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Guide to obtaining publications in alternative formats

This guide is for anyone who needs to source text books in an alternative format for a reading impaired learner. This is potentially a complicated area. Disability law protects disabled learners by requiring the educational institution to make appropriate provision. Copyright law protects publishers from inappropriate copying of textbooks. Between these two sets of rights are the staff who have to provide alternative formats in a timely manner to disabled learners. In most cases the optimum accessibility solution is to obtain the textbook in electronic format. This allows immediate personalisation of text size, colours and contrast. In addition, electronic text is usually an important intermediate stage for the production of non-text formats such as audio or braille.

This guidance is specifically designed for library staff, learner support staff and subject tutors and lecturers supporting disabled learners. It should help anyone trying to get digital versions of textbooks to:

  • understand the processes involved.
  • recognise additional in-house work that may be required once the digital version has been obtained.
  • maximise the likelihood of a successful outcome.
  • evaluate your own institutional processes.
  • assess alternative interventions.


For too long the concept of alternative formats has been linked solely to visual impairment. But people with a range of disabilities benefit from alternative formats. Dyslexic learners can significantly benefit from text to speech – something that can easily be provided from a digital copy of text. Similarly, people with mental health issues may cope with listening to text read aloud better than they might cope with sitting reading a book. Learners with motor impairment can use assistive technology to read onscreen in a way that might be impossible with a physical copy of a book. In many cases learners with disabilities are struggling with traditional texts when alternatives are available. 

The Publishing Process

A brief understanding of the publishing process is necessary in order to make sense of the nature of any digital copies you are likely to obtain.
The workflow for most academic textbooks takes roughly the following route using the formats indicated:

  1. Author creates original word-processed text. This is likely to be in word processor format (e.g. Microsoft ® Word). The original manuscript may be structured using the heading styles built in to the word processing software.  It is very common for a book to involve multiple contributors.
  2. The editing stage then generally takes place via word processor software as well but even at this stage, parts of the design will move to a different software platform as designers get involved with layouts, figures, images and tables.
  3. At the design and typesetting stages the entire text continues to evolve using print production software (e.g. Quark ® XPress or Adobe ® InDesign). The text content and layout continues to change.
  4. Proofreading and final editing using print production software – usually exporting the file to PDF format for final author/editor comment.
  5. Printing (usually outsourced) from final print production software file or from a commercial print-quality PDF file.
  6. Archiving of final file in most appropriate format for future reproduction. This may be a print production software format or a PDF format. The archiving may take place at the publishers, the printers, neither or both.

Implications of the publishing workflow

Don’t request a version of a book in Microsoft Word! This format usually disappears at an early stage of the production cycle and subsequent layout / editing changes render it obsolete. Specifically ask for a PDF version. The publisher may not always have an electronic copy of the text readily available but may need to liaise with the printer - often in another country - to track down the final version. You need to allow time for this. Think about the likely file size; text only books are unlikely to exceed 10Mb, but illustrated books can be anything up to 20Gb.   

Factors influencing speed of response

Experienced librarians quote a wide range of typical response times to a request for a digital text format. Acquisition is faster if
  • the book already exists in electronic format in an online library / journal / database, in an "alternative format repository" such as the US NIMAS system or with the UK's RevealWeb service (now lined through UnityUK). Be aware that if a book exists in one of these repositories it may not be a full text version but an extract only.
  • the publisher's workflow incorporates archiving of the final PDF.
  • the publisher's staff is geared up for dealing with accessible versions.  Some publishers have regular requests for alternative formats and a well organised process for responding to them, while others have just one or two a year and may have to deal with them on an ad hoc basis. 

Conversely, acquisition can be slow (or impossible) if the book is from an older list. Titles published prior to the year 2000 can be impossible to obtain electronically. Acquisition may also be slow if the original publisher has undergone mergers or takeovers – production files may be lost in reorganisation.

Adapting the book for the learner

For some books acquisition is the easy part of the process. Adapting the electronic version so it is genuinely useful for the learner can be much more challenging. The accessibility of the end product depends to a large extent on the nature of the publication. It can be straightforward to make text accessible by adding heading structures where appropriate. It can be more challenging to provide suitable descriptions for images. It is yet more difficult to provide access to scientific notation, mathematics and formulae. There may therefore be a significant time gap between the resource arriving in the institution and the learner getting a version that they can use effectively. It is important for institutions to clearly recognise the additional work that may be required to make an electronic version fully accessible to a specific learner. The institution needs to allow for this in terms of timing and also appropriate personnel.

Variations in publisher practice

In general, you can expect to obtain a PDF version of most textbooks published in the last five years. You need to ensure the PDF has selectable text - some PDFs do not contain selectable text but merely an image of text characters. This is incompatible with most assistive technologies. The PDF from the publisher may have limited inbuilt accessibility (e.g. no structural navigation, unreliable reading order, no ALT tags etc). These accessibility benefits may need to be added locally. At the other end of the scale the best provision may include the text being chunked into chapters complete with bookmarked navigation and effective reading order. The more the publisher provides in the way of accessibility features, the less adaptation is required at the user end. It is worth paying more for a text file that leaves you with less work to do if that is available, but in reality the publisher is unlikely to be able to offer you alternatives.

Some publishers have well developed processes for providing digital copies of textbooks but others deal on a one-off basis. The latter may take longer with less clear lines of responsibility. Charges vary widely. This reflects the complexity of the issues publishers face in terms of licensing, production and conversion. These may vary both between publishers and within the same publisher from title to title.

Publishers will provide the file – often a PDF - in a variety of ways (e-mail, CD, password protected website). In all cases, the publisher is likely to include strict licensing restrictions to ensure illegal copying and distribution does not take place.

Handling inequalities of provision

Getting hold of digital copies of key texts can be time consuming and will usually involve some significant in-house post production if it is to be used with a screen reader. A much bigger problem is the issue of non-core texts – for example additional references on a course reading list. If only the core texts are available the learner is denied the choice of extension reading yet it is unrealistic to go through the process of acquisition and transformation for every book on the reading list. One approach that balances choice with affordability is to only scan the table of contents of all the books on the reading list and make these available online in digital format. The learner can get a flavour of all the texts on the reading list and then make specific requests if they wish to explore further. Scanned chapter headings also provide a service for non-disabled learners who can browse chapter headings before seeking out the hardcopy in the library.

Good practice in getting alternative formats

Planning ahead

It takes time to make requests, to get the electronic copy and to adapt the material for learner use. This has implications for institutional systems and the following is suggested as good practice:
  • Institutions should review the communication systems between learner support services, library services, learners and curriculum staff. An assessment of need could automatically provide information for:
        • the learner on available library services (with suggestions for making early contact),
        • library staff on learner access needs and likely book needs,
        • subject staff so tutors can liaise with library and learner support staff on core reading list resources.
  • Libraries should develop explicit policies about obtaining books in alternative formats in order to clarify both user expectations and tutor expectations. In some instances, providing an electronic version of the entire book may not be the most appropriate solution.
  • Institutions should develop guidelines on who pays for what. Some institutions expect the students to pay for alternative formats from their Disabled Students Allowance. This raises issues of parity regarding equality of library provision where textbooks are core to the subject but libraries may be reluctant to pay for an electronic copy licensed for one learner for a restricted time window. Institutions need to think through policies and communicate them clearly.
  • Academic departments should provide reading lists from tutors as early as possible - ideally before they are distributed to the learners - to ensure that titles are requested in good time.
  • Tutors should highlight ’essential’ reading in the reading lists.
The ultimate responsibility for delivering the learning belongs to the tutor so it is important they are realistic in prioritising key information if reading lists are long or acquisition of alternative formats proves problematic. An essential part of the process is the communication between learner, tutor and library staff so that both the learner and the tutor are aware of any difficulties and can look at alternative solutions (for example 1:1 tutorials or online support) where relevant.

Contacting Publishers

Publishers' websites are not always clear as to who should be approached for alternative formats. In the absence of appropriate information on the website, the Permissions Department is usually a good place to start. 

Information to have at hand

  • Standard book details – author, title, ISBN, publication date.  
  • Licensing related details. Providing an electronic version represents a potential copyright risk for publishers so the licence may be restricted to a named learner on a specific course.
  • Depending on the publisher you may need to provide some or all of the following: 
        • name of student (although the publisher will not insist if there are data protection issues involved). 
        • course details (including year of study and end of course date). 
        • name of tutor. 
        • type of assistive software used to access title. 
  • The publisher may require information on the nature of the impairment, particularly where preferential costs are involved.  
  • The publisher will probably have a standard agreement for the learner to sign. If you have your own standard agreement it would be helpful to provide a blank of that to the publisher. 

Questions to ask

These prompts are designed to help streamline the contact and enquiry process.
  • Is the title already available commercially in digital format – for example via online subscription / ebook vendor / third party database? Some publishers sell eBooks which have Read Aloud functionality in PDF and other formats. If this is the case, it may be an appropriate solution simply to buy or subscribe to the ebook. Note, however, that eBooks can sometimes be slow to save and - depending on the nature of the eBook platform - may not work with assistive software. Some can only be saved one page at a time - in which case a PDF version may be preferable.
  • Is it available via RevealWeb / NIMAS etc?
  • Is it available in PDF?  How big is the file size?  If this is an issue, is a screen-optimised version available?   
  • How accessible is the PDF – e.g. is the text selectable? Is it marked up for structure and reading order? (Although your contact in the permissions department may not be able to answer this definitively.)  
  • What are the costs? Some publishers provide PDF versions free of charge; others have a charging structure. 
  • Are there special terms and conditions – e.g. purchasing a book at the same time? Some publishers require the student (or librarian on behalf of the student) to sign a form agreeing to terms and conditions e.g. for the use of the student only; file to be destroyed upon student completing the course; agreeing not to network the file.
  • What is the likely timescale for delivery? Publishers will aim to acknowledge the request within a matter of days. Workload for these requests varies at different times often peaking in September/October and December/January so responses may be slower at these times. If they can fulfil the request easily, the files are usually despatched in one to two weeks. With some texts - particularly older ones - there may be complicating factors. If there is any delay, publishers should keep enquirers informed of progress - it is important to pass this information on to students and tutors.

Evaluating Outcomes

It is very important to keep students and tutors informed of progress so alternative approaches can be considered if publishers cannot supply digital versions in the required time scale. Alternatives include technical fixes (in-house scanning of printed text and OCR conversion); pedagogical fixes (provision of other information sources, individual tutorial) or a mixture of the two (e.g. tutor podcast of the key points from the text).

Given the potential time it can take to identify (and render accessible) alternative formats it is worth following up with the learner and the tutor to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention. For different learners different solutions with different degrees of accessibility may be appropriate. A dyslexic learner may cope very well with a poorly structured PDF with inconsistent reading order because they can select the text they wish to be spoken. However the same file may prove totally inaccessible to a blind learner accessing it through a screen reader.


  • Develop a policy on providing resources for students in alternative formats so everyone is clear what you can and can't offer.
  • Clarify what the DSA book fund is for e.g. personal research (for dissertations etc) or for reading list materials.
  • Obtain reading lists from tutors before they are supplied to students to gain time and avoid unnecessary time pressures when approaching publishers. 
  • Follow up the process with the students and tutors after the alternative formats have been supplied e.g. enquire if the student was able to access them effectively using any relevant assistive technology.


JISC Techdis would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Paul Conway (Sheffield Hallam University), Clare Hodder (Palgrave Macmillan) and Graham Taylor (Publishers Association) in preparing this guidance.