Accessible Reading: A review of The Abundant Bookshelf by Judith Dixon and A First Look at Downpour, a New Source for Audiobooks
As we at AccessWorld have emphasized over the past several years, there are a myriad of ways for an individual with a visual impairment to enjoy accessible books, magazines, newspapers, and other printed material. Nearly every title is available in at least one accessible format, often on the very same day it is released in standard print.
With so many options, it can be confusing to decide which book to read using which platform--especially for people who are newly blind and who have not used voice and braille access long enough to have witnessed the initial introduction of each new platform. For readers such as these, a comprehensive guide annotating each of these various options would be helpful indeed, and that's exactly what National Library Service Consumer Relations Officer Judith Dixon has compiled in her new eBook, The Abundant Bookshelf: Reading Books on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.
In this article I will take a look at this eBook, available from National Braille Press. Then, I will introduce you to a brand new player in the commercial audiobook arena: Downpour.
The Abundant Bookshelf
The Abundant Bookshelf is available from the National Braille press for $12 in various accessible formats including braille, DAISY download, eBraille, and Word, with an extra $2 added for delivery on a USB drive.
With over 30 years of experience with the National Library Service, Dixon is a recognized authority in the field of accessible reading. Her credentials are also impeccable, having written Get the Picture! Viewing the World with the iPhone Camera, Label It! Braille & Audio Strategies for Identifying Items at Home & Work; edited Anyone Can Play: Accessible Games for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch; and coauthored with Doug Wakefield Out and About: Our Favorite Travel Apps.
In The Abundant Bookshelf Dixon divides the accessible reading landscape into two broad categories: books narrated by humans and books that can be read with either synthetic speech or braille. Dixon subdivides these sections further, beginning with sources that are available to the general public, and continuing with sources of reading materials produced specifically for those with visual impairments
Naturally, Dixon begins our audiobook tour with the acknowledged 500-pound gorilla: Audible. She assumes you have opened an Audible account and have purchased at least one book through the store. She then offers an excellent touch tour of the Audible app and its large menu of useful features, such as speed control and the sleep timer, mentioning any differences between the iPhone/iPod touch and iPad versions. In my opinion Dixon should not have given such short shrift to the actual account setup and purchasing processes. Dixon reviews the Audible app as though the user has not encountered it to this date. Likely as not someone who has never opened this app does not have an account, or would benefit from a walk-through of the process and how it differs using the desktop and mobile Audible sites. I also think a discussion of purchasing Audible books on iTunes is in order here.
Most audible plans offer a free month-long trial, but if you are interested in giving Audible a test run and have a friend who is an Audible member you can ask her to share a book with you. Audible now allows members to send and share an entire book with a friend--the first book is absolutely free.
Another detail left out of the Audible section is a deeper dive into the Discover tab. Here you can not only see recommended books, but also popular books, and you can search for a book by title, author, or topic. As Dixon states, "you cannot make a purchase through the iOS app," but you can add titles to your Wish List, which makes purchasing books much easier once you reach the Audible website.
The Overdrive service is available through your local library, so find that library card you haven't used in years. Each library purchases titles they feel meet the needs of their patrons. So a book available in one city may or may not be available in another. Overdrive patrons check out and return/renew downloadable titles, just like regular print books. For popular titles you may find yourself on a waiting list, also like using your local library.
After a step-by-step description of how to set up an Overdrive account, Dixon offers her usual excellent touch tour of the Overdrive app. She includes it in this section, despite the fact that eBook titles are also available. But fear not, most titles can be easily read using your device's touch screen reader or connected braille display, as described below.
Dixon is a long-time staff member of the NLS Talking Book Service, which produces the BARD Mobile app for reading NLS Digital titles. Need I say more about the quality of this section?
As for the service itself, since you are not making purchases, Apple's licensing rules allow for in-app downloads. Dixon demonstrates how to search, download, and play books and magazines produced by the Library Service. You can also read braille titles using this app, a feature Dixon describes in depth in Chapter 3: Reading Books in Braille.
Unlike the professionally narrated titles produced by the services described above, Learning Ally relies on a network of volunteer readers to produce their titles, which are aimed toward students, as well as lifetime learners. Dixon introduces readers to their latest app, Learning Ally Link, and demonstrates how to search, download and listen to titles. Some titles can be configured to display text on the screen synced with the narrator's reading, a feature aimed at dyslexic readers, but which may be useful for some partially sighted readers as well.
Reading with Synthetic Speech
One of the most profound leaps in accessible reading has come with the near universal use of synthetic speech to read the products of the text and eBook industry, beginning with the simple text file versions of classic writings from Project Gutenberg and Bookshare, and commercialized for public use with the Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, and Apple iBooks. Most of these apps can read using your choice of the various voices available with VoiceOver. Voice Dream Reader also offers in-app purchases of other high-quality voices.
I won't describe Dixon's coverage of each of these apps individually, other than to say I feel that any novice touch screen reader user will learn just about everything he needs to know in order to jump into that latest bestseller.
Incidentally, since this book focuses on accessible reading using iOS, Dixon does not mention the great strides in accessibility Amazon has made lately. Did you know that now you can have Alexa read your Kindle books on the newest Kindle eReader using a Bluetooth speaker or earbuds, or using an Amazon Echo, Tap, or Dot?
Last in the commercially available eBook reading apps mentioned in this chapter is my personal absolute favorite to read eText: Voice Dream Reader. While not originally designed for accessibility, the developer has made offering a touch screen reader user an increasingly excellent way to read ePub and other text-based materials. Most can even be downloaded directly through the app.
The book includes only one iOS text-to-speech reading app designed specifically for the blind, Read2Go. The app is developed by Bookshare, a repository of over a half-million eText books. In my opinion, this app has been made more or less redundant by Voice Dream Reader, which offers considerably more functionality at a much lower price.
Reading Braille on Your iOS Device
Most eBook iOS apps work with braille displays, but each takes a slightly different approach, so your settings may need to be changed to get the output you desire. Dixon devotes an entire chapter to using a braille display with each of the apps mentioned above. She also describes how to search and download .BRF books from the National Library Service and read them using the BARD Mobile app, which was optimized to offer an excellent braille reading experience.
A Reading Roundup
The final chapter of The Abundant Bookshelf offers a list of other sources of both audiobooks and eText books. Notable among these are Blio, Project Gutenberg, and Google Books. For each she offers tips on downloading books, many of which are free, and working with the app interface.
Of course with so many sources of accessible books, you're going to need help deciding what to read next. Which is why Dixon includes a section on Amazon's Goodreads, where readers share their literary opinions and receive personalized recommendations on books they might enjoy.
Lastly, Dixon mentions one of my own favorite apps: TellMeWhen. If you have an author or 12 whose next books you can't wait to read, enter the authors' names into this app and you will learn the name of their next offering and its projected release date. You can also search for upcoming books by topic. I find this app incredibly useful; it's a must-have for any devoted bookworm.
Turning the Page
All in all, I believe Dixon has done a commendable job covering the various ways to enjoy reading using VoiceOver on an iOS device. If you're a long-time VoiceOver reader, there probably isn't a lot in this book that you don't already know. However I would highly encourage any new iOS user--especially those who are newly blind--to purchase this eBook so they can start enjoying the world of accessible books as soon as possible. Braille readers may also learn a new trick or two about using their braille displays to read.
One thing I do wish is that Dixon had included touch-tours of the Android versions of these apps and services. I do acknowledge that she states quite clearly right there in the book's title that it is a guide for iOS readers, but she could at least have included availability of Android versions of these apps. For example, Bookshare does not offer an Android version of Read2Go. Instead they offer Go Read, which includes slightly different navigation and a modified feature set.
Downpour: Where Content Reigns
I don't know what Dixon's plans are for maintaining and updating her book but if there is a future edition, I do have one new offering she may wish to explore. It's a new player in the audiobook arena called Downpour.
If you are an Audible member, or if you have purchased audiobooks from other sources, you are likely familiar with the name Blackstone Audio. They are one of the largest producers of narrated books, and now you can purchase their audiobook titles, and those from other producers, directly from Downpour.
Downpour offers two features not available from Audible or most other sources of downloadable titles. First, Downpour titles are available in non-DRM (digital rights management) MP3 formats. This means you can listen to these books using the player app and device of your choice. Second, you not only can purchase titles using a membership or subscription plan, but you can also rent titles for at least 30 days.
I recently rented How the Other Half Banks by Mehrsa Baradaran. The retail price is $19.95, and on Audible it's listed at $14.95. Both services discount the book to just over $12 with memberships. However I was able to rent the book from Downpour for just $6.95.
So now the bad news: Downpour is a relatively new service, and though accessibility is on their radar, they have a long way to go to become completely accessible. On the website, considerable mousing is required to located category lists and to select from the various purchase/rental options. And once a book is in your library, the "Download" button calls up an inaccessible window where you choose whether you wish to download the title in its DRM format or unlocked MP3.
Happily, I could download books using either the iOS or Android app, which are both about 70 percent accessible. I did often have trouble locating the unlabeled "Play" button, especially on the iOS version when I recalled the app from the running apps list. The app does sync between devices, so I was able to read part of a book on my iPhone and the rest on an Android phone. Do not check "verify synching," or you will frequently be returned to the very beginning of the book and have to relocate your last reading position manually. Another current bug of which the company is already aware is the inability to continue play when the device is locked--a definite downer when I wanted to read during my daily walk.
All of this said, I believe Downpour is a worthy addition to the accessible book reading roster, if only for the fact that they sell and rent non-DRM titles from authors such as Cory Doctorow, who refuse to allow DRM versions of their titles to be sold. Book rentals are also handy if you don't need to keep a copy of the book.
The Downpour support team has assured me that a new version of the website and mobile apps are forthcoming with accessibility fixes. In the meantime, if you want to put the service through its paces yourself, simply open an account--Tom Sawyer will automatically be added to your book library. I am sure they will welcome feedback from any new potential customers.
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