The rise and rise of e-reading

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As academic players embrace the ebook, scholarly publishers are clearing the path to easier access, reports Rebecca Pool

From swift discoverability and instant access to interactive content and an affordable read, scholarly publishing players are striving to ease accessibility to the ebook. 

A case in point is Cambridge University Press. When the UK-based publisher launched its academic platform, Cambridge Core, just over two years ago, its intention was to consolidate all of its digital content onto a single platform. Replacing Cambridge Journals Online, Cambridge Books Online and other standalone sites, the new platform became home to more than 360 journals and 30,000 ebooks.

As Vicky Drummond, director of online customer experience at Cambridge University Press, points out, consultation with nearly 10,000 researchers, librarians and authors had revealed that reading relevant content was key, be it from a journal article, book or book chapter. What’s more, swift access to this content was imperative.

‘For the research community, the overarching fundamental mission for coming to Cambridge Core, was and still is, to retrieve content,’ she says. ‘To an extent, we found that pertinent content was format-agnostic, so it just didn’t make sense to keep our book content and journal content separate; the two were, and are, inextricably linked in many ways.’

‘Also, the primary concern of people landing on the platform is, can I read this content or not?’ she adds. ‘So we wanted to make sure that it was immediately clear to users whether or not they have this access.’

To this end, a search engine was developed to swiftly direct researchers to relevant content, with clear indicators then showing exactly what content they could have access to. Researchers can now view content in HTML, download it as a PDF, and also send it to Dropbox, GoogleDrive or a Kindle. 

And thousands of citation styles are available, so users can collate references according to institution requirements, (see ‘A single platform’).

‘Research data also told us that users have an appetite for reading on the screen, but many will actually download content to consume offline, at a later date,’ highlights Drummond. ‘So we made sure that the PDF positioning [on the content pages] was really prominent, so users can quickly download this without having to search for it.’

Importantly, Cambridge University Press’s ebooks can also be bought through Amazon and other ebook vendors, with content available in EPUB and MOBI formats, and with interactive features. However, as Drummond’s colleague, Nisha Doshi, senior digital development publisher at CUP, points out: ‘Overwhelmingly, PDF and print are still in greatest demand, so we have to think very carefully about embedding these interactive features. If people ultimately use a PDF then we need to ensure these features are clearly signposted from the PDF, or indeed the print version, otherwise the majority of readers simply won’t be aware that they exist.’

Still, with Cambridge Core in place, both digital article use and chapter downloads have risen by around 25 per cent year-on-year, with user registrations growing every month. ‘We’ve haven’t seen any fundamental flip from print to digital... but digital growth has been impressive,’ says Doshi.

Vanessa Boddington, director of market development at digital content provider, VitalSource, believes the shift from print to digital ebooks is underway. The company’s key market is students and educators, and at the beginning of 2018, some 7.8 million users were accessing e-textbooks from its platform. Yet early this year, user figures had swollen to 15 million.

‘This really is a fantastic trend and I think increasingly we are seeing this shift towards digital,’ says Boddington. ‘It’s been a long time coming but students are now consuming more and more of their content digitally.’

At the time of writing, 1,400 publishers, including industry heavyweights Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Cengage, provide e-textbooks to VitalSource, on a wide array of topics from art and business, to mathematics and technology. Users can download and read content using the company’s e-reader, Bookshelf. And while this content is available in either PDF or EPUB 3 formats, for Boddington, the future has to be EPUB 3.

‘Some of our publisher partners produce both PDF and EPUB formats, while others produce purely PDF, but we encourage our publishers to supply as much content in EPUB 3 format as possible, to get away from that perception of e-textbooks as being just print under glass,’ she says. ‘We wish to increase accessibility, learning outcomes and contribute to student success, and [PDFs] just don’t provide an interactive learning experience for students.’ Boddington also believes re-flowable text enabled by EPUB file formats is gaining in importance. ‘Whatever device you are viewing your ebook on, EPUB provides a much friendlier user experience,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing worse than trying to manipulate a PDF on a mobile phone, and for students with visual disabilities, it’s just easier to zoom in with reflowable text.’

As Boddington highlights, content delivered through the VitalSource platform can have a host of features applied to it such as notes, highlights and citations that are synced across all devices used to access Bookshelf. Students can also share mark-ups with colleagues, search across all e-text books in their Bookshelf collection, and study in ‘Review Mode’, using notes and highlights without the distraction of full-reading mode.

‘Lecturers might want to put a link in a text to students, to, say, watch a YouTube video and when this is used we see a lot of interaction from the students,’ says Boddington. ‘Notes and highlights are probably the most important interactivity right now,’ she adds. ‘But I believe that as more content is available in EPUB 3, we will start to see [publishers] including more interactive content, such as videos, and question and answers at the end of a chapter.’

‘When you talk to students they are used to content with audio and video, and they really want to interact with it,’ she adds.

Indeed, VitalSource recently worked with the British and Irish Music Association to create content for teaching students how to play musical instruments. VitalSource provided an authoring tool that allowed the association to convert documents from a PDF format to EPUB 3 files, which included videos of musicians playing a variety of instruments, including the guitar.

‘We deliver maths, science, English, business content and more, and it’s all about taking this beyond simply reading the words on a page,’ she adds.

In a similar vein, Rich Belanger, senior vice president and general manager of books at ProQuest, is seeing a rising demand for features such as searchability, cite and annotate in ebooks. What’s more, his company will be delivering what he describes as ‘its EPUB online experience’ in the third quarter of this year, and already has more than 200,000 EPUB titles ready to launch.

‘Mobile usage continues to grow and we think we’re going to see continued demand for EPUB,’ he says. ‘With its video and audio objects, EPUB is so much better for mobile devices, as well as accessibility for people with visual impairments.’

‘Publishers tell us that they are moving towards EPUB formats and may even flip from PDF to EPUB, and this would be ideal from our perspective,’ he adds. ‘Quite frankly, PDFs on mobile devices look awful and I think it actually hinders ebook adoption today.’ 

Digital rights matters

But as industry edges towards feature-heavy formats, the issue of digital rights managements lingers. Still, in response to the growing demand for DRM-free ebooks, most notably from academic librarians, more and more DRM-free content is reaching the scholarly publishing marketplace.

Cambridge University Press, for one, has broadly taken the standpoint that users should not be prohibited from reading what is important to them. As Doshi points out: ‘We don’t want to lock our content down, so that researchers can’t read it when they want to, although we do take a different stance for different types of publishing.’

‘For text books, for example, content tends to be available on our platform in read-only format, whereas research content can be downloaded and shared,’ she adds.

Shortly after launching Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press added a content-sharing service to the platform – Cambridge Core Share – designed to allow users to quickly and easily share content. As part of this, authors and subscribers generate a read-only link to, say, a journal article, which can be shared online so that anyone can read the final published version of an article for free.

Users can also generate a PDF containing a link to a journal article, so users can more easily share links on, say, ResearchGate and The publisher is currently looking into extending the service to ebooks.

As Drummond also highlights, content authors need to understand the impact of their work, and as such, content use is tracked. ‘We understand that users want to share content, and we want to support this in a responsible way,’ she says.

Change is also afoot among the aggregators. In April last year, EBSCO released a DRM-free ebook solution; given the wide variety of content hosted by large aggregators, these businesses had typically struggled to provide DRM-free ebooks. However, EBSCO’s latest system gave publishers the choice to allow some content to be sold DRM-free while retaining protections on other titles. And consequently, libraries could then choose to buy either unlimited-user DRM-free content or a cheaper limited user option when unlimited access wasn’t necessary.

In the last year, ProQuest has launched DRM-free full book downloads, as well as enhanced DRM-free chapter downloads with quite spectacular results. ‘We’re seeing huge growth in chapter downloads and full book DRM-free downloads with chapter downloads probably growing the fastest,” says Belanger. “So we intend to add another 100,000 books with DRM-free content by the end of 2019.’

As the ProQuest senior vice president, points out, right now, more than 80 per cent of the company’s content has some level of DRM-free access and this figure is set to grow to more than 90 per cent by the end of this year. Clearly, such industry developments stand testament to the slow but steady embrace of the scholarly ebook.

‘Maybe five or 10 years ago, ebook availability was a huge issue...but today overall ebook sales are trending up,’ adds Belanger. ‘We’re not Google, this is the library market, however, ebook usage is going through the roof.’  

A single platform

Cambridge University Press has hardly been alone in its efforts to consolidate its digital content. US-based aggregator, ProQuest, launched ProQuest One Academic earlier this year to encompass four of its key resources; ProQuest Central, Academic Complete, ProQuest Dissertation & Theses Global and Academic Video Online.

Crucially, users can cross-search ebooks, journals, news, videos and more, which ProQuest hopes will lead to more insightful knowledge discovery. And the company believes the platform will lift a huge administrative burden from librarians’ shoulders.

‘This is about simplifying customer access and could allow smaller institutions to forgo setting up a discovery platform,’ highlights Rich Belanger, senior vice president and general manager of Books at ProQuest. ‘We’re getting [content] onto a single common platform which dramatically simplifies things from the perspective of the librarian.’

Brave new content

Earlier this year, Cambridge University Press launched what it calls ‘a new concept in publishing’. Cambridge Elements provides an outlet for research that sits outside the traditional formats of a book or journal article.

Organised in focused series, work of between 50 to 120 pages will be published digitally and through print-on-demand. Crucially, this content will be published in just 12 weeks.

‘This is envisaged as a hybrid between book and journals and the quick, 12-week turnaround really isn’t something you see in traditional book publishing yet is so important to authors who want to get their content out there, and readers who want up-to-date content,’ says Doshi.

Seventy series are already under contract on topics ranging from electronics to ancient Egypt. A total of two hundred individual texts are expected to be published this year; the publisher then expects to publish some 250 texts in every subsequent year.

‘The series are digital first, so we have the ability to embed audio, video, code, datasets and more, with content being available in all the formats you would expect from a book; HTML, PDF, EPUB and MOBI, as well as print,’ says Doshi. ‘Content will also be indexed in all the ways you would expect from a journal.’