Amazon has just unveiled a Kindle Reading Fund that “will donate Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets and Kindle eBooks to further reading around the world.”

Nate Hoffelder over at the Digital Reader offers a helpful writeup of the new Amazon initiative and earlier donations, as well as mention of literacy efforts by rival Kobo.

If  you’re a group in need—let’s hope that many libraries and Friends of Library-style organizations will qualify along with schools, hospitals, and others—click here. Nice going, Amazon!

And now here’s the mystery of the week. If Amazon is so gung ho on literacy, why isn’t the company making its E Ink Kindle ereaders more usable for K-12 kids, older citizens, and other readers with vision issues? And could there be legal risks in not doing so? If nothing else, whether or not these risks exist, an influential librarian named Jamie LaRue is calling for Amazon to act simply out of goodwill—more on that later.

Granted, not every K-12 child is in desperate need of all-text boldface and other typographical goodies, but many and perhaps most could benefit from the greater range of choices available on Kobo machines. If it’s too distracting for children or others to make out the letters and words, their brains can marshal less processing power to understand the texts. We aren’t just talking about mere tech, then. Limited typographical options harm literacy—especially appreciation of literature since more complex books demand better, more customizable presentation.

The typographical issue isn’t just that my Kobo Aura gives me 11 type styles compared to 9 on the Kindle Oasis: it’s also how you can vary the bolding level and more precisely adjust line spacing, font size, margins, and so on. Even Amazon’s inclusion of the OpenDyslexic font, also present in Kobo readers, doesn’t get the company off the hook. How about K-12 students or older people with dyslexia and contrast sensitivity issues?

Unfortunately the accessibility problem isn’t limited to Kindles hardware. Typographical choices in Kindle ereading apps for cellphones and tablets are also pathetic compared to those in programs such as Moon+ Reader Pro. No all-text bold, needless to say.

KoboFontWeight2I myself am in my 60s. Like not all but many older people, I suffer from contrast-sensitivity issues. My condition affects how easily my eyes can distinguish the text from the background. I often wear glasses but am not low-vision, and in most of my daily routine, contrast sensitivity isn’t a big concern. But it is with E Ink since the technology in its current form offers just so much contrast. And yet over the years Amazon has ignored my pleas for a simple switch in the software for all-text bold—or, much better, a bold-level adjustment. Kobo achieves this by way of the slider shown in the photo of my Aura One’s screen. The weird color, in case you’re curious, results from the Kobo’s mode to reduce blue light that could disrupt sleep if you read too close to bedtime.

Now compare Amazon to Apple, not just Kobo. When I use the Safari Web browser on my iPad, I can switch on a bold font within an accessibility mode and read newspaper article far more easily. Doubt the need? In Tips for Making Print More Readable for low-vision people, the American Federation for the Blind says: “Use bold type because the thickness of the letters makes the print more legible.”

The AFB also says: “Contrast is one of the most critical factors in enhancing visual functioning, for printed materials as well as in environmental design.”

Yes, this almost surely would apply as well to E Ink, which Amazon has repeatedly compared to paper.

Furthermore, while Amazon apps and Fire tablets offer the option of light letters against a dark background to increase perceived contrast, such a mix slows down my reading speed. It may help some users, but for me and many others, it’s far from an optimal solution.

Others also have joined me in writing CEO Jeff Bezos ( without any results so far. Why no bold option, Jeff, when, as an informal poll shows, the demand is there? As for other typographical options beyond those you have, you could add Kobo-style “advanced” settings, which people could easily redo if they wanted to get back to factory defaults. Are Kindle buyers really dumber than Kobo customers?

Adding to the insult, Amazon has tweaked its firmware in the past to discourage customers from installing their own fonts. Kobo, yes, allows this, actually offering you far more than 11 fonts. Want a third-party font in a certain style or still bolder than the existing ones? Go ahead. Nontechies may not use this feature, but at least it’s there.

How bold would help low-vision Kindle users: See for yourself

As you can see from the photograph at the top of this commentary and also from files you can download (here and here), all-text boldface would make a huge difference for people needing it.

The $120 Paperwhite displaying a file I bolded with the Calibre program is actually more readable for me than the deluxe $290 Kindle Oasis on the left showing a similar file without bolding.  Alas, Jeff, Calibre is impractical for those without the right hardware, software, and skill set. Ever heard of the digital divide?

What’s more, unless your customers want to violate an onerous federal copyright law banning the breaking of DRM even without piracy in mind, this isn’t a solution for most books from the Big Five Publishers. Your own customer support people flout the law to accommodate their reading needs, as reported by Barry Marks, a frequent and much-valued TeleRead commenter with a technical background. When Barry asked a support staffer if Amazon minded his circumventing DRM for noninfringing reasons, “The guy asked around and called me back the next day saying no-one there saw it as a problem including his supervisor and a number of those there did the same thing. He told me not to worry about it.” Still, wouldn’t it be better if Amazon’s staffers and others didn’t have to violate the law, whether to enjoy more bold or for other reasons? And, again, what about nontechnical people?

Jeff, I’m singling out the bold issue not just it bedevils me personally but also because a fix would cost Amazon next to nothing compared to the benefits. Your competition at Kobo has even commissioned a study showing that older people are a major market for e-reading devices. We’re talking lost sales. Why are you and your people so stubborn about this?

Among the Kindle users to ask you in vain for an all-text bold option is Jamie LaRue, a well-known, widely respected librarian now with the American Library Association in Chicago. With his permission, I am reproducing his July 29 email that you and your people just brushed off with a form letter. He does not speak officially here for ALA, but I’m confident that many a librarian and reading specialist would agree with him.

Dear Sir,

I have a long history with ebooks, from my previous position at the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado. Now I work as a senior administrator for the American Library Association. One of the persistent complaints I’ve heard about the Kindle reader is the absence of a bold font – a toggle to make all text just that much thicker and darker. For people with sight impairment, this is the literal difference between a device that works for them, and a device that doesn’t.

So I’m writing to just ask you: on behalf of the low vision community, would you consider adding this programming option to your ereader software, and so earn the instant gratitude of many thousands of readers. (And not incidentally, some positive press from the American Library Association?)

James LaRue, Director
Office for Intellectual Freedom &
The Freedom to Read Foundation

The boldface issue and other typographical ones will increasingly matter as Amazon builds on its recent success with New York City schools and expands its K-12 marketing efforts in hopes of moving many millions of dollars of hardware. Will school boards know enough about the Kindle readability concerns to avoid compromising certain students’ ability to learn? And what about the recipients of donated Kindles? Sadly, many of the young people most harmed will suffer silently. It’s like young children’s eye and ear issues. Smart mothers and fathers don’t just assume their kids will complain of near-sightedness or hearing difficulties. They are proactive and send their offspring to specialists for testing so that, without question, the kids are truly ready to lean.

A very much related issue: Amazon’s consumer-hostile text to speech strategy

Significantly, a related issue also arises—the omission of workable text to speech in Amazon’s E Ink readers. TTS used to be there. Amazon took it out, very possibly at least in part to encourage sales of human-narrated books from its Audible division as well as purchase of multimedia Fire tablets in addition to ereaders. One excuse used by a group of makers of E Ink devices, including Amazon, was that TTS would cost too much. That argument came up before the Federal Communications Commission, which ruled that ereaders didn’t come fall within the accessibility regulation it’s supposed to enforce for “advanced communications services” (E Ink readers didn’t qualify, the FCC said). And yet lo and behold, despite the cost-related arguments of the industry lawyers, TTS showed up in the new $80 basic E Ink reader.

Unfortunately there was a major catch. Amazon’s TTS mode for that reader and a Paperwhite attachment offered only a blind-optimized interface. Amazon’s TTS is hard to use by the nonblind—including, of course, sighted people with dyslexia and other print impairments. K-12 kids, seniors, and others will pay the price. TTS can a good way to get into a challenging book via the first chapter even if you are disability-free. Furthermore, it’s a boon for exercisers and commuters and is perfectly serviceable for cash-strapped readers unable to afford audiobooks even if it is not the same as well-done human narration. TTS is especially useful in E Ink machines, which kids with attention deficit disorders can use without the multimedia and social media distractions of cell phones and tablets.

If Amazon is so committed to spreading literacy, it needs to bring back TTS for the sighted. Publishers could use DRM to turn off TTS if they didn’t want it. Yes, Kobo, too, should offer TTS. But at least its greater range of typography makes the need at least a little less urgent than in Amazon’s case.

Monopoly: The ultimate reason why K-12 kids and other Kindle users have so little choice about typography or TTS? Fodder for FTC?

In the end, whether the issue is better typography, TTS, lack of a current eight-inch reader or something else, it’s easy to identify the root problem at Amazon. Simply put, the company dominates the U.S. market for both content and hardware. This has been made possible in part by Amazon’s oft-DRM-infested proprietary formats. Barry Marks sized up the situation well when he wrote about the real reason why Amazon customers can’t enjoy a boldface option:

I think the imperfection here isn’t the lack of a bold font but the fact that Amazon supplies our ereaders. They have no serious incentive to push it so that it’s the very best it can be for everyone. It’s in their best interest to keep it simple and cheap. What would fix this problem and most ereader problems is if booksellers and publishers got out of the device business and let some competition happen. That way all the hardware manufacturers would be pumping every last bit of goodness into their ereader like they do today with phones. Has anyone found that map yet?”

So what’s “that map”? Barry might disagree with me for ideological reasons or others, and I certainly speak just for myself and TeleRead, absolutely no one else; but I really, really think that the Federal Trade Commission should see if customers are suffering from an Amazon monopoly harming their interests in ways that violates federal law. If nothing else, does Amazon’s ownership of Audible discourage it in a legally problematic way from making TTS easily available for the sighted? I’m not a lawyer and won’t pass judgment here, but in a pamphlet titled Competition Counts: How Consumers Win When Businesses Compete, the FTC says:

What kinds of business practices interest the Bureau of Competition? In short, the very practices that affect consumers the most: company mergers, agreements among competitors, restrictive agreements between manufacturers and product dealers, and monopolies. The FTC reviews these and other practices, looking at the likely effects on consumers and competition: Would they lead to higher prices, inferior service, or fewer choices for consumers? Would they make it more difficult for other companies to enter the market?

Via proprietary encryption-based DRM and other means, has Amazon created a monopoly or near-monopology that limits typographical and TTS choices in ways that can compromise low-vision people’s ability to enjoy books?  Should the FTC encourage Amazon to learn on publishers to allow it to use social DRM  and industry-standard ePub so its books are readable on a number of devices, not just its own, and consumers can enjoy truly accessible technology of their choosing? What are the legal risks to Amazon if Bezos and colleagues fail to strive for decent accessibility, even if the FCC does not feel that the Kindle is within its jurisdiction? How about accessibility laws elsewhere on the books for schools and libraries? Or the possibility of Congress strengthening them in the future if the current ones are not enough?

In the end, then, not just for moral and commercial reasons but also for legal ones, Jeff Bezos would do well to heed Jamie LaRue’s  sound advice and give Kindles an all-text  boldface option. And if we can also get a decent range of other typographical choices along with text to speech, then so much the better.

Detail: Just so it’s clear, I’m a big fan of Amazon in most respects and the company is my main supplier of books and probably of electronics—no anti-Amazon jihad here! I love Amazon’s hardware despite its just-described shortcomings, and I’m even more appreciative of the company’s generally stellar customer service. Furthermore, I have no relationship with Kobo other than that of a customer and writer. Kobo sent me my Aura One review unit with no convenient way for me to pay for it even though I wanted to keep it. So in line with TeleRead’s policy for these situations, I’m donating the $230 value of the ereader to my local public library in Alexandria, Virginia.