The future of accessible eBooks
We have already discussed accessibility in this blog in an article dedicated to the LIA foundation (Accessible Italian Books). Despite the Italian Publishers Association (AIE) trying to raise public awareness on this important issue for over ten years, it is only in 2025 that we will potentially see a concrete evolution towards accessibility.
On April 17, 2019, the European Union issued the European Accessibility Act (EU Directive 2019/882), which sets out the accessibility requirements for products and services, including eBooks. The Decree is expected to come into force on June 28, 2025, although some provisions may have a derogation until 2027. eBooks published before the deadline can continue to be distributed until 2030 without mandatory modifications.
Characteristics of Accessible eBooks
Since 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international organization that “develops standards and guidelines to help build a web based on principles of accessibility, internationalization, privacy, and security,” has been in existence. The ePub format, the language used for developing and distributing eBooks, also falls within the technical standards established by the W3C.
The characteristics that an accessible eBook must have to comply with the Decree are based on the four basic principles established by the W3C in 2009. Specifically, from 2025 onwards, all new eBooks must:
1. Ensure that text and audio content are presented synchronously and made accessible.
2. Ensure that digital files do not interfere with the proper functioning of assistive technology.
3. Provide full access to content, with a structure that facilitates the reading flow and customizable settings according to individual needs.
4. Allow alternative reproductions of content (textual, audio, visual) based on the characteristics of the four basic principles established by the W3C.
5. Provide correct information about the eBook through metadata that also specifies its level of accessibility.
6. Ensure that digital rights management (DRM) does not hinder assistive technologies.
Creating an Accessible eBook
The eBook must be fully navigable and customizable by the user. This includes strong contrast colors, adaptable formatting, provision of alternative content and anchor points, elimination of special characters, and more. Additionally, the text-to-speech feature must be enabled, and specific metadata for accessibility should be included.
Even for experienced users, creating an eBook with all these requirements is not an easy task. For this reason, some distributors have introduced specific services for authors and publishers. StreetLib, which La Novella Orchidea has relied on since 2014, recently launched what could be the best offer on the market.
By subscribing to the unlimited plan of the Write section (dedicated to creating eBooks from scratch), for €8.99 per month or €89.99 per year, you will also have access to the new “Accessibility” feature. In essence, it allows you to create an accessible eBook from scratch and perform all the necessary checks to analyze the accessibility level of existing ePub files. If any issues are detected, the integrated system will highlight the error with different colors depending on its severity. The system is designed to automatically correct the problem (if possible) or provide guidance on how to do it manually. Finally, the new generative AI also enables automatic insertion of alternative descriptions for images within the eBook.
The implementation of the European Accessibility Act is estimated to benefit over 80 million people in Europe alone. However, there are some technical challenges that could partially hinder various publications and distributions.
One of these concerns digital rights management. We have already discussed how DRM has always been a challenge for the digital library system MLOL.
Amazon may also face its own issues. Since last year, the “Send to Kindle” application automatically converts ePubs to KF8, but the MOBI format remains valid for fixed-layout eBooks, effectively excluding the full adoption of ePub 3 for distributing fully accessible content.
In fact, it seems quite unlikely that comics or graphic novels will fully meet the required accessibility criteria. How can alternative reproductions of content be provided, or a detailed index be set up, or even comic books be colored with high-contrast tones in line with accessibility requirements? And most importantly, how can existing publications be adapted?
A timid attempt was made in 2018 by DramaBooks, a cultural association dedicated to creating accessible multimedia works. They created a “VoiceComic,” essentially a radio drama where the stories from a comic book are narrated using audio effects, dialogues, and descriptions instead of images. Unfortunately, the project doesn’t seem to have had a concrete follow-up.
Let’s hope that the push given by the European Accessibility Act to accessible eBooks won’t be just another unsuccessful attempt for a format that, thanks to its great potential, has every right to have a more significant presence in an inclusive market.