Collaborating to build born-accessible ebooks

Kevin Callahan is the owner of BNGO Books, a New York City–based print and digital design and production studio. His long experience with new and evolving technology — where big expectations meet real-world possibilities — gives him great perspective on creating ebooks of every variety. Kevin also teaches design and technology and writes on ebook matters for a variety of publications. He is part of the vibrant #eprdctn community, where knowledge and experience are generously shared. He will be at ebookcraft 2017 to present a workshop with Sarah Hilderley, called A11y from the Start: How to produce born-accessible ebooks in a collaborative workflow.

I just returned from a visit to Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico. The Chacoans lived there for about 300 years, beginning in the 9th century. It is filled with structures hand-built over that time.

I was captivated by the care and craftsmanship that went into building the complex. The picture above is one small section of a wall that surrounds Casa Rinconada, the largest kiva (religious and ceremonial room) in Chaco.

For some reason, I immediately thought of ebook-making when I saw this wall, probably because I was mulling over the ebookcraft session I’ll be co-presenting with Sarah HilderleyA11y from the Start: How to produce born-accessible ebooks in a collaborative workflow.

Accessible, well-made ebooks only enhance a publisher’s sales opportunities and democratize content. As BISG mentions in the Quick Start Guide to Accessible Publishing, of the US population with print disabilities, less than five percent have access to books. Creating accessible ebooks expands sales opportunities for publishers and reading opportunities for many.

Back to that stonework. Here’s what I see when I look at this wall. Building the kiva required:

  • knowing how Chaco residents would use it;
  • finding the appropriate site;
  • engineering and manipulating the site (grading, building retaining walls, etc.);
  • finding materials from the surrounding countryside;
  • organizing materials (small, flat stones over here; round boulders over there); and,
  • assigning labour (Who’s the conceptualist? Who can do the intricate hand-work? Who is best at sorting and arranging coloured rocks?).

How did I get from kiva-building to book publishing? Well, book-making incorporates similar divisions of labour and task-sharing:

  • The editor sees the big picture (Who’s the audience? How is the material structured?).
  • The copy editor goes deep into sentences, fixes spliced commas, rearranges words, and checks facts.
  • The photo editor finds images and provides captions.
  • The designer wraps it in a package that is attractive, usable, and contributes to and supports meaning.

Once all this is in place, making ebooks requires other functions:

  • Taking well-worked material and putting it in a new wrapper.
  • Adapting print-only features to digital use.
  • Translating the print structure into digital semantics.
  • Adding ebook-only elements, like alt tags.

Do these two blocks of book-making tasks need to be iterative? Should the first group complete their work and then hand the finished product off to the ebook development team? No.

As the editor develops the manuscript, as the photo researcher sources images, as the copy editor refines the text, and as the designer and compositor build a mechanical and combine all these materials into a book, they should also be:

  • establishing and tagging a clear hierarchy of the content, so digital semantics are set from the beginning (style sheet);
  • thinking about expanded content for the ebook (i.e., navigation, text, and back matter that don’t fit in the print edition);
  • determining which images carry meaning and which are decorative, and writing alt tags to complement captions where needed;
  • thinking about how colour is used in print and decide if that system will work for (e-ink) devices; and,
  • building a mechanical that can be exported to EPUB with minimal intervention.

So, yes, the Chacoans are far away from us in time. But how they used their own technology can provide a template for us as we go about creating a collaborative book-making workflow. Each member of the team should be aware of every future use of the material, and plan accordingly.

In our session, Sarah and I will explore how to look at a manuscript with a longer, more expansive view. Print and ebook editions will be better for this collaboration and planning.

You can follow Kevin on Twitter @BNGObooks and visit his website at Make sure you register for ebookcraft to attend Kevin's workshop!