By Shelly Brisbin
February 16, 2022 3:43 PM PT
How (and why) I publish a book every summer
Each year when Apple’s WWDC wraps up, I find myself doing what a lot of app developers do: planning my response to the upcoming version of iOS. But my summers aren’t consumed by Xcode or SwiftUI. My annual contribution to the Apple economy is a book called iOS Access for All: Your Comprehensive Guide to Accessibility for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. You think that title’s long? The iOS 15 edition weighs in at 215,000 words, 11 chapters, and four appendices—all written, assembled and sold by me.
Realizing I’d just published the book’s ninth edition got me thinking about how this all happened, and the extent to which I’ve managed to streamline many parts of the publishing process, while hopefully living up to the expectations of a group of readers who don’t get much attention from other iOS books and overviews.
Before I focused on iOS or accessibility, I wrote books about the Mac, web development, and wireless networking. I worked with book publishers whose end products were heavy, paper volumes you could find on a bookstore shelf. Even in 2012, when I first had an idea for a book about accessibility on Apple platforms, I knew the publishing model I had worked under for 10 years or so had changed dramatically. Who needs Mac Answers when you have Google?
I learned soon after iOS became accessible in 2009 that good search craft can’t find what isn’t online. Lots of knowledge about how to use Apple’s accessibility tools was ephemeral. And what was available quickly went out of date with no one having the incentives or a mandate to fix it.
I decided there should be a book about iOS accessibility, written by an experienced tech author. So, as you do, I pitched some publishers. But despite my track record and an opportunity to own a corner of the market, the answer was no. These publishers didn’t think they could sell enough copies of a book focused solely on accessibility.
It’s possible they were entirely right. But as I started embedding myself into the accessibility community, I became aware that publishers really didn’t know who might want the book I planned to write, or how to sell it to them. At least I had the advantage of being a daily user of some of what I planned to write about. I learned a lot by listening – over coffee and on Twitter – to people who make and use accessible tech every day. They reinforced in me the need to make the book, even if I couldn’t yet prove a market existed.
The other thing you need to know about my plan to publish a book on my own is that I was on a budget. I would need to spend as little money as possible while still doing a professional job. I was a freelancer planning to devote months of full-time work to this endeavor. And I knew I would need to pay for things like a cover design and a copy editor. I also gave myself a travel budget, but not one for software.
At the last couple of Macworld Expos, I sat in on ebook publishing sessions, where I learned the gospel of ePub as a flexible online format that Apple was already using in what was then the iBooks Store. And from accessibility experts, I learned that it was an important part of special-purpose devices that turn text into audio for blind users.
Coming into the 2013 iOS release cycle, I had a topic, a format and publishing strategy, and a foothold in a community I would need to sell the book.
A major advantage of ebooks over paper ones is that they’re accessible on devices, where screen readers and text visibility options break down the barriers between readers and content. And you’ll find free ePub readers on all platforms.
As a book builder, ePub turned out to be a great choice, There are lots ways you can build a good-looking ePub. Structurally, an ePub is just a bunch of XHTML files, images, CSS, and a manifest, all zipped together.
A brief flirtation with Pages taught me that using an app that was easy to write in would not yield the book I wanted. (Pages support for ePub improved considerably once Apple discontinued iBooks Author, but it’s still not beefy enough for my needs.) Nor did I choose the popular Scrivener, or the expensive inDesign, both of which will export fine ePubs, and in which many of my writer friends have boundless faith. Ditto Calibre and Sigil, which at least appealed to my desire to think of the book as a giant ball of text.
The way I published the iOS 7 version of the book and the way I do it today are remarkably similar. I work in BBEdit on the Mac, and Textastic on the iPad, then I run ancient AppleScripts that verify the book against the ePub specification, and finally put the files together as a book. Building my book this way is a little like compiling a program. A big part of the editing process is debugging it.
Learning to Ask for the Sale
To promote the book, I became a regular at accessibility tech conferences, bought party sponsorships and tables on trade show floors (these were less costly than they might sound). I even had gimmicks, like business cards with QR code stickers on the back that were easy to scan, even if you couldn’t see them.
I used Twitter extensively, and embarked on a podcast book tour – going on any show that would have me to hawk the book. And you know what? People did have me on their shows – there seemed to be real enthusiasm for what I had made.
Every couple of years I re-examine my publishing process. I’ve made refinements, like adding shortcuts that help me frame and size screenshots. And because there’s demand for a PDF version, I now build an accessible one based on a Microsoft Word template.
At this point, iOS and the book itself are mature propositions. Like the rest of the software, the accessibility tools in iOS have gained incremental updates each year, but the fundamentals remain, meaning not everyone needs either a new phone or a new book each year.
But people do keep buying it and telling me how valuable it has been to them. So chances are pretty good there will be a tenth edition sometime late this fall.
[Shelly Brisbin is a radio producer, host of the Parallel podcast, and author of the book iOS Access for All. She's the host of Lions, Towers & Shields, a podcast about classic movies, on The Incomparable network.]