Building an accessible bookshop



With books now commonly available in four formats—paperback, hardback, ebook and audiobook—publishing is accessing new readers by the day. But at Firsty, we’re increasingly aware of how important it is to ensure that all people have easy access to books, including the 2 million people in the UK who live with sight loss.

In November 2020, we joined forces with Ulverscroft to take on its retail platform, The Reading House. Our venture is driven by a simple goal: to make The Reading House the UK’s number one accessible reading site. We’ve got quite a way to go, of course.

The Reading House is popular for its physical formats, like large print books and audio CDs. We saw an opportunity to use our ebook and audiobook solution, Glassboxx, to add to the formats it offers, including digital downloads. We also wanted to give the platform a marketing push so more people can benefit from it. We want to introduce ebooks to the site eventually too, as the format can offer good accessibility.

We’re in good company to achieve our goal. Ulverscroft have devoted their business to publishing large print paperbacks and hardbacks since 1964. One of their first titles was A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie, a strong advocate for large print who requested that her entire catalogue be published this way. “Reading is one of the principal joys of life,” Christie said, “and to be deprived of it is a very sad thing.” So, we’ve been working on delivering what our audience is missing. We’re connected with the RNIB, and are looking to work with similar organisations to spread the word to the people who need our service the most.

As well as catering to the visually impaired community through audio and large print, we need to make the site more accessible via metadata, navigation and more. This requires a lot of attention to detail, particularly when something so simple as alt-text on images can make or break a site for certain users. Alt-text has long been a feature of website design, but has now been introduced across social media, with up to 1,000 characters available to describe images for screen-readers.

We must also make time to add descriptions of images and book covers, so it is as easy as possible for people with sight loss to navigate our pages. We’ve also emphasised taking orders by phone to suit customers who prefer not to use websites so much.

Currently, all our website images go through a colour contrast tester to ensure that they’re visible enough for partially sighted users. We’re in the process of optimising the site for customers who might use text-to-speech technology to navigate a page, and are testing accessibility modules on our site that give users a range of changeable features such as resizing text or recolouring pages.

Laura Brady wrote for Bookmachine about the many ways publishers can improve accessibility in the production of books in all formats, and about how accessibly can be recognised with the Global Certified AccessibleTM (GCA) certification, which encourages publishers to make ‘born accessible’ content the standard. As this standard becomes more widely adopted, The Reading House may well be the perfect outlet for all such content.

Accessibility for visually impaired readers is rising. Writing for The Bookseller on inclusivity for deaf people in publishing, Aliya Gulamani asked: “How can we make the publishing industry more diverse if we do not apply a diverse communication to our content?” Integrating Glassboxx into The Reading House means we can build an online bookshop that works for everyone.

To that end, we invite publishers to get in touch if you are interested in selling your audiobook titles through The Reading House. We proudly sell more than 12,000 of titles from the likes of Boldwood Books, ISIS Audio, Oakhill, Choclit—and the more the merrier.

Rory McNeill is publishing marketing executive at Firsty.