Australia’s Christopher Stephen is the founder of ReadHowYouWant, a company that publishes books in accessible formats for people who are visually impaired, dyslexic, non-native English speakers — or just have trouble reading regular print. Read How You Want has partnered with major publishers to build a collection of 4,500 titles, including Oprah Book Club picks, Classics and new releases. Readers can buy the titles online and download in the format that’s easiest for them to read.
Q: Chris, how did you first get involved in accessible publishing?
A: My older sister taught me to read. She developed multiple sclerosis (MS) and found reading increasingly tiring. I bought her a large-print book and she did not find this easier to read. I was puzzled. I tested her reading, and eventually discovered she has an eye-tracking problem — her eyes kept jumping to other lines even in the large print book — the lines were printed too close together. My experience with my sister broke my belief that one size fits all when it comes to books. I became interested in how different people read, and how changing the format could help people to read, or read better.
Q: You’ve created quite a different business model than nonprofits like Bookshare, which use a copyright loophole to secure free digital book formats.
A: Making an accessible book is a considerable expense. Publishers are busy and don’t get paid to co-operate by giving files to charities to make books for the reading disabled. Some publishers are worried that their files may not be secure. The majority of people with reading issues are not helped very much, because they cannot get the editions they need — only five percent of books are available in digital formats, including digital text and digital braille. With Read How You Want, publishers and authors get paid for every edition of a book that is sold. This is only possible with a new technical solution—we mark up a file once, and then we can produce any format of book from that marked-up file.
Q: So the books aren’t free?
A: No. Readers have to buy our books. We believe that publishers and authors should be paid for all editions of books. Some of the editions are pretty low cost; a braille book sells for $9.99. Some other organizations offer free braille and DAISY files, but readers have to prove their disability to gain access to them. We have over 4,500 books and we are adding hundreds more each month. Right now we have a wonderful free chapter program in conjunction with digital-book maker HumanWare where each month readers can download a free chapter in DAISY from among 20 bestselling titles.
Q: What are the different formats that print books can be converted into?
A: We have a range of proprietary reading formats that customize characters, word and line spacing for people with normal to very poor vision. We also do braille, DAISY, synthesized audio MP3 – which is the same technology used in the Kindle e-book reader — and we support nearly all e-book formats. This year, we’re going to release formats for people with eye-tracking problems and language-based difficulties like dyslexia.
Q: Should the Kindle and other e-book readers have text-to-speech for the blind?
A: I think that some visually impaired people will benefit a lot from the Kindle’s text-to-speech option, but I’m not sure that everybody will be able to use it. They may find it better to have a purpose-built text-to-speech device with built-in navigation, like the DAISY readers. The big advantage of Kindle is the number of books they have for sale and the price at which the books sell. If publishers had their books converted into DAISY, synthesized audio MP3, and other formats of e-books as well as e-Pub and Kindle formats, everybody would win. Publishers would sell more books, and readers would have more choices.
Read How You Want is partners with Demos Medical Publishing, the publisher of Suzanne Robitaille’s book, The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology.