Redefining e-books

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There's little doubt that e-books are a hot topic for publishers and librarians. Sian Harris asked some people involved with e-books in different ways what the situation is like at the moment and what they predict for the future

Martin Richardson, managing director of the UK academic and journals divisions of Oxford University Press

OUP is a leader in the digitisation of books to create fully-integrated, cross-searchable online resources. We pioneered this with the launch of the Oxford English Dictionary Online in 2000. The current suite of some 20 online book collections and databases continues to grow and develop with emergent technologies and the requirements of the scholarly community. Our collection of digitised monographs, Oxford Scholarship Online, now contains over 2,500 titles across 16 subject areas, with over 400 titles added every year. We also publish thousands of individual book titles in the PDF or ePub formats.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the ability to access and search books online is transforming scholarly research: a vast and increasing body of information is discoverable and searchable (by a potentially unlimited number of users at once) in a very short time. Of course, the content must still be reliable, if not authoritative, otherwise the value of the technology is lost. The governments of the UK, USA and Australia each have strategies for the adoption of digital resources in higher education as standard. The latest statistics from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) show a 21 per cent increase in e-resource purchasing between 2006 and 2007. This figure is set to rise, although e-book acquisitions budgets are not yet replacing print ones.

As more content is digitised, research will inevitably become increasingly dependent on information stored electronically, to the extent that much of it will eventually become an online activity. Because of this, the data itself is unlikely to continue to be packaged in a way that resembles the print book format, especially in the sciences. It may become disaggregated, i.e. supplied in chapters or even completely integrated into a database of book content. However the print book remains the medium of most users’ choice for reading at length, as opposed to searching for specific information.

Research into e-book behaviour is ongoing, a prominent example of which is the JISC e-Books Observatory Project. However, what has been established – and usage of OUP’s online resources confirms this – is that the average user spends less than 30 minutes in any one part of the full text, although he or she may view many titles within the same online session. This suggests that researchers are interested predominantly in finding (and citing) specific information as quickly as possible, rather than reading the whole PDF. Unsurprisingly, considerable use is also made of abstracts. It’s worth pointing out, though, that no study has been made of researchers’ approach when using works in print – we may simply be seeing analogous methods in the online world.

One of the most important e-book technology developments has been XML digitisation. This may make all content completely cross-searchable. It therefore allows online works to attain a flexibility which was previously impossible. The ePub e-book format is also very important because standardisation is critical to allowing access across as many hardware or software platforms as possible.

More general use of XML is still required to enable researchers to get the most out of e-books. Even if it’s searchable, a PDF offers far fewer discoverability options than a title digitised with XML. The latter may be packaged as a title or broken down into different portions of content, depending on the application. Publishers’ delivery models ought to seek to achieve this, rather than being tied to a restrictive, print-based concept.

In terms of business models, both the subscription and perpetual access models have proved to be successful for OUP. However, the current constraints on the market incline purchasers to opt for the latter, as it demonstrates a better long-term investment for libraries. Highly-functional collections within subject areas (such as the modules on Oxford Scholarship Online) remain the most effective means by which a library may offer the greatest choice to its users, at best possible value.

The business models which have developed so far for e-books are not yet sufficiently developed to reflect the shift in emphasis for the publishing business that information online represents. We can now deliver the latest scholarly research, as well as that which has been long out-of-print, to a limitless audience in a format that allows any information within it to be extracted within seconds. Our pricing and delivery models, however, are generally derived from print methodologies. Correcting for this whilst ensuring best value to our customers is our greatest challenge. We’ll only solve it by considering the intrinsic value of the content, plus that added by its new-found accessibility. This has always been an innovative industry, and must be no less so to meet the demands of its 21st-century user base.

Maxim van Gisbergen, product manager for e-books at Swets

We see this as a very interesting growth market. Our first e-book deal was in 2006 to sell Springer Collections. Before that our strategy was only to focus on subscriptions but our customers asked us to be a one-stop-shop for e-resources. We were quite successful with Springer’s e-books and it really opened our eyes to the opportunities. We now sell for about 15 different e-book providers.

As a reseller we sell what publishers offer. We make sure that we support all the common pricing models – subscriptions, one-off purchase, title-by-title and collections. In my experience the one-off purchase is by far the most popular with customers, possibly with the exception of reference and IT books that get updated or out-of-date quickly. Generally libraries want to own their e-books.

We have very little demand for purchasing individual chapters and we don’t see many publishers offering it. Perhaps this will happen more in the future. There may be technical reasons for not doing it more at the moment.

Even the pick-and-choose title-by-title model is not that common compared with buying collections, although the pick-and-choose model is becoming more popular. Libraries create a critical mass through large collections at big discounts and then add critical titles. The processes are not really ready yet at suppliers or at customers to support pick and choose well. That’s where we see the role for ourselves to simplify this process for libraries.

Most libraries take a positive stance on e-books, but they don’t find the market for it is very transparent. It is hard to find out which content is out there, where it is and what the pricing model and licensing conditions are. For this reason, most libraries haven’t massively adopted e-books yet. Most are doing e-book trials and defining their policy so it is not an aggressive move at the moment. At the moment it is mainly the larger libraries and consortia deals.

There was a chicken and egg situation that has been overcome about getting content available in e-book form. Most academic publishers publish all monographs electronically now. Now there is a second chicken and egg situation. Libraries want more clarity about whether users really want to use e-books before they invest in them. The print collections are still more complete too. I think e-books will play a major role in academic libraries in three to five years but not in one to two years.

Libraries also ask for preservation of e-books, especially those libraries with archival roles. We see e-books being involved in initiatives such as Portico. Many publishers offer perpetual access on a third party platform but the libraries don’t have the e-books physically. It depends on the supplier whether they can load content locally, but if they do that they don’t get the publisher’s functionality. But these are e-content issues and I’m confident that the industry will find a solution.

Most research use of e-books is done from a PC or laptop in PDF or HTML. Researchers don’t usually read e-books; they search them and print books are really preferred for extended reading. However, when e-book readers really become a success then there will be library demand for them too.

Then the issue of digital rights management (DRM) will come in more. At the moment, users basically download e-books on a page-by-page or chapter-by-chapter basis. On an e-book reader it would be the whole book.

If we’re being honest, e-books at the moment are really digitised print books. Value-added features are sometimes added but then these suppliers don’t like to call their content e-books because they don’t want to be associated with regular PDFs.

If metadata were supplied on a chapter-by-chapter basis then it would be easier for libraries to catalogue them and easier for users to find information. In the long term e-books could really change if authors write books with e-books in mind.

Rich Rosy, vice president and general manager of institutional solutions for Ingram Digital

The role of e-books is starting to solidify. It is changing every year, almost every quarter. Publishers now present their front lists and new titles in e-book format. That wasn’t really true 18 months ago. Publishers were worried about print revenue but they have now realised that there is an interesting market here. For some publishers e-book publication is now simultaneous with print publication and publishers are changing their workflows to digital first.

Libraries are also starting to spend money on e-books. Previously it was mostly pilot or grant money. Now e-books are part of their purchasing budgets. The threshold has been crossed by publishers and libraries together.

Google has helped this along with its digitisation project. Everyone is watching Google to see what it does. It is doing more than just optical character recognition of print books.

Search technology has also helped e-books. Searching across entire content is a key feature of most platforms. Our VitalSource group has a robust searching technology for e-books. VitalSource has a reflowable XML-based format that enables e-books to contain things like video.

Publishers have also become less stringent about digital rights management (DRM). They now allow more printing and copying, although libraries would like to see still more.

Content being current has really helped researchers. They have to be able to flip quickly from one book to another and from chapter to chapter. The technology has to be able to accommodate how researchers actually work although it’s a change of habit for people who were used to working with print.

Libraries start by purchasing collections so they have a mass of content to start with and then they add other titles. We have not yet seen much interest in buying individual chapters but we are experimenting with publishers in this. In books, chapters tend to need to work together. It is also hard to work out how to charge for individual chapters.

Clive Parry, sales and marketing director and Martha Sedgwick, senior manager for new online product development for SAGE 

CP – We are in our second year of e-books. SAGE Reference has about 80 reference titles in XML format. We are adding electronic handbooks this year. These higher-level books used by postgraduates and researchers really lend themselves to this approach. We bought CQ Press last year, which has its own range of handbooks. It also has a huge number of directory lists that are updated each year such as senators’ addresses. This seems quite dry but if you correlate them with other databases you can find really interesting things such as voting patterns.

We publish text books too but that’s an area that we see the least interest for the e-book format. We’ve done a few experiments with VitalSource and found that students are still quite keen on the traditional text book format. This is definitely furthest in the future, but we’re watching it and seeing if we can we find a business model that works for text books.

MS – We are selling to libraries on a perpetual access basis, either title-by-title or collections. Libraries prefer to follow this ownership model. We are also looking at a dynamic evolving subscriptions model though, which might be best for some types of material. At the moment we are all following the print model online. That is a challenge as we move forward.

CP – The preferred model depends on the product. Libraries like to own a book but for other products in other areas it may be different. Those might not exactly be books but other e-products. It would be interesting to see how books move from the traditional model. Links between content are important. We have been working to identify papers that will help students get into the academic way of using journal literature.

MS – Different types of e-books are used in very different ways. With reference people dip in and out, but they are more likely to read textbooks from cover to cover. With supplementary books they might possibly read a chapter.

This has implications for how publishers implement the e-books to help discoverability, such as making them found by federated searching. Users want to browse, search and find. Helping them to do this is very important.

DOIs for books are very important for users to find references. We’re registering DOIs at both chapter and title level so they can be identified by both. I think that’s the best way to do it. That could help with potential different sales models in the future too.

With text books the idea behind mobile e-book readers becomes more interesting. However, no readers really serve textbooks today. Students need to be able to do things such as add notes like they can in a print text book and answer questions set by their teacher.

Jim Donohue, managing director for Elsevier’s science and technology book group 

In the past three years we have gone from no e-books to 11,000 titles in total on Science Direct. These are all our own books and we do every book in XML format. We did also have William Andrew books on our platform but then we bought that company so they became our titles too.

A big driver for us is getting information into an e-book format. It increases our flexibility in using the content. I believe that e-books are a step towards creating huge content databases. Through ontologies there is a wide variety of options.

For example, we’re launching a product combining content from William Andrew Publishing’s books on toxicity into databases. We have four products coming out like that. It allows flexibility of content compared with having 25 books.

Last year we also published two multivolume reference works (MRWs) as electronic-only and we plan to do two more this year.

We will continue to publish print books though. In certain markets there is still a big demand for print. In particular, Asia is still pretty keen on print. This is mostly related to the established distribution networks there.

Our Focal Press imprint specialises in computing books but is the most resistant to the idea of e-books. The readers of these titles use computers all the time but like to have print books next to what they are doing on-screen. The engineering market is also still keen on practical print books for use in the field.

Our research shows that researchers tend to start with books to find out what processes and techniques are being used. As we are able to build large databases of e-books it becomes much easier to survey the field.

E-books are great for libraries because they enable them to have a lot of content. Putting PDFs online is an important step but the idea of a separate book will cease to exist. We don’t really like to use the term e-books. It is more about databases.

People can slice and dice the content in different ways. For example, with our MRWs we will pull out derivatives to create separate print-on-demand titles. This might be calculations on modelling in a particular field or patient studies in a medical speciality. All the entries in the MRWs have been proofread already. We check and update them if necessary and update the entry in the parent MRW at the same time.

We also publish a series of atlases of rat, mouse and human brains. We now do a digital, 3D version of this as a new product. This is a classic example of taking a print book, digitising it and being able to do much more with the content. With it, users can do models and virtual experiments.

Next year we will create PDFs with embedded video. This will suit users of our Focal Press books where the topics are very practical such as how to use Photoshop.

Users will start demanding search options for e-books and we are doing that for all our content. Google is becoming a primary search tool and our book group works very closely with Google. Elsevier’s A&I database Scopus is looking at adding e-books too.

Customers need to tell us what is the best format for them and how they want to use the content. As new formats come in, hopefully we can reuse and transfer data. It should be like music, where you can still download albums made 30 years ago. We are in the process of converting all our books published after 1992 into XML. We are also digitising the earlier titles.

Making the transition to e-books is a challenge. Publishers still have all the costs for doing print but have to invest in electronic delivery too. It’s a case of managing and knowing when to make that switch. One of our electronic-only MRW released last year was very well received but we are going to reprint the other one because the users wanted it in print.

Michelle Harper, director of product management, OCLC NetLibrary 

NetLibrary was started about 10 years again by venture capitalists. At that time the vision was all about putting the library online. It was very ahead of its time in pioneering e-books for libraries. E-books were treated like print books though. This was a strange concept to me when I joined NetLibrary because in previous jobs I had been used to managing databases. Now other people are saying that e-books should be treated like databases too.

One of the most challenging things is the reluctance of publishers with digital rights management (DRM). I think DRM issues are going to take longer to resolve with e-books. With journals it was a case of ‘adapt or die’ but it is a different situation with e-books because print and electronic can coexist. I don’t think it has to be either/or. People primarily use research e-books to search for information.

Publishers are going to have think more opportunistically about how to use content. The fear of losing revenue is still there. We have to make it possible for people to buy content while protecting publishers.

The shift from print to mobile devices will drive the push to e-books. Researchers and students are used to reading online and using tools like Blackberries. Libraries will look more at how to offer e-books on mobile devices. NetLibrary recently announced five Sony Reader Mobile Collections, which can be read on Sony’s Reader Digital Book. People want just one device, but it is not yet clear what that device will be.

Getting agreements on common standards is also a challenge. It is very uncertain whether XML or ePub will win at the moment. It is also important to come up with a common metadata standard.

In the longer term, who says an e-book has to be a bunch of text? I’d like to see more multimedia e-books. We are experimenting with e- audiobooks that you can read, listen to and look at. People learn in different ways.

Rossella Proscia, marketing director for Cengage Learning

It is clear that no single model is winning at the moment, especially in textbooks. Last summer we launched iChapters for students. Through this website we can deliver print resources for students who want to buy online, a sort of Amazon for Cengage Learning, or they can buy electronic chapters or whole books. This works out about 20 per cent cheaper than the print list price. It is very early to draw conclusions but students are using it.

You can see e-books as a launch pad to something much more complicated. For example, our e-textbooks can include online quizzes and tests. These identify where students need further study and deliver personalised study plans. We offer this on our CengageNOW platform for subjects like biology, psychology and business. It also helps the instructor to create tests and then distribute and mark them. For specific subjects like maths or chemistry we needed to build different products to help with specific functions.

CengageNOW was launched last year but because of the academic cycle it is starting to be used more now as we approach exam time. We know that students like it and use should continue to grow with distance learning and universities cutting face-to-face budgets.

Digital rights management issues are complicated with textbooks because devices could potentially be shared by different people. It is easier to manage rights for library resources because students are happy to use library resources for reference and do not require local device access. We have different DRM conditions depending on whether a product will be accessed from a library or downloaded for an individual user.

We also have electronic reference materials such as encyclopaedias and dictionaries. Platforms to deliver content digitally are our starting point but we are trying to move beyond that to do much more with content. Traditionally, encyclopaedias are published first in print and then revised every three years or so. In between, the product becomes static. However, encyclopaedias on topics such as politics or the environment really require updates every year, or even every week so it doesn’t make sense to wait for three years.

We recently launched our Global Issues in Context database. This is multidisciplinary, covering topics including economics, geography and politics, and draws on resources that Gale has, and from the third parties that we distribute for. It includes resources taken from all our encyclopaedias, as well as journal articles, newspaper articles, maps and news feeds. With this, you are no longer really looking at one e-book but a complete electronic source.