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    eBooks and Accessibility

    By Rob Preece,

    During a brief flurry during the dot-com madness of 1998-2000, electronic books (eBooks) were the next big thing. Hundreds of companies started up to publish eBooks, manufacture dedicated readers, set up on-line bookstores, and to provide research advice to those who tracked coming trends. With the bust, eBooks became relegated somewhere between online pet-food stores and on-line auto repair--a joke in the industry. Despite an industry consolidation and the elimination of many highly funded and high-burn-rate startups, however, the eBook industry has continued to plug along offering its products and gradually increasing its sales. The Open E-Book Forum, which tracks sales by many of the larger e-book publishers, reports steadily growing sales well after the so-called e-book bust. See for example Record eBook Retail Sales Set in Q1 2004. In another article, I have suggested several important advantages held by e-books, advantages that will ultimately lead to their virtual replacement of traditional paper-based books. (See What's with E-Publishing). Some of the advantages include:

    1. eBooks are inherently less costly (with a production cost of incremental books near zero)
    2. eBooks are more environmentally sound
    3. eBooks are more compact (hundreds can be held in a single Palm, iPaq, or laptop PC)
    4. eBooks can be updated and corrected more easily
    5. eBooks can be electronically searched
    6. eBooks can be purchased instantly without the need for a trip to the bookstore or a wait for physical delivery of a paper product
    7. because of their cost-effectiveness, eBooks can be used to address submarkets which could not be cost-effectively served by traditional publishing

    In this paper, I would like to address another and highly important advantage held by eBooks-an advantage that traditional paper-based publishing can only address at huge cost and through offering a set of incompatible products. That advantage is accessibility.

    According to the 2000 census, about 7.7 million Americans had difficulty seeing words and letters in ordinary newspaper (or book) print. This number will grow significantly as the baby boom continues to age. For these Americans, and their millions more cousins overseas, traditional book reading, if possible at all, becomes a luxury for bright daylight. Similarly, the millions of Americans with reading disabilities including dyslexia and illiteracy are challenged by traditional paper-based books. Traditional publishers respond by offering large print and audio books. These alternatives, however, require completely separate printing, warehousing, and inventory management. It would be easy, for example, to misjudge the number of books to print and end up with a surplus of audio CDs and insufficient large print. Where a title is purchased for use by a family with multiple readers (perhaps including those who require large print, those who prefer audio books, and those who desire a standard print size), that family is required either to make multiple purchases or fail to allow some of the readers to enjoy the book.

    With electronic books, a single technology-the eBook--allows complete flexibility to address all of these accessibility issues. Whether your e-book comes in Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Reader, or HTML format (or even Text), the reader can size the print to her own comfort. For a different reader, resizing is simply a matter of clicking a button. This capability has been an inherent part of the e-book since the beginning-something that has long attracted the attention of advocacy groups such as TeleRead ( Rather than pay extra for a large-print version (which are only available for a minority of available paper-based books anyway), readers simply select a font size.

    Recently, Microsoft ( has added a huge upgrade to its fine Microsoft Reader product-a text-to-voice capability. Unless specially encrypted, any book purchased in the Microsoft Reader LIT format can be instantly 'read' using this free Microsoft capability (text-to-voice is an add-in available for Microsoft Reader version 2, and currently not available on the PDA version of the reader). The text-to-voice capability is relatively high quality, operates in real-time, and allows that same eBook to be read by the blind and those without reading skills (one feature is a moving cursor that allows beginning readers to follow along, learning as they listen).

    Recognizing the high value of the eBook, and reflecting the reality that even modest fixed costs must be amortized over a far smaller number of sales per title than are currently achieved by the established paper-based publishers, many electronic publishers initially established relatively high price points. These price points, along with occasional incompatibilities and user issues resulting from publisher requirements to protect copyright-holders, certainly slowed the deployment of the eBook and its replacement of the traditional book. But many eBook publishers have responded to this challenge. Project Gutenberg, for example ( offers thousands of public domain works for free. Commercial publishers like provide highly competitive pricing (all full-length novels on sell for between $1 and $3.99-U.S.). This decision to pass on cost savings to the customer rather than retain them for company growth or author royalties is a difficult one but one that will further accelerate the growth of the eBook as it takes its position as a leader in the publishing sector.

    In the not-to-distant future, using currently available technology, it will be possible to sit at your workstation, enjoying an e-novel, then step into your car and listen to the next chapter as you drive to an appointment. While you wait to be shown into the conference, you might pull your PDA or smart phone out and read a few more pages. At home, you might pass your book to your husband-letting him switch to a larger font-size for comfortable reading. Using existing wireless connectivity, your book and your bookmarks can be beamed from device to device, and from mode to mode.

    The nay-sayers of the electronic book revolution have had their laughs. As with most technologies, growing pains and learning curves slowed the deployment during its early days. But these problems are largely behind us. A huge customer base is already making large print and audio books the growth portion of the book market. Even without considering accessibility, eBooks have significant advantages that traditional paper technology simply cannot equal. Adding the potentially huge opportunity of accessibility, eBooks stand poised for growth that will make the Open Ebook Organization's current findings seem modest indeed.