Librarians and publishers still have problems with e-books

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E-books still have a long way to go before librarians and their customers will be satisfied, reports Tom Wilkie from last month's Special Libraries Association meeting

The e-book may be the future but it is not yet working, according to librarians and scholarly publishers speaking to the annual meeting of the Special Libraries Association in Chicago in late July.

‘Where are we? In the Wild West,’ Rebecca Vargha of the University of North Carolina’s Library told the meeting during her discussion about ‘e-books: promises and realities’. She noted: ‘I don’t think there is an optimal model yet. Students and instructors are dissatisfied with the content and the interface of e-books.’

Her librarian’s perspective was, interestingly, echoed by a representative of a scholarly publishing house. Krista Coulson, digital publishing manager for the University of Chicago Press, said that the diversity of models is causing confusion. She pointed out that e-books account for about 10 per cent of the Press’s revenues – meaning that 90 per cent of revenues are not from e-books – and that it is impossible to predict the sales of e-books and their use in libraries. In this context, she said, it is difficult to get the design department to set time aside for e-book work.

Rebecca Vargha cited the example of students wanting to use textbooks at unsocial hours. It is in the nature of the way that students work that, if they have an assignment to hand in on Monday morning, many will be up all Sunday night consulting texts and finishing off their work. But if the text is an e-book held on a publisher’s server that is routinely taken down for maintenance on Sunday nights, the students will fail their course-work assignments.

Equally, ‘pricing of e-books is not attractive.’ Because there is no second-hand market for e-books, she pointed out, students who have to re-sit a course can find themselves having to ‘buy’ the same book at full price a second time. For those studying mathematics and sciences, she added, format is a big issue. Tables and equations are seldom correctly formatted and crucial elements are often missing.

One honourable exception to the drawbacks of e-books, according to Rebecca Vargha, is the publisher Morgan and Claypool. ‘I like their product, from a customer-service point of view. Our faculty are using Morgan and Claypool material in teaching – and there are no digital rights management issues.’ Otherwise, she said, ‘it is tough to get multiple-user licences. There needs to be a change in the business model.’

Krista Coulson seemed to share the view that there are problems both with the rights and formats of e-books. One specialism of the University of Chicago Press is publishing translations of French and German books into English. But they cannot currently create editions where the original text and its translations appear on facing pages. E-books are ‘too linear’, she said. The Press has also found French and German publishers reluctant to grant e-book rights to the Press. ‘Rights are the hardest aspect of e-books,’ she said.

Another market that should be suitable for publication in e-book format is art books, she believes, because e-books would eliminate the need for high-quality and therefore expensive colour printing. However, this area has not developed yet because it is very difficult to obtain the rights to reproduce works of art in e-book format.

In addition to issues surrounding the grant of rights to e-books, a further problem, she felt, is the lack of collective standards. She explained that, even when it has the digital rights, the University of Chicago Press cannot create e-books without building its own bespoke platform and this is an expensive undertaking for a relatively small publishing house – especially given that e-books account for only 10 per cent of revenue. It is also risky, given that, in her opinion, EPUB 3 still does not work properly. ‘When the standards do emerge we will have to go back and reformat everything – and that has not been budgeted for,’ she said. The entire issue of managing an e-book over the course of its lifetime is not something that anyone has fully addressed, she warned. ‘It is a very confusing time.’

In 2010, the University of North Carolina conducted a survey of its students’ attitudes to e-books and found that while the students liked e-books in principle, they hated them in practice. Leslie Reynolds from the Texas A&M University Library told the meeting that - unsurprisingly perhaps - e-books have not formed a large segment of the library’s acquisitions so far. As recently as 2010 they comprised less than one per cent of acquisitions. In April 2012, the library started a new pilot e-book acquisition project which moved from being a ‘librarian-mediated’ to a ‘customer-initiated’ purchasing scheme. As soon as requests for a specific book hit a certain threshold, the library automatically purchases it. So far, 74 volumes had been acquired in this way, with the users unaware that they are, in effect, making a request to purchase.

She cautioned that there was a price threshold – anything costing less than $150 is automatically purchased whereas, if the price exceeded that level, the librarian would discuss the need for it with customers. Often, she said, it is discovered that the library already holds the volume, which suggests that the library’s own discovery tools need improvement. The switch to a customer-initiated purchasing policy means that ‘if there is a hot topic, the librarian is going to know about it’ as user behaviour is being monitored.