The rise and rise of ebook prices

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The last decade promised a revolution but high prices have stirred up a rebellion. Rebecca Pool asks: what's the way forward?

In September last year, a group of academic librarians and researchers wrote an open letter asking UK government to urgently investigate ebook pricing and licensing practices in the scholarly publishing industry. During the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, librarians watched as students and researchers struggled to access essential textbooks, due to cost and lack of availability.

Among these was Johanna Anderson, Library Advocate and Subject Librarian from the University of Gloucestershire, UK. Outraged by the situation, she took action and organised the open letter, highlighting excessive ebook pricing, unexpected price rises, copyright law and licence issues.

For Anderson, the crux of the current situation lies in 'gross profiteering' from publishers, and a misunderstanding of how libraries work. ‘Some publishers trawl through university reading lists, find the commonly used titles, classify these as e-textbooks rather than ebooks and raise the price,’ she says. ‘At the end of 2019, these books were already more expensive than the hardcopy but they are even more expensive now.’

‘These price rises happened with several publishers at around the same time, without warning or explanation, and it was right in the middle of the pandemic,’ she adds.

Anderson also points to the mind-boggling array of pricing models and licences that accompany ebook acquisition, which she describes as random, massively problematic, and a vast drain on her time. ‘And now publishers are trying to get us to buy annual licences for an ebook,’ she adds. ‘We could spend, say £500 a year for this, and then have to buy the book again to stop it from getting withdrawn – we are at the behest of the publisher.’

Anderson is hardly alone in her frustrations over ebook pricing. Within a weekend of her organising the letter to government, she had attracted some 250 signatures, and at the time of writing, this figure had risen to more 3600. Librarians from across the UK are now  crowd-sourcing examples of print book and ebook prices, many of which cite more than 1,000 per cent cost differences. And using the hashtag, #ebooksos, librarians are also sharing examples of ebook prices on Twitter.

Since her letter, Anderson has featured in articles from the BBC and The Guardian that report on the 'ebook pricing scandal' and 'price gouging'. Westminster has since stated that it will not be acting on the letter, but undeterred, Anderson and colleagues have taken their case to the Competition and Markets Authority, and await a response.

David Prosser, executive of Research Libraries UK (RLUK), has also been following ebook pricing carefully. 

Alongside the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), he recently issued an open letter to the Publishers Association asking for it to  work with members to review support of UK higher education institutions given the ongoing lockdowns.

During the initial lockdown, many publishers offered extended online access to ebooks and other electronic resources to students working remotely. This has now ended, so Prosser is calling for access barriers to be permanently removed for students still working remotely. However, taking a step back, the RLUK Executive also believes that the fundamentals of the textbook publishing are, in fact, broken, and simply don't work in the modern world. 

As he puts it: ‘[The market] hasn't really taken into account the move to electronic and hasn't taken into account that a lot of people might want to read a chapter here and a chapter there, and don't necessarily want an entire book.

The pandemic has really focused minds on some of the unacceptable practices that we've been working around, but no longer can due to limits on travel.’

A publisher view

But what do scholarly publishing publishers make of ebooks, the pandemic and the ensuing pricing model row? While some publishers declined an interview, Taylor&Francis, Springer Nature and Cambridge University Press were happy to discuss the issues.

In an email to Research Information, Mark Majurey, Commercial Director and Vice President of ebooks at the Taylor & Francis Group, highlighted how the publisher had provided free e-textbooks and free upgrades from single to unlimited user access from the 2020 summer term. The company also put in place free photocopying and scanning license extensions, with these scheduled to end come the close of the 2021 academic year. 

Right now, a mighty 97 per cent of Taylor & Francis' catalogue, which includes supplementary textbooks, is sold through established models that according to Majurey 'are standard and pretty unremarkable'. However, highly-adopted textbooks make up the remainder, and are sold through library suppliers such as ProQuest and EBSCO, and retailers including Amazon, Google and Apple. What's more, these titles have, as Majurey puts it, 'more nuanced' business models and 'require a considerable amount of investment and ongoing development'.

‘The difference between a single print copy of a book, priced as a core text for a student, and what amounts to an enterprise licence across an entire university is like comparing apples and pears,’ writes Majurey. ‘Comparing individual print costs to a digital licence which gives access to many readers does not represent the reality of how different formats are used nor the additional functionality e-textbooks provide.’

Still, Majurey reckons these e-textbooks, which are sold on a title-by-title basis rather than 'bundles', are fairly and competitively priced for the library market. But as he adds: ‘We are investigating and experimenting with various partners to create new business models, designed to provide as much value and access as possible to customers. We're also working with trade bodies... to facilitate dialogue on these models.’

Over at Springer Nature, Wouter van der Velde, Manager, Books Solutions Portfolio, highlights how his company has been working hard to provide value to librarians. 

‘We don't know what the pricing strategies of other publishers are but I think we price fairly, we price as simply as possible and there are no restrictions on content,’ he tells Research Information. ‘For example, we don't put DRM on content on SpringerLink and we don't set limits on concurrent users – obviously the ebook price for unlimited users is higher than for one user, but it isn't ridiculous.’

Come last year's lockdown, Springer Nature also made key text books freely accessible, via Springer Link, to educators, students and academics. Access to some 500 titles ended as university libraries re-opened – as van der Velde says: ‘Our hosting provider told us that traffic was going through the roof and we were incurring a lot more costs.’

The publisher has since launched 'Flexible eBook Solutions', designed to provide libraries and research institutions with a choice of purchasing options, including full ebook collection and single title models, when accessing digital book content. Different models can be combined, and as van der Velde highlights: ‘These changes may seem recent but we've been working with libraries on different iterations of this business model, and piloting various models over the years.’

‘Bundling of content had been our core business model for quite a few years, and being able to sell and grant access to single titles required quite a different operational set-up,’ he adds. ‘But the constant feedback from librarians made us decide to have this complete review of how we were selling our ebooks and collections, so we've completely overhauled our business, which has resulted in Flexible eBook Solutions.’

Chris Bennett, Global Sales Director, Academic Publishing, at Cambridge University Press also believes that his company's pricing models are relatively straightforward, flexible and fair. In response to the pandemic, CUP developed a higher education website to quickly deliver textbooks. Here, institutions acquire books through an annual lease that allows for an unlimited number of concurrent users.

‘[The website provides] very, very low price points per student and a fraction of the book price – we're talking about discounts of more than 90 per cent against the price of an individual book,’ he says. ‘The point of all of our mechanisms is librarians are not being over-charged and not having to buy volume they don't want and this has revolutionised our ebook sales – this year 40 per cent of our book sales were digital and that's the most we've ever achieved.’

Given the falling librarian budgets and ebook pricing issues, a move towards more flexibility clearly makes sense. Van der Velde says that the pandemic certainly fast-tracked Springer Nature's decision to implement single-title purchases. However, he also suspects that the pandemic, and sudden surge in ebook demand, may have taken some publishers by surprise, exacerbating issues such as pricing.

‘We've been working in ebook publishing for many years, and had noticed a growing awareness and demand before the pandemic came,’ he says. ‘So we were ready for this situation and could react right away... and have priced and built ebook models that are sustainable for us and users.’

CUP's Bennett also believes some publishers have yet to truly adapt to both the different world of ebooks and declining budgets. ‘The use-case for consuming something digitally is very different to print... and if you look at the period from the financial crash to pandemic, library budgets have been on a slow downward slide from one crisis to another,’ he says.

‘Budget decreases have now sharply accelerated and next year we're hearing of cuts from 15 to 40 per cent… what some publishers didn't do quickly enough was react to this world and provide a different set of business models here,’ he adds. ‘We've now got to build [our models] around digital content and services – publishing has always been a service industry, and now the delivery mechanisms are catching up with the market – there's a gap here that needs closing.’

Surprise demand

Unsurprisingly, aggregators, as well as publishers, also witnessed rising ebook demand come the pandemic. As Oren Beit-Arie, President of ProQuest Books and Chief Strategy Officer points out, ProQuest Ebook Central saw double-digit growth in user engagement as well as a strong uptick in library acquisitions.

‘We've been seeing shifts towards ebooks for some time now – in the past few years this has been taking place pretty slowly but certainly accelerated since the pandemic,’ he says. ‘To quote one of our librarians, the pandemic drove a shift in two weeks that we hadn't seen in two years.’

At the time, ProQuest saw strong demand for its Title matching Fast Service, which aims to swiftly match print holdings with electronic titles. And the aggregator also partnered with publishers to offer discounts on ebooks to libraries that already owned the print version.

But in a similar vein to van der Velde and Bennett, Beit-Arie believes the pandemic-induced surge in demand was a shock to the system for many. ‘The pandemic clearly drove the market shift in the availability and use of text books, particularly in high demand collections, or course reserve,’ he says. ‘And because this sudden shift was forced upon us by the pandemic, quite frankly nobody was fully prepared.’

‘We're now seeing gaps between those high demand e-resources and the model available to acquire them, and pricing is a part of this,’  he adds. ‘The issues are complicated but ultimately the most important outcome is that these digital resources get into the hands of the users – there's no use in offering content that a library can't afford.’

Clearly, University of Gloucestershire's Anderson agrees. However, she also wonders if aggregators could apply more pressure to publishers when it comes to ebook pricing. ‘Shouldn't aggregators be joining forces with librarians as publishers are making ebooks so expensive that we can't actually buy from them,’ she says.

‘I believe some publishers are overstepping the mark, by asking us to sign up with third-party providers, such as Kortext and Bibliu, and dictating what we have access to,’ she adds. ‘I get asked if [high ebook pricing] is widespread - well, this is what I've come to expect and I'm now shocked if there's one that's a reasonable price.’ 

So what comes next? Beit-Arie believes the demand for print books will 'bounce back' in the future, but also expects the elevated demand for ebooks to continue, saying: ‘We believe that most academic librarians are e-first now.’

Given this, solutions to tackle pricing model issues are needed, and fast. Beit-Arie is absolutely certain that now is the time to create pricing models that will work for both publishers and libraries, but cautions that 'there is no single magical solution'.

Right now, ProQuest is considering how its acquisition models can help libraries to support curriculums with scalable, high demand collections and is also looking at workflows that are designed around libraries acquiring for purpose.

However, he also reckons that more open access books as well as open educational resources (OERs) could form part of the answer. ‘We are focused on content curation and expansion for librarians, and there are a growing range of titles and collections that are available including open access and OERs,’ he says. ‘We will need a range of options to solve this problem, but open educational resources and textbooks are a part of this.’

RLUK's Prosser also advocates a OERs as one route forward. As he points out, such freely available online teaching and learning materials are widespread in the US, with UK-based organisations, including University College London and The Open University, also now sharing educational output.

‘If we're thinking about long-term remedies, open educational resources really excite me,’ he says.  ‘My hope would be that some of the clear outrage that we are seeing with ebooks will be leveraged by the community into some really qualitative thoughts on what we can do to sort these problems. ‘

Anderson concurs. ‘I would argue that we have the expertise in higher education to produce the content ourselves – our academics write the books and it is often public money that funds the research,’ she says. ‘If publishers want to price themselves out of relevance, then universities must come together and do it themselves.’