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Accessible EPUB Export from InDesign Gets an Upgrade

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It seems that everyone is talking about accessibility these days. And there is a very good reason for that. Unless you have your head buried in the sand, you have likely heard that the European Accessibility Act is bearing down. Publishers are working on smoothing out the kinks in their workflows, remediating their backlists, and generally getting their houses in order to be able to keep content in the marketplace after June 2025.

Some of us have been anticipating this shift for several years. A small working group was set up by the Accessible Books Consortium to advocate with the folks at Adobe to improve their EPUB export. The DAISY Consortium’s Richard Orme and I are on the board of the ABC and organized a group which presently includes Gregorio Pellegrino (Italy, Fondazione LIA), and Jonas Lillqvist (Finland, CELIA). 

Why This is Important

This is a big issue because the vast majority of digital books in the world are created from print layout files—and with good reason. The print format is still far and away the most popular consumer format for books. According to Booknet Canada, 74% of book buyers prefer print, 17% prefer ebooks, and 6% favor audiobooks. So, naturally most publishers work on the print layouts first, adapting the content to other formats once the print edition goes to press.

While it’s difficult to get precise data, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of publishing houses use Adobe InDesign for print books. Affinity Publisher is the new kid on the block, and there is a group of publishers that still use QuarkXPress, but InDesign has a lock on upwards of 90% of the market. I like to say that InDesign is a democratic choice — not because it’s cheap or easy to access, but because most publishers are already using it. 

For this reason, it is critical that Adobe improve the accessibility of EPUB exports from InDesign. I teach EPUB production in various places, including workshops for publishers. Over the years, I have created a number of hacks and workarounds in order to “trick” InDesign into giving me relatively cleanly coded ebooks. I have personally been advocating with the InDesign engineers and blogging about how to fix InDesign’s EPUB export for more than a decade. The main problem is that InDesign creates generic code that “looks” okay but is a mess under the hood. And that sloppiness interferes with the print-disabled reading experience.

There are many things that the InDesign engineers could fix about the EPUB export but with a tight focus on accessibility, our group assembled a list of 33 critical issues, assigned priority categories focussed both on the user experience and on content creators needs (that is, how much post-export remediation would be required). This work was organized into a GitHub repository so that the working group and the InDesign engineers could communicate, offer use cases, ask questions, and give code samples. 

This advocacy work has been very slow. We started engaging the Adobe team directly more than two years ago in February 2022, after the ABC wrote a letter directly to the CEO of Adobe stating that this work is important and urgent. The Adobe team couldn’t seem to see past PDF and, indeed, asked us why book publishers didn’t simply publish in that format. It took some time for the InDesign team to understand the urgency of our work. We continued to chip away at them, organizing meetings, sending code samples and, eventually, more letters from both the ABC and the Federation of European Publishers.

Improvements in InDesign 19.4 EPUB Exports

The good news is that it is working. There have been significant updates to how InDesign exports EPUBs including the following:

  • Language tags in the correct place in the HTML
  • An option to mark an image as decorative and therefore not needing alt text
  • A suite of schema accessibility metadata options at export
  • Pagelist navigation
  • More semantic footnotes and endnotes
  • An option for a cover image description (alt text)

All of the above are available now in the InDesign 19.4 release. If you want to dig into the technical details about the recent changes, you can find them in this Fondazione LIA blog post. There is also a summary with the InDesign release notes. And with these incremental improvements to how InDesign creates ebooks, we collectively move closer and closer to the dream of “born accessible” content. 

Our working group of experts continues to work and advocate with the InDesign team. It is wonderful to see these improvements, no doubt. There is still much work to be done but we are getting there!

More Resources To Master Accessibility

Join us at the 5th annual Design + Accessibility Summit, the essential HOW-TO event for design professionals who need to master accessibility, coming to a device near you October 8–11, 2024.

It’s no secret that accessibility is a hot topic. In fact, ensuring your documents are accessible is not just a good idea: it’s the law. Whether you’re extending your company’s DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) focus, expanding your market to include the estimated 25% of the population who have disabilities, or safeguarding your company against legal risks, it’s important to make accessibility a business priority.

Creative professionals must learn how to design documents that are accessible for people with vision and hearing impairments, mobility challenges, cognitive, and other disabilities. And those who ramp up their knowledge and expertise in accessibility will find themselves in high demand supporting their business’ efforts; while those who don’t will risk falling behind.

At The Design + Accessibility Summit, you will learn practical techniques for building accessible documents with InDesign, Acrobat, PowerPoint, and other tools widely used by creative professionals.


LEARN MORE

Members get a special discount on registration! Sign up today.

Laura Brady is an accessibility expert whose priority is always to put users first. She has more than 25 years of trade publishing experience, working in digital publishing for the past fifteen years, creating and converting ebooks, training publishers on accessible workflows, writing a blog helping developers work more accessibly, and consulting for services organizations about how to publish inclusively while worrying about everyone's reading experience. You can find her at laurabrady.ca
  • Robert Davis says:

    Can we get to a direct output to Kindle from ID? The whole process at present is clunky and time consuming.

    • Laura Brady says:

      Hi Robert. You don’t need to create something special for Kindle anymore. Amazon accepts EPUB 3.

  • David E says:

    Thank you for this summary and all the work you have been doing with Adobe over the past 2 years! It is a big leap forward, indeed.

    I’m especially excited to have Page Navigation built into EPUB export, as that required some extra work in the past, using PageStaker and EPUBogrify (which is no longer supported, as you know).

    One concern, though, is that, when preparing an InDesign layout for EPUB, we often get rid of any adjustments to tracking and other changes that made the print layout look better, but aren’t needed for the EPUB. These changes can affect the pagination, so if the page navigation is added on export, it may not be an accurate reflection of the print edition. Do you have any suggestions on how to remedy this? Thanks again!

    • Kevin Callahan says:

      If you create paragraph styles for tracked paragraphs, you can map all of them to a single CSS style. So, you won’t need to remove the tracking pre-export. I use 4 tracking styles: +5, +10, -5, -10. They’ve been sufficient for my needs. (h/t Keith Snyder/Typeflow for the idea.)

      • David E says:

        Thanks Kevin, that is a great point, one I hadn’t thought of. I also sometimes adjust tracking with character styles, which would create span tags in the EPUB, but I guess you can just opt not to include those styles in the HTML, right? And I think unwanted spans can also be removed with a plugin in Calibre or Sigil.

    • Laura Brady says:

      And this is a significant concern, in fact. Anchoring images, for example will cause reflow which will mean that your pagelist isn’t faithful to the print. So you will have to make a judgement call. My suggestion is this: you can safely ignore tracking as it won’t export to EPUB. So if you can hold your nose and ignore those paragraph overrides, then do.

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