Future Reflections        Special Issue: Technology

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The Future of Digital Publishing: An Optimist's View

by George Kerscher, PhD

George KerscherFrom the Editor: George Kerscher is dedicated to developing technologies that make information not only accessible, but fully functional for persons who are blind or have print disabilities. As secretary general of the DAISY Consortium and president of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), Kerscher is a recognized international leader in document access. He is the senior officer of accessible technology at Learning Ally in the US. He chairs the DAISY-NISO Standards Committee and the W3C's Steering Council for the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). He is one of the authors of the EPUB 3 Standard, and he serves on the US National Instructional Materials Standard (NIMAS) board.

At a time when print sales are flat, sales of digital books and other reading materials are soaring. A major resurgence of the digital book began in 2009. Now, in 2012, it is clear that we have reached the tipping point.

Many factors have led to the digital book revolution, but the single most important phenomenon is the growth of portable technology. Today people can choose from a dizzying array of smartphones, iPhones, tablets, iPads, Kindles, Nooks, netbooks, and laptops. These devices allow users to read everything, everywhere, at any time.

A Look Back

The traditional print publishing world gave absolutely no consideration to accessibility. No features could be added to a print book that would make it usable by a blind person. The very nature of printed books defied reuse and repurposing; the book was frozen in time, space, and format. A completely new version was required in order to serve persons who are blind and print-disabled.

In the early 1990s publishers began to use computers to create digital files which were then turned into hardcopy books. Few publishers imagined a future where the consumer would read digital books on a computer or personal device. Publishers did not think about ways that their files might be reused to create customized products, such as a collection of chapters from several books for a particular course taught by a particular professor.

The mainstream e-book movement took hold briefly in 1999. Then, in 2003, the tech bubble burst, and the digital book industry collapsed. I suspect that many publishers felt relieved; they were very comfortable in their print-based world and did not really understand the business that digital books represent.

A handful of enlightened publishers did recognize the importance of creating their content--i.e., their real intellectual property--with an eye to repurposing, reuse, and longevity. They ended up with a head start in the digital publishing race.

Accessibility Front and Center

In many respects the digital publishing world is completely different from the world of print publishing. The major difference for persons with disabilities is that full accessibility is clearly possible. Both the published content and the reading systems that present materials can be made accessible. The born digital book should be natively accessible to persons who are blind and print disabled.

Via refreshable Braille devices and computers with screen readers, blind people were among the first users of e-texts, beginning in the 1980s. It was logical to tap this rich body of experience in the development of commercial digital books. From the earliest development of commercial digital publishing, blind people and organizations that serve the blind community have been deeply involved. The Digital Accessible Information System Consortium (better known as the DAISY Consortium) participated in ongoing discussions with publishers and even drove many of the developments. Members of the consortium are the organizations throughout the world that provide blind people with library services. DAISY Full Members from the US are the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Learning Ally (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic), Bookshare, and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

In the United States, government entities have taken a strong stand on accessibility. In 2011 the US Department of Justice issued a "Dear Colleague Letter" to educational institutions, laying out the requirement that they purchase and use accessible digital books and accessible reading systems. On the international scene, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires nations to make their information and communication technology (ICT) accessible. A proposed treaty before the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) would enable the cross-border exchange of accessible digital books. The World Blind Union (WBU), an advocacy organization with delegates from 190 nations, is driving much of the WIPO treaty initiative. In the industrial world, persons who are blind make up only a small percentage of the population. In developing countries, however, the percentage of blind people is much higher. Eventually accessibility of the products will open a larger market and lead to larger growth in sales.

First Generation Reading Systems

The first generation of digital books simply consisted of electronic versions of trade books ported to a handheld reading device. In publishing lingo, trade books are novels or popular nonfiction titles such as memoirs and self-help books. Such books consist primarily of text. They have very basic structure and little formatting, making them easily adapted for the early reading systems. Consumers quickly discovered that these digital books had two big advantages. For one thing, they could be purchased at any time of the day or night and were immediately available as digital downloads. Furthermore, many titles could be carried at once on a single reading device.

However, the early reading systems had serious limitations. They could not handle highly stylized materials, such as textbooks, that had sidebars, illustrations, and a variety of font sizes. There was no way to produce material in languages such as Japanese that did not employ the Western alphabet. Print books still posed serious competition. After all, print books offered wonderful resolution, could be carried anywhere, and did not require batteries. Nevertheless, by the end of 2010, sales of digital trade books in the US surpassed those of print titles.

EPUB 3, the Enhanced E-Book of the Future

EPUB 3, developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), is the open, royalty-free standard for the new generation of digital books. The file extension "epub" identifies the file format. EPUB was built from the ground up with accessibility for blind and print-disabled readers in mind. Experts in accessibility and publishing technology from the DAISY Consortium worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the large tech companies and the publishers to deliver a format with astounding capabilities.

EPUB 3 has a foundation in HTML 5, a format that is rapidly becoming incorporated into countless devices. In addition, EPUB 3 boasts support for:

Math (using a code called MathML)
SVG and JPG graphics
Audio and text synchronization (using media overlays)
Non-Western languages including Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, and Arabic
Rich navigation of the full document
Comprehensive accessibility for blind and print-disabled readers

I dare you to trump that with the old print book!

Fundamental Access for Persons Who Are Blind

It is essential that both the EPUB digital publication and the reading system that presents it must be accessible. A perfect EPUB document will not be accessible unless it is presented in a reading device that talks and has controls a blind person can use. There must be a handshake between the reading system and the EPUB content. Both must be accessible.

By design, the EPUB 3 document should provide high levels of accessibility. All the text, in the correct reading order, must be available to access technology (AT) or the built-in accessibility of the reader. For example, if you open an EPUB 3 on an iPhone or an iPad, using the iBooks application, VoiceOver will be able to read all of the content in that EPUB. The same is true for other reading systems that can process EPUB 3.

On October 11, 2011, EPUB 3 was officially announced as the digital publishing standard. As with all standards, it will be implemented over time. In the next year or so, those of us who worked on the standard expect to see it implemented in reading systems from many, many sources. We also expect authoring tools to build in support for the creation of EPUB 3. How long this will take is not known, but the initial response is very encouraging. I have never seen such rapid uptake of any standard before!

Cool New Features of Digital Books

It is hard to predict what features will be seen first in EPUB 3 publications. Most likely, publishers will want more control over the presentation of the pages. Typographic stylization will start to show up, making the visual reading experience more enjoyable. Textbooks, which have rich layouts even in print, will also be created using the EPUB 3 standard. Many publishers will incorporate video to make the digital book a multimedia experience. Animations and interactive exercises and quizzes using JavaScript are also expected to become commonplace.

Where are blind people in this digital future? I am an optimist. I believe the traditional digital trade books should be fully accessible directly from the commercial outlets, right now. Educational publishers will need to make sure that persons with disabilities can use the multimedia digital books they produce. To make these formats accessible, captions and descriptive video must be included. Developers of reading systems will need to design mechanisms to turn these features on and off. Of course, the full text in textbooks must be accessible, with no barriers standing in the way.

Graphics will need descriptions, and tactile materials must be made available. Methods for providing descriptions of graphics are under development. The means to provide files for tactile printing or even new 3-D model printing are in progress. All of these innovations must be incorporated without interfering with the mainstream reading experience.

The study of mathematics should get a real boost from the inclusion of MathML in the digital book. Because MathML is not a picture, interesting ways to present and manipulate the mathematical content can be developed. It should be a lot of fun to see this area evolve; we are beginning to see it already.

Finally, I can envision animations and interactions inside the digital book. Imagine a rectangle that represents a greenhouse. The reader can control the amount of sunlight and the resulting growth of the plants. The reader can vary the humidity and temperature and see the resulting changes in growth. This is a simple example, but I guarantee that such exercises will become commonplace in the digital book or related learning experiences. All of these innovations can be made fully accessible to persons who are blind and print-disabled.

I encourage everybody to purchase fabulous digital books. Insist on full accessibility of the digital book and the reading system you choose. With the books and devices we buy today, we are going to set the pattern for the future.

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