Writing Alt Text for Ebooks

Not all EPUBs have images, but when they do, including alternative text for every image is essential to maintaining accessibility for all readers. Alternative text, or alt text, is different from including a caption for an image in your book; it is a clear description of what is taking place in the image so that readers who use voice-to-text software can understand its context. Used commonly on websites, alt text can be easily built into your InDesign document for all of your images before you convert your book into an EPUB—and here is how to write it.

Remember accessibility as you write.

The core purpose of including alt text is to assist readers with visual impairments or disabilities. Think of this reader as you look at the image and write the alt text. How would you describe this image to someone who couldn’t see it? What information is important?

What is your caption missing?

Your EPUB images may or may not include captions, but if they do, voice-to-text software will be able to read it along with the alt text. This means that your alt text should not be a regurgitation of the information held within the caption; instead, think of what is missing.

Is the caption explaining the context of the image so well that alt text isn’t needed? If not, what is the caption not doing that your alt text could?

Use brevity (with exceptions).

Since voice-to-text software will read both the alt text and caption aloud, keep your alt text succinct whenever possible. Make every word in your alt text pull descriptive weight, and try to keep your copy between one and three sentences long.

Of course, there are times when alt text must include transcriptions, like when there is text embedded within an image. In the case of important diagrams or figures that include text within an image—where the information is not explained within the surrounding text and is necessary for the reader’s understanding—then a full transcription should be included in the alt text. This is a case where the caption would act as a visual aide, while the alt text would provide longer, more descriptive information.

Paint a visual story with accuracy.

Providing an accurate, objective description of your images using alt text is important for establishing context for your reader. Determine what is taking place in the image and its context within the EPUB; or to put it simply: who, what, where, when, and why?

Concrete details and specificity are key, especially for nonfiction titles. However, that doesn’t mean imagery should be left completely behind within your alt text. Consider how you can work in descriptive language that paints a clear visual for your reader.

When proofing your alt text copy, ask a friend or colleague to close their eyes while you read the text aloud. Then ask these questions: Does it add context for the reader and provide essential information? Does your alt text take too long to read, or is it a proper length? Lastly, does it paint an accurate picture in the mind of your reader?

Further Resources

To practice creating and writing alt text for future titles, take advantage of online resources such as the Poet Training Tool. An initiative provided by the U.S. Department of Education, this interactive website has modules that help you understand when and how to describe images, as well as exercises for you to practice describing images provided to you.

Alt text is one way to keep your ebooks and EPUBs accessible, but knowing how to write alt text is only a small part of accessibility. Stay up to date with accessibility standards from the IDPF and take advantage of these user-friendly guides and resources provided by Inclusive Publishing.

Ebooks Are for Everyone: Making Accessible Ebooks

As technology advances and the publishing industry advances along with it, it is our responsibility as emerging publishing professionals to make sure our books are meeting the varied needs of our readers. Inclusive publishing, or making print books more accessible for readers with disabilities, is becoming easier with the development of ereaders, smartphones, and even braille displays for ebooks. When it comes to producing ebooks at Ooligan, we should be making sure our designs are accessible and following industry guidelines so that we can bring our books to as many readers as possible. So how can we accomplish this?

Identify Your Readers
Before you touch your files, you’ll want to take a moment to remember your readers and what accommodations we can make for those with disabilities. Those with print disabilities who are blind or have low vision will benefit from alternative text for images within the text. Readers with dyslexia can use their ereaders to adjust the size and font of the text, and those with mobility impairment who are unable to hold a print book will benefit from ereaders that can read the text aloud. To help those readers, the formatting of the body text—as well as the front and back matter—should be organized, orderly, and clear. Be cognizant of your future readers as you design your ebook by asking yourself, How can I make this easier to navigate?

Just remember: keep it simple. Sadly, that means taking a beautifully designed file with enthralling fonts and funky formatting and stripping it to its basic structure; however, this is exactly what will make it easier for anyone to enjoy our books.

Working in InDesign
Ooligan’s design department uses InDesign to design our print book interiors, then passes along the final files to the digital department so they can be turned into ebooks. Before the files are sent to design, they are XML coded by the editorial department, which helps when we transition the files into XHTML, the markup language used for ebooks. Being familiar with InDesign is extremely helpful, as the next step in this process is moving through the ebook and readying it to be turned into an EPUB.

With simplicity and navigation in mind, we comb through the INDD file and clarify the formatting where we can while still honoring the original intent of the print design. We anchor images within the document so they show up where they are supposed to, and we add alternative text—describing the image in detail—that can be read by an ereader. We make sure that the table of contents uses rich navigation, including for parts of the book that are not necessarily chapters: sections, images, tables, and other material that a reader may want to find easily.

Using the Right Format
Once your file is ebook ready, InDesign can export it into EPUB3. EPUB3 is the first file format to provide accessibility features, and this is the primary format we use here at Ooligan. InDesign can export the file into the EPUB3 format and make the file either a reflowable ebook or a fixed-layout ebook.

Reflowable ebooks resize the text to fit whatever device a reader uses. They often offer customization options, like different fonts and the ability to change the background or the size and color of the text. This allows a wider range of accessibility than fixed-layout ebooks, which essentially create an exact page-by-page replica of the original print design. Although fixed layouts can allow for interactive features like animation and sound, they aren’t as malleable of a format for ereaders to use and can’t be read by all devices. At Ooligan, we export our EPUBs as reflowable ebooks.

If you get the chance to work on an ebook at Ooligan, whether in the design process or by typecoding a chapter with the editorial department, I hope you consider accessibility as you work. As future publishing professionals, we need to remember and advocate for all types of readers as we move forward into our careers. This could mean helping your workplace update their backlist titles with accessible EPUB files, or it could mean staying on top of the latest in accessible technology in our industry. Wherever we end up in the publishing world, we should provide our readers with books that we are proud to make and give every reader a chance to enjoy them.