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Last Modified: April 10, 2024
Graphic with the messaging: Publisher Spotlight: Freehand Books' Accessible Publishing Journey


Welcome to the first of four blog posts exploring the accessible publishing journeys of Alberta-based publishers. We’re starting off with Freehand Books, whose Managing Editor, Kelsey Attard, shares the press’s accessible publishing beginnings, their experience with Benetech certification, and their latest accessible titles.

Freehand Books was founded in 2007, with the goal of publishing excellent writing by Canadian authors. Their award-winning titles span several genres, including literary fiction, short stories, creative non-fiction, graphic novels, and poetry. Their authors include Ian Williams, Saleema Nawaz, Sarah Leavitt, Ali Bryan, and Dawn Dumont. Currently, Freehand Books has 86 accessible digital titles in their catalogue and publishes about 8 new titles a year.

Why Accessibility Matters to Freehand Books

“We want anyone who is interested in reading a Freehand book to be able to. Keeping up with the accessibility standards means that our books are flexible to meet the needs of all kinds of readers,” Attard states in regard to why the press embarked on their accessible publishing journey.

“I remember attending information sessions on accessibility at least as early as 2018, and starting to think about what we could do,” Attard recalls. “And I remember being discouraged, too, because I couldn’t figure out how to make meaningful progress, with a very small team, limited resources, and minimal personal aptitude (technology is not my strong suit). In 2020, the Book Publishers Association of Alberta (BPAA) launched their first project to help publishers convert backlist EPUBs into accessible formats. Freehand was really happy to take part in that project, and it marked a concrete starting step in our accessible publishing journey.”

In 2019, the government announced an investment of $22.8 million over 5 years for the Accessible Digital Books initiative, offering support for organizations to produce and distribute accessible digital books by independent Canadian publishers. Several large-scale accessible eBook conversion projects were made possible thanks to this funding. Since their first remediation project, Freehand Books has also participated in similar projects with the BPAA and the Literary Press Group. As a result, says Attard, “Our full backlist is now converted to accessible formats, and new titles are originated in accessible digital formats.”

Pursuing Certification

Benetech, an organization creating “software for social good,” offers a GCA (Global Certified Accessible) certification program that certifies publishers’ workflow to help them produce born accessible eBooks. Through eBOUND Canada’s partnership with Benetech, Freehand Books completed the GCA certification program in 2023.

“The certification process was really valuable for us,” says Attard. “It gave us the opportunity to ask a lot of questions and have them answered in a really detailed, specific-to-whatever-case-study-we-were-discussing way (shoutout to our certifier Janine Jeffers, who was wonderfully patient and helpful!). My main takeaway from the process was confidence—confidence in knowing what needed to be done and how to do it, and confidence in knowing how to find the answers to my questions.”

One Freehand Books title that went through the Benetech certification process is End Times by Michelle Syba.

“I highly recommend it,” says Attard. “It’s an amazing collection of short stories that explore evangelical culture with wonderful sensitivity and insight (the Literary Review of Canada calls it ‘compulsively readable . . . a rich exploration of religious faith and its absence’). The book includes a reproduction of a painting (The Peasants’ Wedding by Pieter Brueghel, the younger)—most of our books don’t feature visual elements—so there were some new things to learn about accessible metadata for this one!”

Latest Accessible Titles from Freehand

One of Freehand Books’ latest accessible titles includes Tales for Late Night Bonfires, a dynamic collection of stories from G.A. Grisenthwaite. The author uses several nłeʔkepmxcin words and phrases in his stories—like Kʷukʷscémx (thank you) and snk̓y̓ép (coyote).

“We made sure to tag all of these language shifts,” notes Attard. “I’m not sure how many text-to-speech [software applications] will recognize the nłeʔkepmxcin (or Thompson) language, but any that do exist—now or in the future—will be able to identify the language of those words and phrases. And tagging them now may have uses in the future that we haven’t thought of yet!”

Another book that Freehand is excited for is Sean Dixon’s The Abduction of Seven Forgers, a terribly fun novel about a group of art forgers who are kidnapped and forced to live together in a London suburb. The book includes a number of distinctive details, like maps of the house they’re being held captive in, and text that is crossed out and annotated.

“As far as we could find, there is no totally satisfactory way to mark up crossed-out text in the accessibility standards—trying to find a balance of being able to know what the crossed-out text says, but also that it was crossed out,” Attard notes. “So what we ended up doing is capturing the crossed-out text as images. A screen reader will see the image and read something along the lines of, “The following text is legible but some of it is crossed out, with a handwritten note in the margins that reads . . .” It’s not a perfect solution, but hopefully one that makes things as clear as we are able to at this point. And if, down the line, another solution for crossed-out text becomes available, we would be able to go back and make that change.”

Currently, the press is working on their Spring list, including a few titles from Alberta authors.

The Game of Giants by Marion Douglas is a sparkling novel about an unconventional family in 1980s Calgary—new school psychologist Rose, her partner Lucy, and their young son Roger—as they grapple with the implications of Roger’s developmental delays.

Moving to Delilah is a poetry collection from Catherine Owen, about her move from Vancouver to Edmonton, where she purchased a house built in 1905, which she called Delilah. According to Attard, “It’s a marvellous book about houses and homes, gardens and community, rootedness and our connections to the past and the future.”

The Future

“It’s clear that the standards and guidelines are constantly evolving and will continue to evolve,” Attard states. For small publishers, it can be especially hard to keep up with the changes in the accessible digital publishing sphere. This is why support from dedicated organizations to continue providing resources and information to publishers is paramount.

“I’ve come to see it more as a process,” says Attard, “and we’ll continue to adapt and improve as we go.”

Along with several other Alberta-based publishers, Freehand Books is also a part of the BPAA’s Accessible Alberta: eBooks for Everyone collection, which aims to highlight Alberta-published accessible eBooks spanning various genres. Regarding their inclusion in the collection, Attard notes, “We’re really proud of the ways that Alberta publishers have come together to prioritize accessibility. We’re really grateful to the BPAA, and to all the project partners, for spearheading the project and for providing publishers with the resources we need to succeed.”


Featured Books

End Times

Michelle Syba (CA)

Published: May 01, 2023 by Freehand Books
ISBN: 9781990601286
Tales for Late Night Bonfires

G.A. Grisenthwaite (CA), Gord Grisenthwaite

Published: Sep 01, 2023 by Freehand Books
ISBN: 9781990601378
The Abduction of Seven Forgers

Sean Dixon (CA)

Published: Sep 01, 2023 by Freehand Books
ISBN: 9781990601491
Moving to Delilah

Catherine Owen (CA)

Published: Apr 01, 2024 by Freehand Books
ISBN: 9781990601583
The Game of Giants

Marion Douglas (CA)

Published: May 01, 2024 by Freehand Books
ISBN: 9781990601644