E-books stir up discussion

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Whether books will follow journals on the same route from print to electronic is up for debate, as Tom Wilkie and Nick Morris found out at the recent London Book Fair

The future for reference publishing will be entirely electronic, according to Steven Hall, journal sales and marketing director of Blackwell Publishing, speaking at the London Book Fair earlier this year. Eventually, he believes, researchers and librarians will stop buying reference books altogether. Instead, they will subscribe to an online publication that is constantly updated. The idea of the reference 'book' - a printed volume that is purchased as a one-off but is out of date as soon as it appears - may disappear completely. Librarians and publishers are already finding that electronic versions of reference books are being used more frequently than print versions, especially in science, technology, and medicine.

Some people had to be turned away from seminars of the subject of electronic publishing.

The impact of electronic publishing on the book industry aroused so much interest at the London Book Fair that people had to be turned away from the seminars on the subject. Speakers agreed that, within as little as five to seven years, the print-on-paper academic journal would have disappeared, to be replaced by electronic publications. However, there was much less clarity about the effect of new technologies on book-publishing.

Chairing a discussion on 'What is the future of the book in the digital age?', Hazel Woodward, librarian at Cranfield University in the UK, praised the benefits of electronic versions of reference books. She has seen their value to students and researchers at her own university. She also noted the benefits of sources such as Google's Book Search, which helps researchers to get hold of books that are currently out of print.

Lack of e-textbooks

However, the advances in e-publishing of reference works have not been reflected in other aspects of the book-publishing business. Woodward highlighted the lack of electronic versions of textbooks currently offered by publishers. And Paul Ayris, director of library services at University College London (UCL), suggested that there was, potentially, a big market in delivering textbooks electronically to students but that publishers had yet to tap this market.

Ayris cited UCL's efforts to deliver content to its students over the campus's recently-introduced virtual learning network. This initiative offered not only a new service to students but also a new role for the university library in delivering that service. What was lacking, he suggested, was a business model from the publishers that allowed a mix 'n' match of different media - not only prose but also video presentations - particularly in biomedicine and science.

The research monograph was another area of book publishing that came under scrutiny at the conference. Ayris warned that publishers' practice of charging upwards of £80 for a single printed copy of a low-volume academic work was not a sustainable, viable, business model. Libraries had switched away from monograph purchasing, he said. They had in effect raided the 'monograph budget' in order to continue to afford to buy journals at a time of budgetary restraint.

But he felt that electronic publishing was not a viable solution in this area: 'You won't find many users who want to read monographs on screen - especially in arts and humanities. There is no enormous move in history or modern languages to replace monographs with e-books.' Blackwell's Hall suggested that an economically-viable route for publishers might be 'on-demand printing' for low-volume academic works that did not lend themselves to reading on screen.

Publisher caution

Desmond Reaney, head of business development, journals sales and marketing at Institute of Physics Publishing, highlighted some of the reasons why publishers are cautious about electronic books. He was concerned that electronic versions of publications could parasitize revenue for existing publications. This could result in falling subscriptions and sales, which in turn could reduce the amount of money for publishers to invest in new works, either in traditional print media or electronic publication.

With all these issues in mind it is important to have flexibility, as Hugh Look of Rightscom highlighted in a talk entitled 'The academic publishing industry: an industry in transition'. He pointed out that electronic content in general and journals in particular must be viewed within the framework of wider changes in the world of communication. Researchers no longer have to be in the library to read a journal article: they can now view the same article via their library's electronic subscription. However, one of the major headaches for libraries and publishers is how to verify users. They must ensure that only those people entitled to read a journal or other content are able to, while ensuring that access is granted to all those who should have it.

The issue of open access

Look went on to point out that any talk of electronic content in the publishing world soon leads to discussions about open access - indeed, many speakers at the London book fair seemed to assume that they are one and the same. The (by now) common concerns were expressed about open-access and book-digitisation projects such as Google's print initiative, incorporating Book Search and Library Search. These included worries about copyright and intellectual property infringement, and falling revenues that publishers would otherwise be able to re-invest in 'new talent'.

Yet not all were pessimistic about the impact of new communications technologies. Gary Coker of MetaPress argued that publishers could increase subscription rates and revenues by making content easier to find, both on their own websites and by third-party search engines. This point appeared to be reinforced by Mark Dalton, business development director at Elsevier, who described how indexing some of Elsevier's titles on Google had increased visibility and exposure of those books, and had resulted in a noticeable increase in traffic on Elsevier's own website, linking back from Google.

The feeling at both the conference and the show was that library users and private buyers are welcoming electronic access with open arms, particularly for STM publications. Publishers now have a chance to surf the wave of the new media, by increasing the number of textbooks they offer to libraries in electronic - and even multi-media - format.