Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #29: Ebook ecology – managing digital collections amid the publishing war

Our next will be on Tuesday, 6th October from 6:30-8:30 and our topic is the changing nature of the ebook and its economy.  Come and share perspectives, insights and advice.  The agenda is now available, so please feel free to add your own questions.  Rachel Cutts from non-profit publisher CABI will be joining us for the uklibchat, adding an exciting new perspective to the discussion.

We have two different perspectives on the changing ebook landscape – one from a librarian and one from a publisher.

Sue Stevenson

Firstly, Sue Stevenson, Faculty Librarian (Business) at the University of Portsmouth, describes the frustrations of a university librarian facing the challenges of managing ebook collections.

E-books –a frustrated University Faculty Librarian’s view
Offering books for reading over the Internet – what a lovely thought for part time or distance learning students. What a great idea for a better sustainable world to save on paper, ink etc. But why does it all become so complicated and expensive?

Gradually, instead of packages evolving towards a standardised reader more and more publishers are offering their own library and deals –my students hate learning different systems and tools. They are used to deciding Apple/Windows, or Apple/Android but they do not want to have to spread their learning to over 5 ways to read, highlight, copy or paste notes electronically. Or work out when and how to login/register with a service.
Never mind those tempting deals you might like to offer us – please just work out reasonable margins on each book. How great those research monograph publishers who offer e-books titles at similar hardback prices across a couple of standard library e-book suppliers.

I guess for these publishers they know that we seldom had money to buy more than one copy of a book –and isn’t better that everyone on a course gets to view their product and seek out their titles. Usage statistics will let me know whether a single license needs increasing –but they will also indicate where a publisher is proving popular and so encourage me to buy other titles. Publishers rarely had multiple sales in these areas –hooray those who recognise this and just celebrate the extra readers.

Text-book publishers need to decide how much they want to become course developers and cut their production to just major successful textbooks. The current trend to withhold key texts from library sales in the hope of landing the big deal of e-text per student per year is disheartening. Such deals can only lead to Academic departments wanting to keep more funds themselves and thus diminish library budgets. What a wonderful world it will be when graduates have had their course books and little access to anything else.

Thank you to the text book providers charging me 5 times the cost of print books and only allowing single licence use only. Is this the only restrictive method you can use to maintain your sales – your costs must be going down isn’t there a more exciting way to adapt to the modern world?

Sue Stevenson

* * *

Rachel CuttsNext, we have Rachel Cutts from non-profit publisher CABI giving a publisher’s perspective on the challenges of the changing ebook market.

eBooks: a publisher’s perspective

Since the first #uklibchat on eBooks in 2011, eBook availability, uptake and use have increased, but there are still challenges to building an affordable and accessible eBook collection. I’ve been talking to academic librarians in the UK and beyond to get a proper understanding of eBooks in practice, to inform the next generation of CABI eBooks. In August this year I talked to Sue Stevenson, Faculty Librarian at the University of Portsmouth, and in the run up to the next #uklibchat on October 6th, have been invited to share my perspective on what we discussed. Thank you to Sue for allowing me to base this piece on key challenges she identified.

The first challenge: can I buy the eBook?

eBooks are increasingly preferred for their wide access and availability, but are not always available. It’s often the case with CABI’s older books (pre-2000), as they missed out on an eBook being part of their production, and no files exist. One scenario, however, that particularly causes headaches for librarians is when eBooks exist but are only available for end users to buy. This frustrates librarians and confuses faculty when the eBook is right there in front of them on Amazon. This situation currently applies to many textbooks, including CABI’s. I will look at this in more detail below.

The next challenge: where can I get it from?

If an eBook is available to libraries, the next question is, where to get it from? Not all eBooks are on the aggregators you use, not all publishers will let you buy a single book, and not all suppliers will offer the licence you want for the price you can afford. In order to meet policy or access requirements for all eBooks, the number of platforms a library works with proliferates. In the wider marketplace, libraries’ and patrons’ platforms preferences vary, and each library has their own combination of selected suppliers. This creates a complex network of service coverage.

Ideally, CABI’s eBooks would be available everywhere you want to find them. But we face challenges with proliferating platforms quite similar to those that libraries experience: large numbers of interfaces and specifications, and administration to navigate. Each aggregator or retail platform has different demands for metadata and for the eBook files themselves. For a publisher the size of CABI (we have about 700 eBooks total), the perfect balance between broad availability and feasibility of delivery is difficult to achieve without some trade-offs. For example, individual titles can be made available, but on a third party platform that may apply more DRM, or direct from us with zero DRM as packages due to what our infrastructure can support. So we prioritize platforms based on demand and the best partnerships, while all the time recognising that we need to be available where you are, not rely solely on you to come to us.

In addition to this, publishers are still really keen to develop their own platforms too. Certainly for CABI, it gives us control over what to offer (non-proprietary file formats with no DRM), provides real insight into usage and reader behaviour and builds a direct relationship with libraries and users. It also gives us the opportunity to utilise available technology in ways tied directly to books, building content and interface into a coherent ecosystem from the very start. CABI also have databases and online resources we are evolving into powerful workflow-oriented tools. Hosting eBooks together with these on the same platform extends that functionality across all our content, and is really at the core of our remit to deliver knowledge. Publishers are starting to innovate more as understanding of the market grows, which will eventually deeply affect and hopefully free the very content itself in a way that only publishers can do. With aggregators, our options are much more limited. The aggregator sets up its licences and models, and our only options are to be available on the aggregator, or not be available.

The greatest challenge: can I get an appropriate level of access…affordably

Finding a licence that gives enough access for everyone who needs it for a reasonable price is a common frustration. A single user licence isn’t enough for core materials, but if more access is required, prices start to escalate. CABI’s monograph eBooks are discounted in our subscription packages and match print price on our aggregator partners, so I will focus on eTextbooks, where our model is quite different. Following cautiously where the academic trends and tech start-ups have led, we introduced an adoption model earlier this year, making our eTextbooks available to libraries for the first time. The model is where access for all students is factored into the price by multiplying it by the number of students on a course, allowing for the eventuality that the eBook replaces print sales in that institution. CABI’s offering is a one-time price for unlimited, site-wide perpetual access, though other models are usually for a specific cohort. This adoption model, in some form or other, will be familiar to many librarians, and importantly I suspect, also very unpopular. While some schools are beginning to buy eTextbooks for every student, it has never been the responsibility, nor the goal, of the library, for reasons of budget, space and practicality. Offering such a model to libraries is not replacing like for like, and is not what is wanted. For CABI’s part, we are happy to fulfil requests from schools (or third parties they are partnered with) to supply our eTextbooks to their students where they have chosen this model, but the library model is something that needs further development.

I think the problem at the core of the textbooks challenge is that they alone straddle a dual market of library and end-user purchase. Traditionally, they are priced low so that students can buy them. At this price, we need to sell more copies to cover the costs. In eBook format a single copy can replace infinite print ones, meaning the current model of textbooks, which developed intrinsically tied to its print nature, is at odds with the digital marketplace, but still costing as much to produce what we’d recognise as a textbook today. I think there will be more models developed and trialled before one that works for all parties finally reaches the market. It is something we are working on.

Student peering at inaccessible ebooks through a window

Barriers to access are still an issue: the enook may exist, and even be in the library catalogue, but not all students can reach it – when it’s right there. (Image: CABI)

The problem with eBooks could boil down to its strained relationship with print: since their inception, benefits of the digital medium like infinite access, sharing, replication and instant delivery have been restrained to minimise disruption to existing business models based on print. Conversely, the one perfect thing about print books, that you could buy them from anywhere but still sit them side by side on the same shelves in the same building and read every one in the exact same way, is the one thing that hasn’t carried over into the digital world. Perhaps when eBooks were first imagined, no one really sat down and thought what it was about content – in any format – that needs to be present, or not, for it to serve it’s purpose of communicating knowledge. That’s where CABI is starting for our next generation products. It is slowly changing, but with librarians’ needs on board from the start, perhaps a more drastic rethink needs to happen at the very place where authors’ knowledge is first formed into a distributable output: with us, the publishers.

Rachel Cutts, Product Developer for ebooks, CABI

CABI is an international not-for-profit organization that improves people’s lives worldwide by providing information and applying scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment. CABI publish academic books and databases in applied biosciences. For more information, please visit www.cabi.org.


About philoslibris

I am a chartered librarian currently employed as the Assistant Librarian (Promotions) managing the promotional communications of the University of Portsmouth.

One comment on “Feature #29: Ebook ecology – managing digital collections amid the publishing war

  1. Pingback: #uklibchat agenda – Tuesday 6th October 2015: Ebook ecology | #uklibchat

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This entry was posted on September 29, 2015 by in Feature and tagged , , , , .


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