Discussions reveal e-book trends

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Siân Harris spoke about e-book trends at the E-books and E-content 2011 meeting at UCL in London in May. She reveals some of the things she and other speakers discussed there and at the recent UKSG meeting

E-books are no longer a future topic or a niche idea but an established part of modern life. Even two years ago when consultant Laura Cox surveyed scholarly publishers as part of a study for ALPSP, she found that 63 per cent publish e-books – an impressive percentage, particularly considering that not every publisher has books of any type in their portfolio.

And there is now such a volume of e-book content that it has become a distinct category for library budgets and an important part of researcher workflows.

In many ways, e-journals and general availability of information online over the past decade or so has created an expectation for e-books – especially in reference. There are many benefits of e-books. Some of the particularly interesting ones for research are the ability to interact and annotate books and the instant availability.

E-books are influencing how information is found. Lorraine Estelle, CEO of JISC Collections, told Research Information that with e-books people pop in, find the information they need very quickly and then leave. Of course this might always have been the behaviour of researchers with print books but there weren’t the usage statistics to demonstrate this – and, with print, time is taken to walk between shelves and find the appropriate titles, which is not required with e-books.

This raises a related issue: much more is being studied about e-books than could ever be known about print books thanks to usage statistics. The recent MPS Librarian Survey on Usage Statistics revealed that 96.7 per cent of librarians surveyed used usage statistics and most rated statistics – especially COUNTER-compliant ones – as important or vital – although use of COUNTER-compliant statistics was lower (65.7 per cent) for e-books than for journals (86.7 per cent).

Platform integration

Platform integration has been a key trend with e-books. Many publishers have offered their e-books and e-journals on the same platform for many years, often launching their e-books straight onto their existing e-journal platform. This helps users to find relevant information across resources and simplifies linking. This trend is continuing too. For example, the publisher Brill will be launching a single e-journal/e-book platform in September in partnership with Publishing Technology.

And it’s not just journals and books that can be included. A significant part of what OECD publishes is data, and so data sits alongside e-journals and e-books on its platform. ‘We found that by far the best business model is bundling all our content together in a single knowledge base,’ noted Toby Green, head of publishing at OECD, who added that ‘clearly volume matters. It gets easier if there is lots of content.’

Integration creates a body of information that can be used in more ways in research than a collection of print volumes on shelves and the possibilities of this will be explored more over the next few years.

Inevitably, integration with other resources leads to a different way of using e-book information and this depends on the type of book. For reference works the chapter is an interesting entity. According to Green of OECD, even with traditional-style books the electronic format allows books to be released chapter by chapter to generate interest prior to publication of the complete book.

And e-book information can be parcelled up in an even smaller way than chapters. The most extreme example is probably the online encyclopedias and dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary Online launched at the Online Information show, for example, is not even described as an e-book at all; in an electronic world the concept of dictionary has become so different from what was bound in print.

It is also possible to deconstruct book resources from multiple publishers to create new types of reference resources – as shown by the likes of Credo Reference (see Research Information April/May 2011).

Devices and functions

Rethinking the concept of a book doesn’t stop with how the information is broken up and linked to other information. There are also many forays into the possibilities of adding extra functionality such as video, interactive quizzes and ways to import and manipulate data.

However, this is where the idea of generalising ‘e-books’ falls down. What extra functionality users want depends enormously on the type of e-book and how it is used. It also depends on the type of device being used. For example, OECD’s e-books include data in formats that it can be used and manipulated by researchers reading the e-books. This is something that is only really relevant on the users’ PCs or laptops, which is where almost all the access to this platform comes from.

In contrast, other types of books where there is a narrative-style argument lend themselves much better to e-reader devices – to fit more into the concept of a cover-to-cover read on a long train journey.

Interactive quizzes fit best into e-textbooks, which in turn could be part of a wider e-learning platform. At E-Books and E-Content 2011, Nicky Whitsed, director of library services at the Open University, demonstrated how the Open University has turned course material into e-books, incorporating videos to explain concepts. She suggested that e-books could become the catalyst for the development of a completely new type of virtual learning environment in universities.

And then there are ways to take advantage of emerging web concepts such as social bookmarking and ranking entries. The discussions at E-Books and E-Content revealed interest in combining e-books with social networking and enabling semantic tagging and searching of e-book text.

The variety of devices used to access e-books is another challenge for generalising e-book trends. As previously mentioned, the type of e-book and how it is used makes a big difference. A whole chapter – or even cover-to-cover read – lends itself ideally to an e-book reader or other mobile device, while a reference resource used in conjunction with other online resources and a researcher’s own data is much more appropriate on the device they are doing their research on.

One type of device worth watching for e-books in the future is the games console. The likes of the Nintendo DS family may seem a long way from current research practice and scholarly publishing today but are the devices of choice for today’s school children who will move on to higher education within a decade. When Research Information spoke on this topic at Online Information 2010 the need to watch gaming platforms was echoed in discussions afterwards.

The devices of young people are particularly interested to watch given the demographics of users of e-book readers. Steve Burrows of the Digital Reading Europe team at Sony Europe presented some figures at E-Books and E-Content, showing that the average ages of users of Sony’s e-readers in the UK were 47 and 49 for the two e-reader product lines on sale. This, Burrows noted, is significantly older than the average ages for most of Sony’s consumer electronic products.

Rights challenges

What users are allowed to do with e-books is another big issue for librarians and researchers. Some publishers do not impose any digital rights management (DRM) on users. But the picture is complicated by the fact that publishers don’t have the same approach. And it is further complicated by the role of third parties in selling e-book content. As SAGE pointed out, if titles are sold through third party vendors – as SAGE’s e-books are – the DRM will depend on the vendor’s technology. This issue was echoed by Jude Norris, marketing and technology director of Dawson Books, which is an aggregator for e-books, at the meeting: ‘O’Reilly [the publisher] said that it was not going to care about DRM but we had already built our platform to care about DRM,’ she said.

Buying e-books

Trends in how e-books are used in research impact how e-books are purchased. One of the hot topics at the recent UKSG event was acquisition of e-book content. One challenge for librarians with limited budgets and different needs to address is whether to opt for buying e-book collections – analogous to the journal big deals – or whether to use patron-driven acquisition (PDA), where purchases of e-books are triggered by user choices.

There are benefits and challenges of both approaches. Budget planning is easier when libraries buy big collections and most large publishers offer collections of their whole book list or collections by subject area.

In contrast, the PDA model could become open-ended unless tight controls are put in place on user acquisition. The University of Iowa, USA, for example, recently did an experiment into PDA. It set aside $25k to start the project but this budget was all used up within a couple of months. The university ended up refining its PDA plans by buying three e-book packages and adapting the trigger criteria. Nonetheless, the librarians, who spoke about this at the Charleston conference in the autumn, were positive about the benefits of PDA, pointing out how many of the most popular titles would never have been chosen by a librarian.

Meanwhile, based on research into usage of e-books in Springer’s collection at the University of Liverpool, UK, Terry Bucknell and colleagues estimated that PDA would have cost them twice as much – even though some of the books purchased in the publisher collections have never been used.

However, PDA has strong supporters. As Rick Anderson, a librarian at University of Utah, USA, argued at the UKSG meeting, ‘Buying the wrong book, even if it’s at a huge discount, is still the wrong book.’ He anticipates that PDA will become the norm in libraries of the future but noted that there do need to be some controls in place. ‘There are not unlimited budgets. There do have to be some constraints,’ he explained. And this is already happening. Many PDA models have e-book purchases triggered by certain number of accesses to the e-book or a certain length of use time – to avoid buying a book that came up in search results but turned out not to have the required information.

Currently librarians are divided on the best approach – and publishers and aggregators are seeking to meet both approaches – and it seems likely that the two will go in parallel.

It’s also worth mentioning that usage alone may not be a measure of the research value of a text. Research is so specialised that a book could be essential to one researcher or project but completely irrelevant to the rest of the department – just like laboratory equipment or chemicals can be specific to a particular project.

The cost question

All of the discussion about PDA versus purchasing collections hangs on the issues of price, usage and perceived value – in other words, which gives the better use of limited libraries budgets. Often there are huge savings for buying a whole publisher collection compared with the total list price of all the titles.

It’s a balance though: if prices are too high then libraries cannot buy many books but if prices are too low then this can pose challenges for publishers – unless the volumes are high.

E-book prices could pose another issue for libraries. If researchers can find the books they want more easily through sites like Amazon – and the price is right – they may find it easier to bypass the library and simply download the books to their devices rather than searching the library catalogue to see if the title is available as an e-book and go through the authentication process to access it. However, as JISC’s Lorraine Estelle pointed out, this may not be a bad thing: after all, people have always bought their own books to some extent.

A competing trend to this could also emerge as a result of rising university tuition fees and a corresponding increase in expectations of what universities should deliver to students. Perhaps there will a trend towards preloading core e-textbooks onto students’ devices, noted Estelle.

Meanwhile e-books in Europe face another price barrier: VAT. At the E-Books and E-Content meeting librarians and publishers alike expressed frustration that electronic books are not considered the same way as their print counterparts for VAT purposes.

This issue will not go away as demand for e-books continues to grow. There will be more experiments into new functionality, and one thing is certain: the concept of the book has not finished evolving.