Experimenting with e-books

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E-books have been around for a while now but publishers are still experimenting with different formats, interactive content, open access and business models, writes Nadya Anscombe

E-books are changing the academic publishing landscape. For some publishers, e-books represent an additional revenue stream while, for others, e-books have enabled entirely new business models to be developed (see box). The advent of e-books has enabled some companies to enter or re-enter the book publishing market, a market that may not have been financially viable with print.

For several publishers, the introduction of e-books has meant a dramatic change to their business – but, for the majority, the change has been gradual. ‘The proportion of e-book sales started slowly for us, but is growing at a steady rate,’ said Sam Bruinsma, vice-president business development and e-publishing for Dutch publishing company Brill. ‘Of our book sales, 35 per cent is currently digital. For monographs and edited volumes only, it is more like 15 per cent.’

At Oxford University Press (OUP) UK, e-book revenues make up around 10 per cent of the  total academic books sales revenue, according to Sophie Goldsworthy, OUP’s editorial director, academic and trade. She said: ‘We anticipate that this will continue to grow steadily in the institutional market as library and student resources move from print to electronic.’

When OUP first started making e-books available, it involved a laborious process. But today the company says that e-books are fully integrated into its publishing process and it aims to make all its front-list titles available as e-books. ‘As OUP starts to publish more born-digital content, we will likely see the number of e-books published per year outpace print,’ said Goldsworthy.

Several publishers, including Palgrave Macmillan, currently offer some of their products as e-books first, with print versions available on demand. ‘E-books are now a significant proportion of our revenues (around 30 per cent), having grown rapidly in the last five years,’ said Hazel Newton, head of digital publishing at Palgrave. ‘Libraries are taking e-books more seriously and starting to put in place strategies for e-book purchasing. Our authors are also much more likely to ask us about e-books than ever before. All the indications are that this trend is set to continue, although different countries are adopting e-content at different speeds.’

Legislative differences

Richard Fisher, managing director of academic publishing at Cambridge University Press, believes that state legislation is one of the reasons for this difference in e-book adoption. ‘Australia and the USA are very keen on e-books whereas Japan is not,’ he observed. ‘We find that it depends which parts of institutions are in control of purchasing – if librarians are in control then the transition to digital tends to be faster. But the e-book market is extraordinarily complex. While there is a global market, there is not a global route to supply. Our e-book sales made up around 18 per cent of our revenues last year and we expect this to grow to around 30 per cent in the next two years. But while e-book sales are definitely increasing, a variety of factors, such as different formats, different purchasing models and individual state legislation makes this a complex and fragmented market.’

The opportunities for growth mean that the situation is likely to get more complex before a consensus is reached as more companies enter the market to get a slice of the action.

A notable recent entry is the Institute of Physics Publishing, which launched its e-book programme in October 2013 after an eight-year absence from the book publishing industry. According to Olaf Ernst, commercial director of IOP Publishing, the company sees e-books, not print, as the primary publication format for its books. ‘This means we are not constrained by the limitations of print,’ he said. ‘We use the newest EPUB standard, EPUB3, even on the chapter level. This has enabled us to give our authors the freedom to create relevant content rather than be constrained by a print template.’

These opportunities have, however, meant a steep learning curve for both the IOP and its authors. ‘The possibilities available in this arena have changed the commissioning and editorial development functions,’ said Ernst. ‘Thankfully, several of our authors are keen to embrace and learn with us and we’re working closely with them to help realise some of the ideas for multimedia, whether this is using functionality in HTML5 or more bespoke solutions.’

Palgrave Macmillian’s Hazel Newton agrees that, when it comes to issues such as interactive content, purchasing models, open access and digital rights management, publishers are still learning what their customers want. ‘We’re always exploring and experimenting with new purchasing models,’ she said. ‘In 2013 we launched a ‘Build Your Own Collection’ model in response to requests from our customers. This allows them to customise their own collections instead of buying pre-made packages. Librarians are still working out the best models for them, and there is no general consensus.’

Formats for interactivity

The same can still be said for formats, because the increasing number of devices available makes it difficult for publishers to choose which formats to go for. Most publishers offer their e-books as PDFs, but several also offer EPUB and HTML formats. ‘Researchers and students tell us how much they love the PDF, but we are seeing an increasing number of people use the EPUB format, which is a more flexible format and suitable for use on tablets and smartphones,’ said Newton. ‘Including interactive content isn’t easy because ensuring compatibility for all readers is tricky. However, this is something we are actively investigating and, as an experiment, we have published one title with an embedded video file in it.’

SAGE published its first interactive e-book in 2010 and has been experimenting with subsequent titles ever since. Ziyad Marar, global publishing director at SAGE, told Research Information: ‘Enabling interactivity is becoming easier as major platforms such as Apple and Kno release authoring tools that enable publishers to add interactivity to their digital texts. As platforms adopt the EPUB3 format, publishers have additional options for the creation of interactive e-books.’

Springer, which calls itself an ‘e-first publisher’ because all of its books are included in its e-book programme, is also experimenting with interactive content. ‘Interactive books are an exciting option and we’ve launched a pilot programme with our German textbooks,’ said Jennifer Kemp, e-product manager for e-books. Called SmartBooks, the range contains 15 titles on a variety of subjects including industrial microbiology, psychology and marketing. Each contains interactive content such as videos, a quiz and the ability to make notes.

Brill has also investigated interactive content, but according to Sam Bruinsma, book authors are not driving this feature. He said: ‘We do facilitate authors to add complementary materials to their writing, but the uptake is low. We did interesting experiments with interactive content, which were satisfactory but, as yet, there is no author demand.’

Open access

Bruinsma has, however, seen demand from authors for open-access books. ‘After some experimentation in the past few years, in the summer of 2013 we launched Brill Open Books, offering open-access options to authors and their funders,’ he said. ‘We now have 80 book titles available as open access and we expect a growing demand for this service as a consequence of developing open-access policies in the UK and continental Europe.’ For example, he pointed out that the Dutch State Secretary for Education has recently announced that a gold open-access policy will be introduced in the country in coming years.

‘We certainly believe open access is a viable model, although it will take some time for authors and funders to get used to the level of funding needed to publish a book with a CC-BY licence only,’ he said.

Brill currently publishes under a CC-BY-NC licence, which Bruinsma said enables the publisher to reach out to the print market as well as other additional revenue opportunitiess. All of Brill’s open-access e-books are currently also available in print but Bruinsma believes that once it publishes under a CC-BY licence, Brill will no longer sell print.

Last year Palgrave became the first mainstream publisher to offer an open-access option for books under a CC-BY licence in response to demand from academics.

‘We published the first open-access monograph funded by the Wellcome Trust in November 2013,’ explained Newton. ‘Under our model, both the PDF and EPUB [versions] are available open access. Hardback and paperback versions are also available on demand, at a lower price than for traditionally published titles. We expect to publish more open-access books this year. Open-access books are still in their infancy so it is not clear which model, or models, will prove truly viable, scalable and sustainable, but we are experimenting.’

So it seems that experimentation is still the order of the day. Publishers are experimenting with open access, formats, interactive content, purchasing models and even with the basic idea behind the e-book. They are still trying to figure out what this format means for their business. But one thing is clear – the market is growing and the potential is enormous.

‘At a recent focus group meeting with several UK librarians, I asked whether they thought 90 per cent of their book budget would be spent on e-books within the next 10 years,’ said Newton. ‘They all thought that this [timescale] was very achievable – possibly even before then.’

Institutional purchasing: a new business model for e-textbooks

While e-books have opened up new revenue streams for some publishers, others are going one step further and have developed entirely new business models based on e-books.

Cengage broke new ground in 2011 when the company signed a deal with Plymouth University to offer undergraduate students free access to course material. Traditionally, students have to pay for their own textbooks, but psychology students in Plymouth today get free access to a set of 12 e-book texts. This not only saves each student money, it also makes sure that all students are able to access the same texts. The cost, which runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds, is being met by the university because it says that it sees real benefits in making this investment.

According to Philip Gee, programme lead for psychology at Plymouth University: ‘Our departmental purchase means that our library, which previously spent funds purchasing 30 or more copies of first-year texts, now has additional budget to buy essential specialist texts that will benefit second- and third-year students – it’s a “win-win” situation for both the students and the university. Now our staff can email students ahead of lectures identifying specific chapters they can read in advance to help them understand the topics that are taught. The ability to annotate our e-books enables lecturers to highlight texts that may be controversial or require further attention, and to inspire dialogue and debate pre and post lecture.’

Richard Stagg, publishing director for higher education at Pearson agrees that this business model benefits everyone. He told Research Information: ‘An institutional purchase means that a university can be certain that every student has access to the required texts. This model will also attract students to the university because of the cost savings and other advantages that e-books can offer. The students save money and get access to the latest edition of any text while the lecturers save time and effort because they do not need to design their own course material.’

Pearson has been developing interactive texts linked to courses for many years through its MyLab products. But this year it plans to expand this and start offering sets of texts for undergraduates suitable for institutional purchases. ‘We are working with Plymouth University so that the next wave of texts it provides for its students will include texts from Pearson,’ explained Stagg. ‘We are currently working on some joint research into the efficacy of these texts with the faculty at Plymouth.’

Pearson is prototyping its next-generation course-aware texts this year and is looking to work with development customers.