The state of scholarly e-books today and tomorrow: Becky Hartnup, CourseSmart International

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E-books play an increasingly important role in research libraries. We ask people from across the industry for their perspective on scholarly e-books today

Becky Hartnup, head of sales and marketing at CourseSmart International

CourseSmart was founded by five major textbook publishers but it is open to any publishers who publish in the higher-education market.

We sell direct to students, to institutions and also enable academics to view content to see if they want to recommend books to students. At the moment we have a rental, not direct sale, model. Universities can order e-textbooks on behalf of students and integrate them with their virtual learning environment (VLE).

Publishers are very keen to get their frontlist content on CourseSmart and tend to prioritise this and their highest-selling titles. We have an agency model and publishers set prices. This enables them to respond to individual needs.

We have a standard DRM. With CourseSmart users don’t download textbooks ever. Books are read online. To read them offline, users can cache them in their browser. The system auto-synchs in the same way as Facebook. This means that institutions don’t have to worry about clunky and intrusive DRM. Students can access books using any browser and authenticate through their VLE or username and password.

We also watermark our copies so we can identify individual users if stuff is posted, but it’s not a big problem for us. I think piracy has to be managed in a way that doesn’t impinge on the user experience. You mustn’t detract from the value and usability of the product.

Each textbook has a single concurrent user. Students can annotate their own copies. It is easy to print out notes. We also allow students to print out up to 50 per cent of a book, although we’ve found in the USA that this doesn’t get fully taken up – students tend to print up to about 30 per cent of their books.

We are exploring working with reading list software and enabling universities to build links into their VLEs at a chapter level. We are compliant with the Learning Tools Interface (LTI) standard so can work with most standard VLEs, such as Blackboard and Moodle.

Students are comfortable with technology but we are in hybrid times and I think universities are working their way through this. It’s important to get a core of content there so students engage. That’s why a single platform is good.

At the moment we offer print fidelity – the e-book looks identical to the book imprint – and that’s important in this hybrid period when some students may be using e-books and some use the print versions.

We are also moving to look at reflowable text so books will display better on, for example, a smartphone. The other thing we’ve started in USA is providing seamless access to publishers’ multimedia resources. It’s important to be flexible and respond to what all of our stakeholders need.