11 March 2011

The full text of my Bookseller & Publisher article on the e-textbook forum

Bookseller & Publisher kindly asked me to write an article on the e-textbook forum we held at Darling Harbour prior to ALIA Online Conference.  Here's the full text version.  More information, pictures and contact details are available on the James Bennett blog.
The e-textbook dilemma

Ebooks and libraries.  Throw publishers into the mix and it’s a fascinating relationship, particularly when you are on the library supplier side!  The rest of the book industry may not be aware that many  academic libraries have moved to “e-preferred” or “e-only” over the years and library suppliers like James Bennett have had to rise to the many challenges of supplying ebooks with regards to acquisitions workflows and profiling & selection services. James Bennett partners with EBL for their ebook platform and has done so for the last seven years.  As part of the overall product mix available, we’ve often discussed e-textbooks with academic publishers and their resistance to providing them to libraries.  Six or seven years ago the answer to our request for e-texts was a resounding “no way” but in this digital age it’s become a case of saying “I hear you, but…”,   “when it happens, not if it happens” and more recently “how are we going to make this work?”.   As you can appreciate, there are many issues:  from the role everyone plays in the traditional book supply chain to multiple user access models in libraries, print sales cannibalisation, piracy, DRM, and most of all pricing models. 

With that in mind, we held our e-textbook forum at Darling Harbour prior to the ALIA Information Online Conference.  Around 100 representatives from the publishing and library communities attended. 

Our first speaker was Pam Freeland, Manager: Humanities, Creative Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW Library who did an overview of previous e-textbook studies.  UNSW has an “e-preferred” policy and they currently have approximately 100,000 ebooks.  Some of the drivers for them have been physical – the space required for books.  Others include improved access for remote users.  The question asked by Pam was “E-book vs. E-textbook: is there a distinction between the two and is that distinction the same for all disciplines?  She spoke about the Quloc Study, LaTrobe University Study, JISC (which was referenced multiples times during the two hour meeting), the Horizon Report, and more.  (If you haven’t already read it, we would encourage you to review the JISC findings and recommendations at http://www.jiscebooksproject.org)  Some of the studies suggested students want access to both print and electronic versions but found DRM confusing.  At the user level, there were difficulties accessing the content they need and their overall experience with “e” needed to be improved.

The next speaker was Sue Dowling from Murdoch University Library.  Sue’s presentation got everyone thinking, particularly of what academic libraries want – and don’t want - for their ebook collection.  Simultaneous print and ebook release was high on the list.  In fact, she suggested e first.  She spoke about metadata, DOI to chapter level, search and discovery, ebook portability across a range of devices, built-in thesauri and dictionaries, unlimited usage without paying the earth, read-aloud options for those with disabilities, the ability to copy chapters for other libraries, usage stats/COUNTER compliance, perpetual access so the content was preserved, social network links.  On the “don’t want” list was of course “plug-ins” and the biggie - DRM.  She made the comment that DRM “was an invitation for those who like a challenge but what we really needed was a system that made it inconvenient to pirate but not inconvenient to use”.  That was echoed by many around the room.  Sue suggested textbooks in “e” is not the overwhelming preference at present so what could make e-textbooks attractive to students?  And of course, acquiring these was not solely a library responsibility.  The whole institution needs to be involved with all the stakeholders.   Who pays for textbooks was a theme throughout the afternoon particularly as some libraries have a strategic alliance with their campus bookshop.

Jinny Jones from the University of Melbourne library then spoke about space constraints and occupational health & safety issues at the Reserve desk.  She spoke about contacting EBL to see if 19 economic and commerce titles were available in e-format (for the record, they weren’t).  For these 19 titles, some 247 physical copies were being constantly re-shelved.  What’s more, they had an incredible 13,000 loans during their lifetime.  The physical demands on staff as well as the lack of space were an ongoing concern.  It was a plea for someone on the frontline to digitise – there is simply not enough space to keep handling and re-shelving.

After a short break it was the publishers turn to respond and the dialogue started to get really interesting!   As I joked with Elizabeth Weiss from Allen & Unwin, no ebook industry discussion is complete without her, and today was no exception.  Her first question was "what group of people today are the most highly motivated not to pay for books?" which elicited a few laughs from those present.  The answer is, of course, undergraduate students. The second hand textbook market, piracy, stealing, use of a different textbook rather than the set text, were highlighted as some of the strategies students already use to avoid paying for their often expensive texts. Publishers are concerned that students would also go to great lengths to access e-textbooks through their libraries. She spoke about the growing interest in ebooks and the media reporting "ad nauseam" on e-reading devices and the relatively low uptake of e in the Australian retail market so far as opposed to the US.  The concern for Allen & Unwin with placing e-textbooks in libraries is the potential loss of sales - a few students not purchasing a textbook here and there all add up for a publisher of their size.  In smaller academic disciplines local textbooks might sell 500-700 copies a year.  Take away just 5-10 sales at each of a few universities due to the availability of the book in the library, and it hurts the bottom line.  There's no way around it unless libraries are prepared to pay enough to cover the lost sales.  Furthermore, textbooks are often highly formatted and aren't suitable for delivery in all ebook formats and in a library setting.  Research shows resistance from student textbook users to the "e" experience in this case however there are exciting developments with ebook enhancements - multimedia, for example, can enhance the learning experience.  Where the library fits into the equation remains to be seen - and of course, what are they prepared to pay to compensate publishers for lost sales?

Maryce Johnstone, Sales Manager for Gale, represented Cengage Learning and spoke about testing e-textbooks in the UK. “A lot of pain, a lot of work, but it was an interesting place to be” The JISC study was invaluable as were developments in the enhanced-ebook market, the “bells and whistles” but much of what was being done was purely experimental.  Maryce spoke the business model for higher education in Australia.  We need to retain the revenue of print and ensure the sustainability of the local publishing industry otherwise the risk is there will only be US content available. 

Lucy Russell, General Manager for Higher Education at Wiley then summarised the local business models for textbooks, particularly the important role of the academic bookseller.  Wiley Australia employs some 350 people and 60% of their textbooks are locally published.  Development costs for textbooks are high, student motivation to purchase is low, and many resources for the lecturer (and students) to support teaching and learning are given away! People costs are a considerable cost as publishers are required to curate all content, sell it, market it and distribute it.  Lucy shared the financials about adoptions in the ANZ market and pricing of textbooks.  As she said “we know print will move to digital” but the people costs of developing student and teaching resources remain the same, if not increasing with the requirement for more engaging media.  With regards to libraries, publishers were aware of the pressure to provide alternatives to print and they can’t keep their head in the sand - it was time to experiment without risking revenue.  The question for everyone was how do you make e-textbooks available in libraries and stay in business?

Needless to say healthy discussion between publishers and librarians resulted!   Responses from the forum indicated it was a timely discussion and a good subject to address.  All stakeholders know the main areas of concern but also where there are joint interests.  What we need to work on now is more “discussion, debate, action” among stakeholders – the academic publishers, library suppliers, ebook vendors, and the libraries themselves.