Considering Accessibility

January 11th, 2007 · 9 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Do you know that blind people use computers? This is not an idle question. Do you realize this? In addition to blind people, there are deaf people, people with cognitive problems, individuals with mobility problems, and, yes, people who are too vain to admit they need help reading tiny print.

Normally, we would raise this issue in conjunction with a rant about making your website accessible. Yes, accessibility continues to be a very important issue to us — and, frankly, just about the smartest thing you can do if you want to be found on the Internet. Remember, the biggest blind user on the Web is still Google. If Google can’t “see” your website, well, you know what that means.

What has us riled up today was a comment in an email we read. The individual, who uses a screen reader, purchased e-books from the eHarlequin store. Some books were easily read aloud by the screen readers; others had the “read aloud” capability turned off. The reader’s money was refunded, but her question was valid: why in the world would anyone do this?

Though the company’s website passes basic website accessibility checks, it fails when it comes to this one feature. That’s really beside the point. Apparently, it is an author decision whether or not to allow “read aloud” features. And something tells us that authors are not being properly educated about why someone might want to read something aloud. It’s been suggested that fear of piracy might be a ruling factor.

Get over the piracy thing, people. Believe us when we say that if someone’s gonna pirate your product, they’re not going to let a little thing like this stand in the way. And while you’re worrying about potential thievery, you’re losing audience. It’s not a secret that the United States population is aging. It only goes to follow that use of assistive technology will increase. It is your job — retailer, publisher, author — to ensure that your work is accessible to all consumers. Do not assume that all people do things the way you do.

Rant over and out.

File Under: Non-Traditional Publishing

9 responses so far ↓

  • SusanGable // Jan 12, 2007 at 6:35 am

    Wow. That’s really odd. One would think it wouldn’t be an option. As to turning off that feature being a way to protect against piracy — as my mother often says, “Locks only keep honest people out.” (Of course, on the other hand, I often prefer to make it as difficult as possible for the dishonest to break into my house. G. No point in issuing an open invitation.)

    Is Harlequin going to continue this way, or will they be making all the books readable to the blind? (i.e. Change to making the read-aloud feature standard.) At the very least, I hope they’re now marking which ones are read-aloudable (yes, I made that word up) and which ones are not. It would be a major pain for that reader to have to engage in trial-and-error book shopping and have to ask for refunds for the ones she can’t read.

    As you’ve pointed out, I don’t think many HQ authors are aware of this impact. I’ll be posting a link to your article in a place I know some HQ authors hang out. If they have to make a choice about read-aloudability, then let’s make sure they make a well-informed choice. I’m sure some didn’t consider the implications to blind readers.

    The computer, I would imagine, has probably made it easier for the blind to access more information, since the read-aloud feature negates the need to wait for something to be brailled or recorded. I’ll do my part to try to help spread the word.

  • SusanGable // Jan 12, 2007 at 7:33 am

    Another author just pointed out to me that the Read-Aloud feature is part of the audio rights. ??? (Another case where technology has muddied the legal waters. (g) ) So the publisher has to have the audio rights to enable it.

    For the most part, though, most HQ contracts grant them all rights, including those not yet invented. (No joke.) So only those authors with agents who’ve negotiated retaining the audio rights would be affected by that.

    Plus, if the author has retained those rights, and it’s the author who’s being asked if they should or should not enable the read-aloud feature, I think (not a lawyer, here!) they have the right to say yes, go ahead.

  • Brenda Coulter // Jan 12, 2007 at 9:01 am

    Don’t blame the authors for this, Booksquare. Harlequin’s boilerplate assigns all audio rights to the company. (I imagine Nora Roberts gets to make her own rules, but the rest of us take what we’re given.) I just looked at my latest contract and applied a little common sense to the question of Harlequin not enabling text-to-speech on its e-books and figured out why it’s not in the company’s interest to do that:

    The royalty schedule in Harlequin’s boiler-plate allows for 6% of the cover price for the first 100,000 e-books, which is the same as for print. Audio books, however, command a 50% royalty (yes, that’s fifty) on the cover price–and I’m pretty sure that enabling text-to-speech would be considered audio distribution. Since Harlequin is still very new to the e-book game and has told its authors on several occasions that it’s not yet realizing a good profit in the e-book arena, their reluctance to give authors half of the cover price on each sale is hardly surprising. And I’m no lawyer, but I’m guessing Harlequin would also have to pay the e-book royalties, bringing the author’s payout to 56% of the cover price for each text-to-speech-enabled e-book.

    I’m guessing there’s also some extra coding work involved in formatting the books to enable text-to-speech. That would further cut into Harlequin’s profits.

    I have over twenty Harlequin e-books in my library, and not one of them has text-to-speech enabled. I don’t care about that, but I am getting tired of checking that dumb little “do you want to open the file, anyway?” box whenever I try to read a book.

  • ktwice // Jan 12, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Hmm, Brenda. According to this customer, HQ is saying it’s a decision by the authors. I would bet that most authors don’t know from this issue. And, SG, I find it interesting that anyone would argue that this falls under “audio rights”. I would, could, and will strongly argue that audio rights imply fair compensation for the use of those rights (ie, audiobooks). This is merely a feature embedded into the purchase of an electronic book. It’s actually fairly standard when it comes to PDF files. The average (sighted) human isn’t likely to use this functionality.

    While I find the 6% royalty pretty egregious (see all posts on this subject…and you can well imagine there are many), I don’t buy into the notion that this is an issue of audio rights. This sounds to me like a serious lack of education about what screen readers are and what they do.

    The reader, in this case, is the computer, not another human. The screen reader is a digital voice that reads everything on the monitor out loud. The program I am most familiar with JAWS, but there are others. No extra coding involved, as long as the book is in a standards text-based format (and this includes HTML as the screenreaders are able to parse the code — as long as it’s standards-based). If you’re blind and a capable user of the technology, you control this reader through a series of keyboard commands (possibly voice as well, I’m not sure). The reading speed is much faster than you’d imagine — the first time I “listened” to one my websites, the entire thing was read impossibly fast…I barely caught half of what was said, and I knew what was on the page. The voice that does the reading is, well, as good as electronic voices can be. That is to say, if you’re looking for a dramatic reading of text, try your local theater or buy an audiobook.

    I do not buy the audio rights argument. I believe that educated authors would not buy this argument (even though, based on Brenda’s reading of the standard agreement, which jibes with my recollection of said agreement), it would mean a higher royalty. This is the same product as the ebook, but rather than scanning the text with your magic eyes, a machine is scanning and reading it back to you.

    Yeah, I think it’s a bogus thing, and I truly believe it’s a lack of understanding, not malice.

    As for the e-books not doing well thing, well, I have a lot of theories on that, and most of them won’t make the publisher happy. However, if you do an overlay of HQ traffic versus Ellora’s Cave (an almost-entirely epub), the traffic is very telling. It’s not that the readership doesn’t exist — and I’m not sure it’s a question of price….

    This customer ended up being about half-satisfied. I’m not sure that’s good enough in times of declining category sales.

  • kirkb // Jan 12, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    While it may be true that the publishers are lumping this in with audio rights, it shouldn’t be. “Read Aloud” in a PDF file is not something that the average user would ever use to replace an audio book. Additionally, Read Aloud doesn’t incur any additional production expenses. Also, Read Aloud doesn’t even have to be read aloud – it could be used to feed some other assistive technology.

    Also, there’s no way this can be construed as a piracy issue. Unless you consider publishers trying to overstep their bounds to be a form of piracy.

  • booksquare // Jan 12, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    One final thought — given the type of exploitation of the media happening here, it would be near-impossible for the publisher to determine if the user was accessing the text via traditional reading of pages or via screen reader. Thus, following Brenda’s argument (not a lame one, no), all of the ebooks released by HQ with audio reading capabilities enabled would automatically have to be reported at the audio (50%) rate.

    Considering this to be audio rights is simply wrong-headed thinking on so many levels!

  • Brenda Coulter // Jan 13, 2007 at 1:44 am


    As for your blind correspondent being told that allowing text-to-speech is up to the authors, I’d hardly expect a customer service rep at eHarlequin retail to be conversant with the details of the authors’ contracts. Be that as it may, anybody who has ever seen Harlequin’s boilerplate knows that greedy Harlequin snatches up all rights–so the suggestion that there might be some crumbs left for authors to assign elsewhere is ludicrous.

    Jumping back to the subject of e-books not taking off for Harlequin, I don’t think it’s particularly instructive to hold up the phenomenal e-tail success of Ellora’s Cave as an example of what Harlequin might achieve if they did it “right.” The Harlequin Way is to operate with a slender profit margin that accommodates the massive promotional push the company puts behind each of its programs. Harlequin is all about volume, and they’re still investigating the e-book market to determine whether they can make that business model will work there. (The relatively small number of titles being offered as e-books suggests Harlequin has not yet made a serious commitment to that market.)

    Gosh, is it really 3:42 a.m.? Night-night, Booksquare.

  • david salvage // Jan 14, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    As an author I tend to agree, that it’s probably not something that the author has access to. So much of the part of selling your book (unless you’re a major name in the industry that can dictate the terms of your contract) is much more left to the publisher, and I have a great degree of sympathy for them. In a world of constantly changing rules, shifting technologies, and complex forms of competition by giants like Amazon which can always guarantee a supply of decent used copies of books (and sometimes under false pretenses) I think many publishers are just trying to hold onto whatever rights they have and stay alive. Still, this is an important issue. Wouldn’t it be nice if the government — instead of spending billions a second on a misguided war — actually funded libraries and programs for the visually disabled (the Netherlands does) that would make this issue easier and quality of life better????

  • Maximum Persuasion // Jul 18, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    The problem is- this misguided war pump primes the economy (govt buys weapons, arms dealers buy metal, miners buy tools…etc) which makes it a very attratcive option for government.

    Funding bookstores is seen as a capital expense that provides little financial payback (unless you consider the long term intellectual returns)… so congress gives it little heed.

    That’s what I hate about society: priorities are so imbalanced.

    Why does a basketball star earn hundred times more than a scientist??? (or a struggling author for that matter?)