The Humdrum Magical: On Accessible Formats in Publishing
March 25, 2020
by Amanda Leduc
Once upon a time there was a girl in a forest. Once upon a time, there was a prince who’d lost his way.
Once upon a time, a girl donned a red cape and took her grandmother a basket filled with sweet cakes and wine.
Once upon a time, a man who so longed for a child cried out, I would love it with my whole soul, even if that child was a hedgehog!—and then his wife gave birth to a half-human, half-hedgehog boy nine months later.
Once upon a time, we told stories like these to each other—in front of the hearth, over breakfast and dinner, to ourselves as we ran outside and felt small beneath the sky. When we got tired of telling stories, we took to pen and paper and began to write them down.
Once upon a time, a child opened a book and began to read.
The printing press, that machine of fabled, ordinary magic, was invented by the German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg around the year 1440. Its ability to rapidly transfer ink onto paper by pressing the ink in place (as opposed to individually lettering ink by hand) revolutionized the world—within decades of its invention, the amount of printed literature in Europe had increased exponentially. Gone were the days of books as hallowed objects that only the chosen could access; suddenly, printed literature was that much more accessible. It wasn’t just the Bible and a select few other texts that could now be put to paper. Novels and treatises and other works of nonfiction could also get the book treatment.
In France, starting early in the seventeenth century, the Blue Library (“Bibliothèque Bleu”) brought the world to French citizens in chapbook form, including—among many other things—a wide selection of fairy tales. The Blue Library helped to usher in the age of “popular culture,” and its books were a common sight in French circles until the mid 1800s. Other chapbook printing operations that popped up throughout Europe during this time gradually ushered in an age of increased literacy. What was once hallowed and hoarded had suddenly become available to all, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that this helped to usher in a new age of being.
A new age, that is, for everyone who could access the books. As it turns out, there were still plenty of people who could not.
Now, in the 21st century, it isn’t unusual for us to take reading for granted. It’s perhaps especially not unusual for us to take reading for granted in the literary world—this is, after all, the world that so many of us have lived and breathed and understood for so long. Like the fairy stories that we hear when we are children, reading is at once magical and also commonplace. Most of us learn how to do it when we’re young, and we navigate the rest of the world in many ways based on this bedrock bit of knowledge. You read at your job, at your house, when you’re at play. You need—for the most part—to know how to read and write in order to access the internet. For many of us, the simple act of reading isn’t something we think about all that much.
When we do think about it, reading almost always makes a specific image in the mind, in the same way that the words fairy tale often conjure the same kinds of magic—princess, dragon, evil witch. Someone huddled over a book, turning page by reverent page. More recently, perhaps, it might call to mind the picture of someone wearing headphones, enjoying an audiobook version of their favourite story. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many of us, when we think of reading, think of the book as we’ve known and loved it all our lives—the print-and-paper book, the design that has, barring slight modifications over the years, remained more or less the same for the last five hundred years.
How many of us, I wonder, think of the printed book and see it for what it is: an inaccessible piece of technology that in so many ways has revolutionized the world but still manages to disenfranchise a great many people?
"What if there is no non-print-disabled person waiting in the wings to read to you—when do you get to access that story, when do you get to have a story that takes you away?"
I’d wager that most of us don’t think of the physical book in this way. I certainly didn’t. I’ve loved physical books my entire life. To me they are the best and brightest kind of magic—a magic so ordinary as to be everywhere, and yet somehow still a magic so unbelievable as to make one briefly terrified that one could blink and miss it. As both a reader and a writer, the birth of a new book fills me with joy. The paper! The smell! Deckled edges! But it’s a joy I take for granted too, because I know that when that new book is born, I can access it immediately. Paperback? Hardcover? Softcover with flaps? Give it to me! I will consume it within hours. I will stay up late into the night and let that story take me away, and then I will read from the beginning and do this all over again.
But what happens when you can’t access that physical book, and there are no other versions of the book available? What happens if you are blind or visually impaired or dyslexic or have a muscle condition (Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and many others) that makes holding a physical book impossible? What if there is no non-print-disabled person waiting in the wings to read to you—when do you get to access that story, when do you get to have a story that takes you away?
For many people with print disabilities, the access to that new book might not come for months or years, if even then. Traditionally, books in Canada have been published in paper first and then, gradually, in other formats—large print, Braille, and audio, to name a few examples. Though this has changed somewhat with the growth in popularity of audiobooks and digital EPUBs, it’s still not uncommon for publishers to release a print title first and then release the title in accessible formats months after the print book’s initial publication. There are legitimate reasons for this, many of them having to do with a lack of resources and funds. It takes time to ensure that a book is available in a variety of accessible formats. (EPUB and PDF formats, while more accessible than standard print books, often require additional features to make them fully accessible to those with print disabilities.) It also takes money, and a willingness to innovate, and in an industry that’s already strapped for resources, focusing on accessibility can sometimes be seen—as it so often is in the wider world—as catering to the few instead of the many.
But the “few,” in this case—according to the website of the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA), which is, along with the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), one of two main agencies serving those with print disabilities—is estimated to be around three million people in Canada alone. That’s around eight percent of the population—hardly an isolated, abstract amount.
As with so many elements of accessibility, it’s something that the non-disabled (and non-print-disabled) among us don’t think about until someone else points it out. As a writer and a storyteller—even as a physically disabled writer and storyteller—I hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that my books, once published, still weren’t accessible to a great many people. It was only through working with CELA as part of my role with the FOLD Foundation that I first learned about the integral, valuable nature of the services that CELA and NNELS provide—and it was only in publishing my second book, Disfigured, that I realized what’s possible in accessible publishing if we all come together.
Through a partnership between Coach House Books, CELA, and NNELS, Disfigured was published in Canada on February 11, 2020, simultaneously in print and the following accessible formats: print Braille; ebook Braille; audiobook; DAISY-fied audiobook, and fully accessible EPUB. So far as we’re all aware, this is the first time in Canada that a book has been published simultaneously in print and accessible formats. I cannot tell you what it felt like to know that Braille copies of the book were ready for readers as we went to publication.
It almost, you might say, felt like a happy ending.
"Celebrating the milestone of a born accessible book means that we’re still taking for granted the fact that most books are not born accessible at all."
It also feels odd, if I am honest, to be the first of something. Working with NNELS and CELA and Coach House Books has been a dream come true, and has underlined for me what is possible when we decide to work toward something together. Turns out that if you get a group of people passionate about accessibility in publishing working on the same project, it isn’t inconceivable to have a book put out in multiple formats all at once. (Just like how, centuries ago, getting books into the hands of regular people wasn’t inconceivable either.)
But it also still feels vaguely strange to me, the way that contemplating a world in which people did (and do) not have easy access to books or reading also, still, feels odd. Celebrating the milestone of a born accessible book means that we’re still taking for granted the fact that most books are not born accessible at all.
Isn’t that nice, we say when we hear of a milestone like the one described above. Look at how that book has triumphed—in much the same way as we cheer for the heroes and heroines of our favourite fairy tales, who triumph over the social order while still leaving that inequal social order firmly intact.
What we should be doing—all of us across publishing, readers and writers and publishing professionals all print-disabled and non-print-disabled alike—is advocating for books that are published simultaneously in as many formats as possible. Rather than celebrating those instances where books are born accessible, we should be agitating about why this isn’t already common practice. Given the rise in funding for digital publishing initiatives that has
steadily increased over the past few years, this agitation is more urgent than ever. There is money for accessibility in books—it isn’t limitless, but neither is it a magical dream.
If you’re an author with a book coming out in the next few years, I encourage you to start asking these questions. Talk to your publisher and ask them if they have plans for accessible versions of your book. Read more about CELA and NNELS and discover the important, critical work that they do. And when your books are finally published and out there in the world, think about how accessibility goes beyond your published work and into the marketing of your titles. Do you use accessibility features in social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook? If you have marketing videos for your books, do they have captions? Is there a way to ensure that this might be possible? What are some other ways in which your work as a writer or publishing professional—or even your outreach as a reader—might be made increasingly accessible? (Hint: visit
www.AccessiblePublishing.ca to find out more information!)
In fairy tales, the world is never perfect, no matter how often we might like to think that it is. (And no matter how often we simplify fairy tales into stories that have easily recognizable villains and heroes and pat happy endings—but that’s a different post altogether.) The world of book publishing isn’t perfect either, no matter how much we might love it, and no matter how many gains we’ve seen in the last decade for those who’ve traditionally been marginalized in storytelling. Books and stories cannot truly be the magic that they’re meant to be until every novel, every non-fiction book, every collection of short stories or essays is put out into the world in accessible formats.
Five hundred years ago, the printing press revolutionized the world. In our current world and climate, the internet and digital accessibility are offering us the opportunity to revolutionize again. So, let’s get to work and tell a whole new story—one that includes anyone and everyone who might want to access a book and its inherent magic. Let’s work toward a world where the simultaneous publication of a book in print and various accessible formats isn’t a novelty, but instead just humdrum commonplace. Because that, ironically, is a kind of magic that never goes away.
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Amanda Leduc's essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, and the UK. She is the author of the non-fiction book Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space (Coach House Books, 2020) and the novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men (ECW Press, 2013). Her next novel, The Centaur's Wife is forthcoming from Random House Canada in the spring of 2021. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she works as the Communications Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada's first festival for diverse authors and stories.
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