Open Book: ‘No rhyme or reason’ on ebook prices

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A UK-based university librarian, who has chosen to remain anonymous, has spoken out about ‘gobsmacking’ prices for some ebooks

I work at a small university in the UK, with correspondingly small library budgets.

In the last few months I’ve noticed some ebook prices had shot up – by up to five times the original price, in some cases.

Some of the books were now priced at up to £1,000, which was bad enough, and one particular contract effectively had an expiry date – so that you might have to pay a huge amount for an ebook and then buy it again the following year. I really don’t know where that kind of thinking comes from. Librarians don’t generally know how much other universities are paying for they resources; it’s a very murky situation, and it’s impossible to know how the publishers have worked out their prices for each institution.

All of our books come through aggregators; because we are so small there’s no way that we can subscribe to every ebook platform. They tell us that those are the prices that the publishers are giving them, but it’s always someone else’s fault, isn’t it? Why they are agreeing to host books on their sites, at £800 or more for a single-user licence, I don’t know. 

Even when we complain, they are reluctant to push back on those prices. They are supposed to act as a middle-man between us, but it feels like they are solely working for the publishers.

There are plenty of publishers that have very reasonable ebook prices, but several don’t – and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Students and academics are gobsmacked by it when I explain – they see books on Amazon for £20 and think it should be the same for us! 

There are also some publishers that are not making books available electronically at all – or only a very small proportion of their collections. I have one colleague whose key books all come from one particular publisher; her students are on placement a lot of the time so need to take out books for long periods. She can’t get hold of them in ebook format at all – so, for that particular cohort of students, it’s a useless situation.

For key books we tend to buy one copy per 10 students, and if it’s indicative reading it’s one per 20 students. The providers argue that we are buying fewer e-resources than we would hard copies, which is why the prices are so much higher. I’ve heard some ridiculous explanations about this, but they don’t have to pay printing costs on ebooks and a lot of the typesetting is being done overseas at very cheap rates. Of course they don’t pay the authors anyway! Where is this money going?

A lot of librarians are scared to talk out about these practices as well.

The majority of my students prefer paper books anyway, but of course the situation we find ourselves in is that the physical library is effectively closed! In most cases we don’t even have the choice to invest in a lot of the ebooks out there as our budget is so limited. I understand there are a lot of patron-driven acquisition models out there, but if we were to go down that route our budgets would be used up in a few hours!

For every book I buy I have to look at several different providers, studying complicated pricing models and licences, and it is taking hours and hours of my time – hence my frustration. It shouldn’t be that way (it’s not what I’m qualified to be doing) and at the end of the process the books might not be available anyway, or they might several times more expensive than we can afford. It’s such a waste of time.

When you buy a hard copy of a book, you don’t have to commit to buying the whole warehouse, so why should it be different for ebooks when publishers try to make you sign up to their expensive platforms?

It’s so unethical – I’ve been complaining about this for a long time and there are plenty of librarians who are as cross as I am. If anything, there is a lot more anger among the library community in recent months. 

I see headlines from publishers on how they are making available research related to Covid-19 for free, but they are not the books on our reading lists. It makes them look all fluffy and lovely, but I’m still not able to buy the key text-books for my students. They are stuck at home with all the stress of the situation – we are trying to support our students and we can’t even get them the basics they need.

Librarians have told publishers all of this in focus groups, at conferences and elsewhere – it’s not as if they don’t know the situation we find ourselves in. The thing is, if other publishers follow suit and raise their prices to these kind of levels, nobody will be buying them at all.

It’s an absurd situation and I really don’t know how it’s going to be resolved. Our professional body is useless and I don’t really feel that we have anyone agitating or advocating for us. We need to revolt!