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How many ebooks in the EU market have to meet the EAA requirements?

Research and development

On 30 October, the document Report on backlist data and gap analysis was published in the context of the ABE Lab project, of which Fondazione LIA is a partner together with EDRLab and the National Library of the Netherlands.

In recent years, some publishers have started producing ebooks of new titles according to the born accessible principle, where accessibility is a key element from early in the production process. These titles already comply with the requirements of the European Accessibility Act (EAA), the European Directive that will come into force in June 2025 and defines accessibility requirements for a range of products and services, including ebooks.

However, the EAA brings publishers with another major challenge: how to make accesible the ebooks published in previous years and already available on the market (the so-called backlist)? And what investments in terms of time and cost are needed?

This first ABE Lab report tries to answer some questions to understand the impact the EAA will have on publishers’ activities:

  • what is the size of the backlist at European and state level?
  • how is it structured and made up in terms of: categories (fiction, manuals, non-fiction…), formats (EPUB 2, EPUB 3, EPUB 3 Fixed Layout, PDF) and year of publication?
  • what are the most recurrent accessibility issues, and how do they vary according to categories, formats and year of publication?

In this article we review some of the most interesting data from this study: to see the complete data per EU country, we suggest downloading the report from the dedicated page on the ABE Lab website.

The size of the backlist

Based on the data collected, the number of ebooks available on the European market in the early 2023 exceeds 3.5 million titles. This number was obtained by collecting data from all European ISBN agencies, national libraries, some distributors and  some aggregators.

The size of the backlist of ebooks currently available on the markets of each individual European country varies widely: from Germany with more than one million ebooks, to Malta with 583. France and Italy occupy the third and fourth position respectively, with more than 950,000 and 370,000 titles.

It is important to remember that the EAA applies to all ebooks on the European market and not only those published in EU countries, and many international ecommerce platforms are operating on the European market selling books and ebooks. However, data from these platforms is not available and, therefore, could not be included in the analysis.

Different categories of ebooks

Understanding how the backlist is made up from the point of view of categories, formats and year of production allows us to estimate the complexity of these ebooks, and then the cost and time needed to make them compliant with accessibility requirements.

A text-only fiction book that has already been produced in a reflowable format, such as EPUB 2 or EPUB 3, is likely to be easier to make accessible than a mathematics book with an articulated structure, rich in graphics, pictures, mathematical formulae and exercises. Books based on graphics, such as comics, art books, children’s books, which reproduce the layout of the paper book, usually use a fixed layout format, such as EPUB 3 Fixed Layout or PDF. These books will require more complex processing, and in some cases, even at the state of the art, it will not be possible to make them compliant with all the accessibility requirements of the EAA.

The year of production of ebooks can also provide relevant informations. Over the years ebook production tools and softwares have progressively integrated functionalities to support the creation of accessible ebooks: ebooks produced with older versions of the same software were probably not produced following the born accessible paradigm due to the technological limitations and the lack of specific functionalities supporting the accessibility features. Also the formats themselves (EPUB and PDF) have evolved and in the latest versions  they have integrated accessibility requirements into their specifications, as was the case for the EPUB 3.

Every type of ebook, then, may require completely different procedures, in terms of complexity or cost, to be made compliant with the accessibility requirements.

Again, the distribution of ebook titles across different categories and formats varies greatly by country.  For example, in Italy the ‘fiction’ genre accounts for 37.87% of ebooks, while in Spain only 13.98%. In Italy, thanks also to the work of Fondazione LIA for the dissemination and promotion of this format, ebooks in EPUB 3 account for as much as 40% of ebooks. A much higher percentage than in other European countries.

How to assess the gap between the features of the ebooks on the market and accessibility requirements?

Once the different typologies of ebooks had been identified, the ABE Lab team analysed a set of 376 ebooks of different genres and different formats provided by publishers from 7 EU countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain) to identify the gap between the features of the backlist ebooks and the accessibility requirements of the EAA.

For the analysis, we used the main checking tools available on the market in addition to a script specifically developed by Fondazione LIA to obtain, for each individual file, an exhaustive and detailed list of all the gaps in terms of accessibility.

The most recurrent accessibility issues, found respectively in 100% and 83% of the analysed files, were:

  • missing accessibility metadata, which describes the accessibility features of a file at the purchase or lending stage and allows readers to decide whether a title is suitable for their needs or not;
  • missing alternative texts for images, i.e. a brief description of the information conveyed by the visual content, which is essential for users with visual impairments.

In order to estimate the complexity of the process of adapting ebooks to the requirements of the EAA, a metric was also developed which, taking into account the characteristics of the file and its accessibility issues, assigned a score to each ebook.

Most of the files tested fell into the category of files with medium adaptation complexity, but some files scored high or very high. The genres with the highest average of scores are those with complex structures and layouts such as science/geography, medicine, sports and outdoor activities, linguistics and language books. At the other end of the spectrum, we find law books, fiction, and philosophy and religion titles, i.e. genres where one can expect text-only content.

Next steps

The objective of the second part of the ABE Lab project will be to identify, starting from what emerged from this gap analysis, the most time and cost efficient strategies for bringing backlist ebooks into line with the EAA. In particular, we will map and test the different software and platforms available on the market that enable the transformation of a non-accessible ebooks into an accessible version.

The results of this second phase will make it possible to provide useful information to publishers for carrying out these activities, and to identify any further functionalities that these tools should implement in order to guarantee an effective remediation with as little time and cost as possible.