Digital desires

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With libraries worldwide adopting more and more e-books, publishers are getting to grips with giving readers what they want. Rebecca Pool reports

As publishers worldwide watch sales of scholarly e-books soar, many are now reviewing what readers want from the digital tome. From fluid formats and interactive content to diminishing digital rights and open access, change is afoot as the market grows.

Over the last decade, scholarly publishers worldwide have been rolling out e-book programs in a bid to boost reader accessibility to publications. Margaret Harrison, e-book global supply chain manager at Oxford University Press, has always focused on ease of access, and right now she is ensuring her organisation’s e-books are available in the latest iteration of the e-book standard, ePub 3.

From the word go, this free and open HTML-based e-book standard has been designed for reflowable content, so text is optimised according to the the display device. In contrast, PDF content is static, so pages are displayed identically across devices.

‘We are making ePub available for a lot more of our e-book content, instead of simply providing a static PDF, so more users can access the content on a mobile device’ said Harrison. ‘Our e-books have always been very similar to print, but we’re now looking for ways to customise the format for that mobile experience.’

According to the OUP manager, the ePub drive ties in with reader research that reveals tablet use, especially the iPad, is dominant and growing across US and European markets. But, as Harrison also points out, users are also turning to mobile phones to access information on the go, as they become ‘less grounded in that print experience’. And, as new reading preferences are noted, publishers are adapting accordingly.

At least five years ago, OUP digitised a number of its backlists, creating pdf images of content that formed the basis of its e-books. Now, as Harrison highlights, the publisher is re-visiting these publications to optimise them for an ‘e-book reading experience’.

This is where ePub is becoming more and more critical. As well as optimising text for a device, the standard supports interactive audio and video content, expanded metadata facilities, synchronisation of audio with texts, scalable vector graphics and other accessibility enhancements, as well as  various digital rights management (DRM) formats, if required.

‘We’ve also started to generate our ePub standard from XML rather than PDFs and InDesign,’ explained Harrison. ‘Our digital-borne content starts with XML and is formatted specifically for digital and mobile use, so doing this has made a real difference and our formatting has really improved.’

‘In the past we’ve been focusing more on PDFs than ePub but that’s starting to shift,’ she added. ‘We’re really making sure that formatting is optimised for e-book reading and will continue to focus on this.’

Flexible for the future

Germany-based publishing heavyweight, Springer, currently provides all of its e-books as PDF content, with a large chunk in HTML format. But according to Wouter van der Velde, senior eProduct Manager of e-books, at Springer SBM the publisher is currently heavily investing in converting its content into full-text XML to ensure flexible content.

‘If you have you content in full-text XML you can export it to any format that’s out there, including PDF, HTML and ePub’ said van der Velde. ‘PDF is an established format but I’m not saying it will be the format for the future, so if we see a new format, we’ll be ready to convert to that.’

And, like the OUP, research into reader habits reveals that while the majority of Springer’s customers access its content using a larger screen device, mobile access is increasing. ‘We’ve seen the number of mobile accesses doubling every year,’ said van der Velde. ‘Although it is a small percentage, it does account for tens of thousands of mobile visits every day and we expect this to keep increasing.’

So, with formatting issues being tackled and mobile reading rising, publishers now intend to provide more interactive content. OUP, for one, is about to deliver its first video-enhanced e-book; and as Harrison said: ‘We didn’t want to just throw a bunch of bells and whistles into our content, just to jump into an enhanced e-book trend.’

‘We’ve been waiting to see when it really makes sense and adds value... and now we are looking at the opportunities,’ she added.

At the same time Springer is ramping up its collection of so-called SmartBooks, mostly German-language books spanning disciplines from medical imaging and information management to manufacturing and microeconomics.

These publications can contain videos, quizzes and the ability to make notes, and as van der Velde said: ‘We’re publishing more and more every year. We’re now up to more than 240 SmartBooks from having launched with just a dozen only 18 months ago.’

But for the Springer e-book product manager, the real benefits of e-books can only be realised if content is not subject to digital rights management (DRM). DRM is intended to protect files from illegal use, and essentially locks files, keeping them tied to the purchaser’s account, so no-one else cant open the file unless their device or software has the correct key. What’s more, most DRM also locks other e-book features for the actual owner such as printing, and copying and pasting content.

Given these barriers, Springer has adopted a DRM-free approach from the beginning, with readers able to download individual chapters or an entire book, as PDF content. ‘Librarians and users don’t just want on-screen reading, they want unlimited readership and no restrictions on how content is used, within copyright laws,’ said van der Velde. ‘Back in 2006 when we launched Springer e-books by offering the vast majority of our books electronically in parallel with print, this is what our library advisory boards said they wanted as they considered DRM to be the largest restricting factor of any e-book offering in the market at the time.’

‘It’s helped the market a lot and I must admit we’re in more of a position to do this,’ he added. ‘If you publish Harry Potter and John Grisham, then your risks are a lot higher.’

Beyond DRM, many librarians have been looking to lose the publisher package deal and instead purchase digital content based on a patron-driven acquisition (PDA) model, in which content is only acquired once it is clear a patron wants it.

As part of this supply model, the patron or reader selects e-books from suppliers lists selected by their institution, and is then provided with a free preview. Further access is allowed by request or on an automated basis, depending on the exact supply model, and typically, the institution is only charged for e-books that experience substantial use.

Providers such as Ebrary and EBSCO offer the PDA model, but according to van der Velde, Springer’s PDA experiences so far haven’t proven fruitful for its customers.

As he points out, the costs associated with tracking e-book usage are high, leaving the cost of an individual e-book far greater than the cost of that title within a package. What’s more, past research reveals that over time, at larger organisations, a large portion of the books in a package are used.

‘We have been experimenting with the patron-driven model, with some of our customers, but we found that the majority of them ended up paying a similar amount of money and getting just a fraction of the content,’ he said.

‘These kinds of models require quite a lot of investment into back-up systems and tracking users on top of the constant investments we make into innovations such as conversion into full-text xml,’ he added.

But as industry grapples with new e-book supply models, one model that publishers are more than warming to for e-books, is open access. Notable participants include Dutch publishing company, Brill, and Palgrave Macmillan, UK, as well as Springer. Last year the company published more than 50 open access e-books, and more will follow.

‘When open access was becoming a trend, many larger commercial publishers that were selling licences stayed away from this, but we introduced open choice,’ highlighted Springer. ‘So, from the beginning we have made it very clear that we’re not neglecting the fact that open access is a viable model.’

Making waves

As established publishers ramp up e-book activities, one relatively new entry, the IOP Publishing (IOP), has found considerable success in the e-book arena following an eight year absence from print book publishing. Focusing on e-books only, the IOP launched its programme in October 2013 and published 29 books in its first year. Today it has more than 100 titles under contract for future publication, and recently clinched a silver award at the ALPSP Awards for Innovation in Publishing, for ‘boldly’ reinventing its core business, which ‘sets digital and the user at the heart of its strategy’.

‘There haven’t really been any new entrants over the last few years and I do think the timing for us has been good,’ said Christian Box, product manager of e-books at the IOP. ‘E-books is a very interesting space and is definitely slightly behind the curve compared to journals in terms of electronic delivery. There’s plenty of potential here.’

‘With our e-books, readers can download single chapters or whole books... and usage has been huge, but not just in downloads, also the reach. We’ve reached a number of countries that you couldn’t imagine a print programme would get into,’ he added.

The company currently publishes books across two collections; expanding physics and concise physics, largely to institutional markets, However, it is also exploring new subjects, and recently signed an agreement with the American Astronomical Society to build an astronomy collection from 2017. Other potential areas include biophysics and biomedical science.

‘We have journals in these fields so have experience here,’ said Box.

‘The programme will continue to focus on core physics but we expect to broaden into other subjects over the next few years.’

But be it core physics or biophysics, like other players in the e-book market, getting the right format to ensure a straightforward reading experience on any device is critical to the IOP. Its e-books come in ePub 3, HTML and PDF formats, and crucially for the publisher, the latest addition – ePub 3.0 Recommended Specification – includes support for MathML, easing equation formatting within technical text.

And like OUP and Spinger, the company now intends to incorporate multimedia to its content. ‘Around the summer we will submit our first book with video embedded in it,’ said Box. ‘We’re also looking at getting interactive charting to work, so users can, say, change the axis of a graph to get different results.’

‘A lot of this relies on the author’s appetite for this kind of thing but we will develop features when they make sense within a book,’ he added.

Clearly, for e-book publishers, easier formatting and sensible interactive content strategies are priorities. And as the market grows, DRM-free downloads are increasingly seen as a must.

As Box put it: ‘For me, digital rights management feels like a relic of the print world.’

‘Anecdotally, I’ve heard stories of students in the library taking photos of a book on their phones to take home to read, and that can’t be a good reading experience,’ he added. ‘We want books to be read and having no DRM is the way to do it.’

A broad perspective

Since the inception of e-books, Professor Tom Wilson, from the Swedish School of library and Information Science, University of Sweden, has published paper after paper on the ‘e-book phenomenon’, and is adamant the e-book has breathed new life into the digital monograph.

‘I can’t see the point of publishing an academic monograph in print any longer,’ he said. ‘It’s uneconomic and people publish for reputational purposes. It just doesn’t get the author known, and if the thing doesn’t sell and nobody knows about it, then that’s pointless.’

Wilson now expects the scholarly book industry will see a shift from print to e-book publishing. As he points out, several universities are returning to the university press, but electronically, and not through print.

‘The large, existing university presses, such as Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, and Colombia are already in the business of producing e-book versions of some texts and may well move onto the e-book model only,’ he says.

What’s more, Wilson reckons this shift spells good news for the open access movement.

‘Increasingly we see publishers making more of these materials open access, so I think this indicates a trend towards the open access, locally published scholarly monograph,’ he said. ‘Scholars can do this themselves or alongside their university starting up a university press model.’

The academic has also noted that many developing nations, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, have ‘plunged strongly’ into e-books because of perceived economics. ‘In the developing world they look at the prices they pay for, say, English language text books and think, ‘well what’s the point’?’

‘If American universities are developing their own e-books for economic reasons, why wouldn’t a developing country?’ he adds.

Eastern promise

Right now, many publishers see the Asia Pacific as a hot-bed for e-book growth. As the IOP’s Christian Box said: ‘We’ve seen a much higher proportion of sales within Asia Pacific than we would have expected five to 10 years ago.’

‘The appetite for information is growing in Asia Pacific and it’s not far off parity with some other regions around the world now,’ he added.

Wouter Van der Velde from Springer agrees and highlights how nations such as China and India are ramping up levels of research.

‘We’re trying to be on the ground in many of these countries,’ he said. ‘We recently opened an editorial office in China, hiring local editors to acquire content as investment in education in these countries is increasing year on year.’