Freehand Books’ Accessible Publishing Journey: How a Small Press Made Their Entire Catalogue Accessible

Find out how Freehand Books remediated their backlist into accessible format, earned their GCA Benetech certification, and changed their eBook production workflows.

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    Standards and Best Practices

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Banner with the text Freehand Books' Accessible Publishing Journey. Next to the text is the Freehand Books publisher logo.


Welcome to the first blog post on the APLN! This blog series will explore the accessible publishing journeys of several Canadian publishers, and the challenges and lessons they learned along the way. Kicking us off is Freehand Books, whose Managing Editor, Kelsey Attard, shared the press’s process of going through the Benetech certification program, implementing workflow changes, and working with third-party vendors for eBook conversions.

Based in Alberta, Freehand Books publishes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction titles. Freehand aims to produce 8 accessible digital books per year and has an impressive 84 accessible titles in their catalogue at present. Let’s dive into how their accessible journey began!

Freehand’s Accessible Publishing Beginnings

“I remember attending information sessions on accessibility at least as early as 2018, and starting to think about what we could do,” Attard recalls. “And I remember being discouraged, too, because I couldn’t figure out how to make meaningful progress, with a very small team, limited resources, and minimal personal aptitude (technology is not my strong suit). In 2020, the Book Publishers Association of Alberta launched their first project to help publishers convert backlist EPUBs into accessible formats. Freehand was really happy to take part in that project, and it marked a concrete starting step in our accessible publishing journey.”

In 2019, the government announced an investment of $22.8 million over 5 years for the Accessible Digital Books initiative, offering support for organizations to produce and distribute accessible digital books by independent Canadian publishers. Several large-scale accessible eBook conversion projects were made possible thanks to this funding. Since their first remediation project, Freehand Books has also participated in similar projects with the BPAA and the Literary Press Group.

“Our full backlist is now converted to accessible formats, and new titles are originated in accessible digital formats.” With regards to why the press embarked on their accessible publishing journey, Attard notes: “We wanted to be up to standards, we believe that accessibility is really important, and eBOUND connected with us to help us get on the road to Benetech certification, which gave us a push to get going with it.”

Pursuing Certification

Benetech, an organization creating “software for social good”, offers a GCA certification program that certifies publishers’ workflow to help them produce born accessible eBooks. Through eBOUND Canada’s partnership with Benetech, Freehand Books completed the GCA certification program this year.

“The certification process was really valuable for us,” says Attard. “It gave us the opportunity to ask a lot of questions and have them be answered in a really detailed, specific-to-whatever-case-study-we-were-discussing way (shoutout to our certifier Janine Jeffers, who was wonderfully patient and helpful!). My main takeaway from the process was confidence – confidence in knowing what needed to be done and how to do it, and confidence in knowing how to find the answers to my questions.”

One Freehand Books title that went through the Benetech certification process is End Times by Michelle Syba.

Cover: End Times: Stories by Michelle Syba.

“I highly recommend it,” says Attard. “It’s an amazing collection of short stories that explore evangelical culture with wonderful sensitivity and insight (the Literary Review of Canada calls it ‘compulsively readable…a rich exploration of religious faith and its absence’). The book includes a reproduction of a painting (The Peasants’ Wedding by Pieter Brueghel, the younger) –most of our books don’t feature visual elements – so there were some new things to learn about accessible metadata and access modes for this one!”

Workflow Changes and Production

The certification process impacted many areas of Freehand Books’ workflow, including production, sales, marketing & publicity, and data and technology.

“The Benetech certification process has informed a lot of things that we think about and that we do in all parts of the business. For example, thinking about colour contrast during cover design, or discussing how we might display eBook accessibility information on our own website.”

Freehand works with third-party conversion vendors to create their new accessible titles and reviews them in-house. “We typically send back a handful of changes or corrections to make to the file – for example, if there are errors in the alt text or a list isn’t formatted properly,” elaborates Attard. “Sometimes it’s simpler to make some edits to the EPUBs directly on our end rather than go back and forth – say, if language shift tags need to be adjusted. Learning to use Sigil was a game-changer for us in this regard, in being able to make minor adjustments directly!”

One of the benefits of working with third-party vendors is saving time and resources. “Just recently we went from submitting a book to be converted to having a final version (corrected and adjusted) in about a week,” notes Attard.

The press keeps a helpful checklist of things to watch for when receiving files from third-party conversion houses. Some of the main things in the checklist include heading and list formatting, styling, checking language shifts, page markers, hyperlinks, and ensuring the accuracy of the metadata. (The APLN also recommends using a checklist for reviewing EPUBs! Check out our downloadable checklists here.)

Planning Ahead

“It’s clear that the standards and guidelines are constantly evolving and will continue to evolve,” Attard states.

This is true for WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), version 2.2 of which is expected to be published in August 2023. Updates to accessibility specifications also occur as some terms are deprecated and others are introduced. Attard highlights that for small publishers, it can be hard to keep up with the changes in the accessible digital publishing sphere. This is why support from dedicated organizations that provide resources and information to publishers — and government support for these organizations — is paramount.

“I’ve come to see it more as a process,” concludes Attard, “and we’ll continue to adapt and improve as we go.”