By Andri Johnston, Digital Sales Coordinator: Jonathan Ball Publishers
On Friday 4 August the digital publishing industry got together to attend the first CSIR ePub Symposium at their International Convention Centre, which really does live up to its international name standards. The aim of the symposium was to demonstrate the new eBook Augmentation System developed by researchers at the CSIR to the industry and gain feedback.
If eBook Augmentation System sounds like something from some techie movie, don’t fear. It is really a big name given to the process of adding audio to eBooks, in other words getting your eBook to read the text for you. Some may say that adding audio to a book completely defeats the purpose of the book – that of reading it. However, as we heard throughout the day at the symposium, this technology holds great advantages to a number of readers who have been excluded from the pleasure of reading for a long time.
The technology itself allows eBooks to be read right down to word level through highlighting the individual words and, meaning a less robotic sounding read-back voice for better comprehension. Books to audio is not new technology as we are well aware of audiobooks in both online form and CDs, even tapes in the past, as well as similar technology from the DAISY Consortium, the developers of the media overlay which can be placed in an eBook. What makes the CSIR’s technology unique however is that once completed, it will be accessible for publishers to add audio without the previous (highly specialised) technical skills needed to add a media overlay. As long as a publisher has their eBook in a ePub3 (the latest eBook format) version, the CSIR technology can add the audio and text highlighting option with one simple process. The feature of being able to add audio in Afrikaans and other African languages, and not just English, as is currently the case, makes the technology unique for the South African publishing landscape.
This might seem like just another eBook gimmick, however the CSIR made sure the audience understood that this technology is aimed to help more than just the general reading public. Speakers at the symposium included representatives from the DAISY Consortium, Tape Aids for the Blind and Pioneer Printers. All organisations working toward making books accessible to people with visual impairments. Working in publishing we sometimes forget that there are people who want to experience the texts we publish, but they cannot actually read them and these organisations shifted the attention back to the continued accessibility of books to all readers. In the education sector, we also heard from representatives from Langerug School for children with reading disabilities. The headmistress and IT teacher’s advocacy for a technology such as this from the CSIR which can allow students with reading disabilities to do self-study, as the text can be read for them, and to finally start to read with comprehension because they are seeing and hearing, was eye opening.
From the trade, there will always be the matter of viability. Will the extra cost that needs to be incurred to add this audio, recording the audio is still a huge expense for publishers, ever be justified by higher eBook sales and what are the implications for the audiobook market, which is starting to establish itself in South Africa now as well. Copyright was another issue under discussion and whether the signing of the Marrakesh treaty (http://www.wipo.int/treaties/en/ip/marrakesh/) can help resolve such issues.
Overall the symposium left everyone with a lot to think about concerning new developments in the ePub format, thinking content first and then format and how audio in eBooks can specifically help advance education and academic publishing. The technology is not yet perfect, but the CSIR is making a step in the right direction to help create digital book products that are more inclusive. Ultimately it was a good day for digital publishing and for those working in the field to get together and discuss ideas and frustrations of working in digital which many others in the industry do not understand.
Thank you to the CSIR for the day and I for one am looking forward to the future developments of your eBook technologies.