-publishing path, many people with disabilities indicated that they had their preferred file formats for reading e-books. As such, I was keen to make sure the book was available in all of the formats that people wanted to use. In the end though, for practicality, I narrowed it down to three e-book formats: HTML, PDF and ePub.

One of the great things about doing a book in Kindle is that you can save a proof of it in HTML. Assuming the source document is styled correctly as discussed above, the HTML comes out very clean, with all of the images embedded correctly plus alternative text, so this format turned out to be easy thanks to the previous work. Likewise, exporting the Kindle formatted document to PDF was relatively straightforward as well, given the document wasn’t very complicated and it was correctly tagged so that was easy. The hardest one was ePub, as I didn’t have any particularly great tools to export it. The end result was achieved using some of the free tools online, and while the formatting doesn’t look quite right, it’s readable and accessible, so in the end I took the win, but out of all the formats I’ve created, the ePub one needs the most work.


Audio book – to DAISY or not to DAISY

The final version of the book that I wanted to create was a professionally narrated audio book. Originally, I had planned to record this myself, which then posed the question – should I make sure the audio book is in DAISY format to specifically support devices used by people who are blind or vision-impaired or is it okay just to have it as a standard retail audio book? The other thing to consider was distribution – should it be on CD, digital download or something else?

In the end, the decision was largely made for me on the DAISY front, as I quickly realised that I didn’t have the tools to make a quality audio recording, nor was I able to read the book in a way that sounded very listenable. So I contacted VisAbility who did a wonderful job in professionally narrating the book, and doing so in DAISY. For distribution, I ended up going digital for purchasing online, but when I’m selling the book at conferences or events, I provide the audio book, HTML, PDF and ePub versions all on a USB stick for one price and this has proved a popular way to go.


Key tips for self-publishers

So if you are keen to get your story into print and available in places like Amazon and on Kindle, here’s a quick overview of the key things that I encourage you to consider:

1.    Make your print interior document as accessible as possible with correct styling, tables of contents and alternative text. While none of these are needed for print, it will save you time in the long run.

2.    For Kindle and other e-book formats, create a clean template then copy-and-paste your text from the print document into a new document.

3.    Alternative text needs to be in the ‘Description’ field of Microsoft Word’s alternative text section, as information in ‘Title’ may be removed.

4.    Kindle’s HTML preview actually produces pretty good basic HTML.

5.    The more formats that you produce, the better it is, as different people have different preferences.


Finally, don’t forget that if you do struggle with making documents accessible there’s a lot of help out there, including Media Access Australia’s own document accessibility services. Thank you for taking the time to read through my accessibility journey on self-publishing, and if you do decide to get your story out there, please let me know, as I’d love to hear about your experiences.