Huw Alexander is the Chief Operating Officer of textBOX, a company that launched in 2018 in San Francisco and London that specialises in providing high-quality, accessible image descriptions for the publishing industry.

textBOX helps to solve the issues that publishers encounter in making their content accessible for the print disabled.
Their staff’s publishing background and network of contacts within the community have meant that designing effective solutions has been done in a collaborative way.

We spoke with Huw to learn more about the service he offers and also his perspective on the challenges and opportunities in the industry’s transition to born-accessible publishing.

What is your background in publishing and what led you to start textBOX?

Over the last 20 years I have worked in a variety of publishing roles. My career began as a bookseller and then moved into the literary agent sector. I joined SAGE Publishing in 2003 as Rights Manager and developed their translation catalogue. Then, I went on to become Digital Sales Manager at SAGE and shaped their ebook and accessibility programmes.

I left SAGE in July 2018 to co-found textBOX with my colleague, Caroline Desrosiers. As textBOX’s Chief Operating Officer, I oversee the development of our image description methodology and technology solutions for publishers.

What led you to found textBOX?

We were heavily involved in developing SAGE’s accessibility programme and we found the process both challenging and inspiring. The biggest challenge was sourcing high-quality image descriptions and we realised that this was not an isolated case in the industry. We looked at each other one day and thought, “we should fix this”. Twelve months later, we launched textBOX.

What is your searchBOX tool?

searchBOX is a new global database of publisher contact information created to help the library and disability services community source accessible content. searchBOX is a free tool designed to streamline search queries, promote positive communication between universities and publishers and expedite the delivery of accessible content to print disabled students. The database contains over 3,500 publishers and imprints from the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

What are the challenges of image description that publishers should be aware of?

One of the key initial questions a publisher should ask themselves is, “who is responsible for creating the image descriptions?” Should it be the author, the publisher, a production vendor or a specialized publishing partner?

This decision will depend on the publisher. While authors may be best positioned to describe the content, they may not be experienced in writing accessible descriptions or want the additional workload.

If publishers decide to take on the work within their editorial and production departments, highly specialized training will be required and there will be a question of whether overstretched staff can accommodate these extra responsibilities.

While some production vendors are now offering image description services, this is a new area, and, in many cases, there have been concerns over quality, consistency and expertise. A further alternative is to outsource to a specialized partner, such as textBOX, who can handle everything on behalf of the publisher.

For textBOX, the quality and consistency of the description is paramount. We have developed a new approach to image descriptions called focus/LOCUS, that simplifies the process by deconstructing images into their constituent parts and building the descriptions from these elements. Each description must pass our PICTURE test to guarantee the quality: Precise, Informative, Consistent, Thorough, Useful, Relevant and Engaging.

What do you see to be the key challenges in implementing a ‘born accessible’ publishing industry?

From first-hand experience we know that implementing an accessible publishing programme can be daunting. Publishers can introduce accessible publishing by following some simple steps:

  • ensure that the company website communicates accessibility information
  • centralise responsibility for accessibility within the organization
  • adopt the EPUB format
  • understand the needs of customers
  • learn from small trials

Publishers need to be aware of accessibility legislation. The Marrakesh Treaty, which Australia was early to ratify, provides much greater scope for the provision of accessible content. Recent national legislation, such as EU Web Accessibility Directive and the refresh of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the US mean that publishers need to understand their responsibilities to their customers. WebAIM provide a useful guide to Australian legislation here. 

And what do you see to be the opportunities?

For publishers the implementation of born accessible publishing creates better content and more cost-effective, agile and stream-lined workflows. The retroactive remediation of content is expensive and time consuming.

In the academic marketplace the introduction of accessible content will help publishers secure adoptions in a competitive market.

The audio book industry has grown rapidly in recent years and image descriptions offer the opportunity to increase the range of titles available to the market.

What is the future for textBOX?

We believe the future is bright. We are already welcoming clients and helping publishers develop their approach to image description. The industry is pivoting towards accessible content in response to customer demand and legal requirements and we are in the right place at the right time.

We have ambitious plans including developing an image description platform for publishers and further developing searchBOX into a global community. We are also working with industry associations to develop training programmes for publishers. It’s an exciting journey and we look forward to helping publishers create great content.

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