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Why Poetry Books Often Aren't Accessible to People With Disabilities

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A poem comes to my inbox or my podcast feed. Its images give me access to an unfamiliar experience. Its rhythm grips me. Words are the instruments that give sound to its message. The poet has a lesson to teach me, and a lesson isn’t often learned on the first try. I need to read more, so I type the poet’s name into a search bar and discover she’s published a collection. I go to Amazon to download a sample of its contents. There I find a metaphorically locked door. I knock, but the poet doesn’t answer. Chances are, she will never answer — because the collection isn’t available as an e-book, and I read only e-books and online material.

As I’ve written before in essays for The Mighty, I haven’t shunned the traditionally printed word out of mere inconvenience, though I don’t hold it against those who have. In 2013, reporter Bob Minezhimer wrote that a poll by USA Today and Bookish found “adults with a reading device say they read an average of 18 books a year; those without devices [said] they average[ed] 11 books.” In this age when there are so many video-based leisure options, if the choice is between reading nothing on a printed page and reading something on a screen, the latter is better.

Still, it appears that e-books don’t account for nearly as large a portion of book sales as many people thought they would by now. According to an article by Marcus Riley on Good E-Reader published in February 2020, e-books account for only 20 percent of book sales. I felt deflated when I first read this statistic. No wonder more small presses don’t publish e-books of their collections, I thought. The e-book versions wouldn’t give them a return on investment.

When I shared this conclusion with a friend, award-winning and multi-published poet Chera Hammons, she made two observations that persuaded me to continue with this essay, even though I seem to be in the minority in terms of how I read:

  1. 20 percent sounds like a small cut of the total number of books sold, but it’s still one in five books.
  2. Many small presses aren’t in business for the money; they’re in business for the love of what they publish.

Why I Read Only E-Books

The books I read are among the 20 percent because e-books allow me to read without hurting myself. I have spastic cerebral palsy. The on/off switch in my brain that tells my muscles when to contract and release doesn’t work like it should. As a result, my movement is limited, and involuntary contractions result in muscle weakness and soreness.

I struggle to hold up a book — even a paperback. I have to lay a traditional book on a table to read it. I love to read outdoors, but if I take a print book outside, I have to wrestle against the wind to keep my page. Last summer I tried to read poolside a book that isn’t available in electronic format. The wind won. I simply couldn’t hold the pages down, even though I had a table. And it’s not just keeping books open that’s a problem. Anyone can get a stiff neck from having a book at an awkward angle for very long, and for me this soreness can come after less than 30 minutes of reading. When I’m lost in a book, and I don’t notice the burn, I’ve been known to end up with an injury that lasts a week.

Four Ways E-Books Make Reading More Accessible

E-readers make reading more accessible to me because:

  • They’re lighter and more compact than paperbacks, so they reduce stress on the hands and arms.
  • They don’t have pages to flap in the wind.
  • I never have to worry about my book not being in my bag. I almost always have my phone in case of an emergency, so if I leave my e-reader at home, I can use the app from the e-book seller of my choice.
  • I don’t have to worry about reaching a shelf or dropping a book — or a whole row of them — when I’m trying to select one. Of course, I can ask someone for help getting a book from a shelf, but like many book lovers, I like to browse reading material at my leisure. Yet I have very limited arm extension. I can reach a couple of feet in front and above me — and that’s when I’m at my most flexible. In short, shelves are décor in my world — not functional furniture.

What’s Missing from the E-Book Experience

Do I miss the comforting smell of dust, paper and ink combining? Sure. But if I can’t reach the book or keep it open, what good does smelling it do? Would I like to support local bookstores? You bet. But most offer only print books. Book stacks clogging aisles and restrooms of questionable wheelchair accessibility can also present challenges.

Admittedly, as the blog post “Do Our E-Books Provide Equal Accessibility to All the Readers?” acknowledges, e-books and the devices on which they are read still have room for improvement when it comes to accessibility. But the ability to adjust color contrast, change fonts and font size, and text to speech capability help people with vision impairment read. The number of readers who benefit from such features will only increase as the population ages.

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Why There Aren’t More Poetry E-Books

In his book “Indie Poet Rockstar,” Micheal La Ronn indicates that some poets don’t want to see their collections made available as e-books precisely because digital formats give readers the ability to change how text looks on the page.

I understand that characteristics such as indentation and line breaks may be important for what a poet intends to convey with their work. To experiment, I changed the font, margin, and line spacing settings on a collection of Mary Oliver poems I was reading. Rest assured, the indented lines still looked more indented than the lines that began on the left margin. The e-book version of the Billy Collins collection “Aimless Love” includes the following note after its table of contents:

“The length of [a poem] and the poet’s use of stanza breaks give the poem of physical shape, which guides our reading of the poem and distinguishes it from prose. With an e-book, this distinct shape may be altered if you choose to take advantage of one of the functions of your eReader by changing the size of the type for greater legibility. Doing this may cause the poem to have line breaks not intended by the poet. To preserve the physical integrity of the poem, we have formatted the ebook so that any words that get bumped down to a new line will be noticeably indented. This way, you can still appreciate the poem’s original shape regardless of your choice of type size.”

This publisher has certainly found one way to deal with the issue, but any publisher should be able to view what their e-books will look like before they publish them. Derek Haines’ online article: “E-book Publishing Tip — Read Your E-book Before You Publish” explains how. So if a publisher doesn’t like the way a poem looks when its appearance is modified, where the formatting might have relied on indentations in the past, the publisher might consider conveying the poem’s message in a different way.

Accessibility Shouldn’t Be Foreign to Poetry

I would go so far as to say that prioritizing formatting preferences over accessibility is like refusing to provide a ramp into a building because people taking the ramp route won’t get the same view of the architecture as people using the stairs.

To write poetry is to take the personal and make it universal — to take the universal and make it personal using experience, sound, and image in ways that are unique. If the poet wishes to limit their audience, why publish the poem in the first place? Why not keep it in a notebook or on a hard drive?

I would argue that we write poetry because we want to make connections — connections between seemingly unrelated images, between images and sounds, and between our experiences and the experiences of our readers. If our experiences are very different from those of some readers, then we hope our poems would build new bridges of understanding. In short, not to do all we can to make poetry accessible to the widest audience possible, especially an audience that appreciates our work and would support it, is contrary to the purpose of the poem.

I have a hard time feeling sympathetic toward the efforts of any press that doesn’t offer e-book versions of its titles. I don’t think it’s right to bemoan the dominance of large retailers with online presences if those retailers provide services readers need and that smaller operations don’t provide. Fortunately, in our technology-driven world, removing barriers to the physical accessibility of poetry is not as difficult as it might seem. It’s true that creating an e-book is not as simple as pasting the text of a collection into a box on an e-book seller’s website. The text needs to be formatted in certain ways to be readable on an e-reading device or app.

How to Produce Cost-Effective E-Books

The good news for small presses is that there are ways to produce e-books of their titles without incurring much higher production costs, though a researcher can find a lot of differing opinions about the cost of designing and formatting an e-book. Derek Murphy writes on CreatIndieCovers that self-publishers may hire a cover designer for between $300 and $600. A small press, on the other hand, should have already had a cover designed for the print version of a collection. This same cover could be used in the e-book edition, so there shouldn’t be any additional costs for cover design at a small press.

How to Format Your Own E-Books

In a brief search for e-book formatters, I found prices ranging from $19 on the Mark’s List page of SmashWords to $349 according to Elizabeth Mays on Pressbooks, respectively. Self-publishers I know say paying for a formatter isn’t necessary. Even if an indie author or small press purchases the high-end book-formatting software Vellum and pays the $249 for the version that, according to the software’s website, can format e-books and print books, that’s a one-time cost for a tool a self-publisher could use for the rest of her career. If she doesn’t own a Mac, there is an additional hurdle to clear, as Vellum is available only for Macs. There are several ways to manage that hurdle:

  • Buy a Mac. This is an expensive option that might not be available to most.
  • Subscribe to MacinCloud. This service offers a variety of different options and payment plans. It allows a subscriber to use Mac software on a PC through the MacinCloud server. Users can pay for the service by the hour. According to the company’s website, the most popular subscription is the $20-a-month option. I would hypothesize that a PC user would need to use the software only when she is ready to format her books. When not at the formatting stage of publishing, a person wouldn’t need to pay for the subscription.
  • Format the e-book without using Vellum. This is the option that would probably be most controversial among self-publishers, who strive to shake off the perception that self-published works are of lower quality than traditionally published works. I haven’t published an e-book yet. Nevertheless, I typed into YouTube “how to format an e-book for Kindle” and “how to format an EPUB book.” (EPUB is the format used by most e-reading devices other than the Kindle.) My results were several YouTube videos for both searches. These videos taught me that I could use Microsoft Word to create professionally formatted e-books, if I use the Styles features to create a consistent look for titles. After I create my collection using Microsoft Word, I could do one of the following:
    • Import the document into Amazon’s Kindle Create software. It creates e-books in Kindle format only, but it’s available to download for free. It includes tutorials. There are also walk-throughs of the software available on YouTube. Based on the brief overview I watched, Kindle Create offers several options for titles, subtitles, text spacers and drop caps, to name a few features. I suspect poetry collections wouldn’t even need to take advantage of all these offerings. They don’t need drop caps and scene separators.
    • Use a free software called Calibre to convert the Word document file to a MOBI file — a Kindle format — or to an EPUB file. Unlike Vellum and Kindle Create, Calibre may not handle features common to novels, such as drop caps and symbols used as scene separators, but again, I would argue that poets don’t need these features.

E-Books Don’t Just Benefit Readers

Given the needs of readers, especially readers with disabilities, the ways that e-books meet those needs, and the options for creating e-books, it isn’t correct to say that poetry publishers and poets cannot offer e-books. The question shouldn’t be whether poetry e-books can and should be widely available, but how we can make them widely available. Not to offer them is a disservice to the poet, the poetry and its readers.

Fortunately, when I entered the keywords “poetry collection” into the search bar on Amazon, I received 50,000 results. Not all of them were actually poetry collections. Novels with some connection to poetry came up. Epic poems, such as “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” also appeared. Yet among these classics were many poetry collections, whose themes ranged from mental health to relationships to politics. When I realized I could read these collections on my Kindle, I felt that I had found another poetry community — one where I was included and where I could include others by learning from their poetry. But I want this community to expand so it embraces the work of all poets who seek publication, including those poets who publish with small presses. Not enough small presses or the poets they publish are reaping the full reward potential of their work.

Poetry lovers like me are missing out on what too many poets and their publishers have to offer. The good news is that limited access to poetry e-books can become a problem of the past. I believe that publishers already printing collections can produce e-book versions at no additional cost, and that publishers don’t have to be technology experts working with expensive software to do it. Considering these realities, I hope that poets and their publishers will share this article and find it helpful in making reading and publishing poetry more accessible to people with disabilities.

Getty image by FabrikaCR.

Originally published: June 16, 2020
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