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.

Know Better, Do Better: Editing for Authenticity in Our Spring YA Title

Ooligan Press is proud to announce our upcoming title The Names We Take, which will debut May 19, 2020. Written by Washingtonian first-time author Trace Kerr, this young adult postapocalyptic novel follows Pip, a tough seventeen-year-old girl, in the wake of a devastating plague. After swearing an oath to never leave anyone behind, Pip takes the twelve-year-old Iris under her wing. A tragedy forces the girls to navigate the shattered remains of Spokane and its outlying areas, where they meet a third girl, the headstrong Fly. As Pip, Iris, and Fly negotiate their identities and relationships, their circumstances grow more dangerous. Pip quickly learns two things: first, that never leaving anyone behind is easier said than done; and second, that her friendships are the key to finding meaning in life beyond survival.

The Names We Take faces down its darker elements—including violence, bigotry, and abuse—with both unflinching realism and hope. Importantly, it portrays the struggles of two main characters who fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Because these identities do not exist as a monolith, and also because this is a book intended for a YA audience, Ooligan chose to incorporate authenticity readers (sometimes called sensitivity readers) into the editorial process.

Authenticity readers are specialized editors who often step in when authors are writing characters whose identities and experiences they do not personally share. These readers check for inaccuracies, unconscious biases, and insensitive language, and they usually have personal experience related to the identities of the manuscript’s characters or to the events that transpire in the manuscript. Because there is no one way to relate to a given identity or experience, best practices generally dictate that books with sensitive material require multiple authenticity readers. For this process to be effective, editors and authors must be receptive to the feedback they receive.

Part of the beauty of working with a collaborative press like Ooligan means that, in addition to the three people who performed formal authenticity reads, Ooligan was able to solicit the opinions of press members who were not on the team for The Names We Take but who were still willing to point out potential sensitivity issues in the manuscript without doing formal sensitivity edits.

Many of us at Ooligan—including the book’s author—had never experienced an authenticity read before this one. As a learning experience, it was invaluable. This process has also sparked a lot of important conversations about how the press will structure its editorial timeline moving forward. Beginning as early as the acquisitions process (when books often undergo developmental edits), the press will now consider whether or not a book requires authenticity readers, at what point in the editorial process these readers will be brought in, and how to synthesize the authenticity edits in the most effective, efficient way. It’s a responsibility the press takes seriously. The work of authenticity readers has thoroughly enriched The Names We Take in content, voice, and message, and we know the same will be true for many future books—at Ooligan and beyond.

We look forward to sharing The Names We Take with you soon! Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for further updates.

Accessibility: Just a tweet away.

Like many industries, publishing has incorporated social media to connect with its readers; Melville House, Penguin Random House, and Tin House all use their social media feeds to connect their brands and books to their followers. When publishers post pictures, links pertaining to their titles, and collateral for their upcoming books, they’re able to share exactly what their press is about. As readers and social media users, we have incredible access to information about upcoming releases, author information, and events publishers might be holding.
Twitter has become an important place of interaction between readers, authors, and publishers. Social media users are able to find other readers easily, interact with their favorite authors, and follow publishing houses to keep up with the latest news. The creation of an online platform allows many people to be a part of the same community. Recently, Twitter user Rob Long posted a screenshot showing followers how to change their accessibility settings to better serve the blind and visually impaired community. His photos show exactly how to make the change, and he explains the impact making this change can have. “Increase your ability to reach us and help us interact with your pictures, it’s really simple and makes a huge difference to our Twitter experience allowing us to see your images our way…” says Long.
With a small change, an entirely new community can have access to “see” your pictures, but in a different way. All you have to do is adjust your accessibility settings, and when you post a picture, describe the image. The Twitter community responded quickly to Long’s post, which garnered over 180,000 likes and 145,000 retweets. Many people, including myself, made the change to ensure our posts are more accessible to anyone in this particular social media community. While accessibility is something I often think about, the realization that doing this simple thing could open up opportunities for so many more people really hit home.
Here’s how to change your own settings on Twitter:

Step One

Step Two

Step Three

So how can a post like this inform the publishing community? More specifically, what does this have to do with the digital side of publishing?
With the introduction of ebooks and audiobooks, publishers have become more accessible to many communities. These options make reading mainstream books an option for almost anyone as long as they have access to an electronic device and the financial means to purchase books. To accommodate the different needs of different readers, publishers, with the invention of the internet, have found ways to format their text in new and creative ways. But even with these options, there are still other ways that publishers can make sure they’re reaching and informing their entire readership.
By adopting accessible methods on social media accounts like Twitter, publishers can guarantee their posts are readable for anyone who seeks them out. Publishers want to facilitate the conversation about what they put into the world. Who doesn’t want their titles and authors talked about? When we take the time to ensure that anyone who wants to interact with our posts on social media platforms has the ability to, we show that we value the community we’ve built. Adding picture descriptions on Twitter posts gives so many more people the opportunity to interact with their favorite authors, books, and publishers, and this access is something we should all be striving for. By doing making these changes, we’re showing that we’re working to be a more inclusive, safe, and welcoming space for everyone.