Study reveals e-textbook successes

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Sian Harris reports back from London Book Fair on the latest in JISC's e-Book Observatory project

E-textbooks seem to be a hit with students and university staff, according to data collected so far from across the UK in JISC’s e-Book Observatory project. In the project’s two benchmarking surveys (in January 2008 and January 2009), which together gained over 48,000 responses, more than 60 per cent of the academic population said they used e-books.

‘When we first started this project we weren’t really sure there was a demand for e-books from staff and students,’ admitted Hazel Woodward of Cranfield University. ‘’But, right from the beginning, we found a high level of interest.’

In the study, JISC licensed 26 e-textbooks (five in business, seven in media and 14 in engineering) and is making them freely available on Ingram Digital’s MyiLibrary platform to UK higher-education institutions, a total of 127 universities.

The aim is to measure the impact of making e-books freely available at the point of use on publisher’s print sales and library circulation figures. As Caren Milloy, JISC’s e-books project manager, explained to delegates at this year’s London Book Fair, ‘We really want to make sure that, as e-books and e-textbooks evolve, the ways they are used inform future developments.’

Deep log analysis of the usage patterns of the e-books was carried out between November 2007 and December 2008 by the CIBER group at University College London. This work revealed that during this time, all of the titles attracted around 19,000 views. The average session time was 13 minutes with eight pages viewed. Traffic levels varied considerably during the study – nine per cent of all use occurred during the lunch hour and the e-textbooks were used most often in the autumn – early in the academic year.

‘There is a high demand for short periods of time for e-books,’ noted Woodward. Unlike print textbooks, copies don’t get stolen or vandalised and they don’t take up space in the library. They can also be accessed at any time and from anywhere so are good for serving distance learners – the deep log analysis revealed that 32 per cent of the e-book users accessed them from off campus.

All of these advantages mean that e-books can help with bottlenecks in the supply chain, those times when a lecturer recommends a particular textbook but the library only has a handful of short-loan copies.

Users see this as an advantage too. In the surveys, student dissatisfaction with library provision of printed textbooks declined sharply over the period of the experiment. This suggests that e-books are beginning to ease some of the pressures on the short-loan print collections.

Such observations might seem to be signalling the beginning of the end for print books, but the project team does not think that is the case.

Liam Earney, collections team manager for JISC Collections said that librarians want e-books to co-exist and supplement their print titles. ‘The findings from the study and the analysis of the print sales data indicates that making available course text e-books free at the point of use is not a threat to print sales revenue,’ he said. ‘If people really want to keep a book to read in a consistent, frequent or linear way they will buy it. If they want access to a book to dip in, to scan through or reference for a short period of time, the e-book is the perfect answer.’

The deep log analysis suggests that e-books and print books are used differently too – only five per cent of users spent more than five minutes viewing a page and 85 per cent spent less than one minute on a page. However, Woodward did note that more information is needed on how people use textbooks in the print environment too. ‘I see students in libraries with big piles of books and they obviously aren’t reading the whole books,’ she commented.

The study also looked at the impact on print sales of making the e-books available free of charge. It did not find any negative effects from the availability of e-books. ‘This is a new market that publishers can exploit and grow, rather than a threat to an existing market,’ observed Earney.

Despite user and librarian enthusiasm though, there are some challenges. Availability of better MARC records and ISBN information is important for users to be able to find the right e-book information.

Librarians are not very happy with existing business models either. The survey responses revealed frustrations about digital rights management – the restrictions on numbers of users, printing and other uses of the content were too high – and about the business models. Librarians want to pay a fair price and have a model that takes into account the varying usage patterns of users throughout the academic year and does not use up all a library’s acquisition budget at the start of the year.

JISC plans to follow this work up with a study of e-book business models. The full results of the current study, as well as the data, are expected to be made available this summer.