Why e-books mean business

Share this on social media:

Topic tags: 

After the two-year long e-book observatory project, JISC's Caren Milloy reports on a new project to investigate the best business models for e-books and their potential impact on print sales

E-books are helping turn students into researchers. The convenience of online access allows users to view e-books off campus and throughout the day and night to find information on the move. The user doesn’t immerse themselves continuously as they might in a printed book. Instead they use e-books to find facts quickly – using research type skills to skim and scan the information to extract it for their assignments.

This type of user behaviour appears quite different from traditional print reading and therefore it looks as though students are using e-books and print books in tandem. The recent JISC national e-books observatory project report highlights this and suggests that e-books currently supplement print books rather than replace them. This was further evidenced through the analysis of the print retail sales of the e-books licensed for the project. The project found that there was no short-term, negative impact on the print sales.

Sustainable, affordable and complementary

But if e-books and printed books are complementary to each other, then we need to find business models that are affordable for the university library, sustainable for the publishers and that can exist in tandem. In the USA, business models for e-books are developing fast, but predominantly based on the student buying them rather than the university library purchasing on behalf of the students. One of the biggest developments in the USA has been CourseSmart. Through this, students choose from more than 6,000 e-books provided directly by publishers. But in the UK students and researchers expect their university library to provide them with access to their course texts. The library also wants to provide equity of access and so we need to explore different models.

JISC has funded JISC Collections to conduct a long-term study to help establish what library e-book provision could look like in practice. The study is testing out different business models and asking questions such as: What is an affordable price? What is the role of the library? How manageable are different models in terms of time and resource for librarians and publishers? Do students want chapters or whole books? Eight leading textbook publishers, three e-book aggregators and 10 UK universities are involved in helping to provide answers to these questions in four trials.

The business models being studied include unrestricted simultaneous usage of an e-book, where, instead of paying for a set number of users, the university would pay one fee which allows an unlimited number of people to view a book at any one time. The study is also looking at the possibility of an ‘e-book library’, where students and researchers could download a single chapter, a pay-per-use book, or e-books with restrictions like e-only or print-only options. In addition the study is exploring both what happens to print sales and take-up when a textbook previously only available in print form subsequently becomes available online and whether making e-books accessible through a library could impact on the number of people who actually purchase it.

For each of the four different models, publishers are being asked to give an indication of the price they think they would charge university libraries for the e-book service based on print sales, usage of titles and other factors.

We need to explore these models to find out which will be viable for university libraries and students. Exploring open access to scholarly e-book monographs is another area that needs consideration in the humanities and social sciences (see page 12). Academic monographs have suffered from a steady decline in sales since the mid 1970s. For researchers in the fields of humanities and social sciences, access to monographs has been increasingly limited and publishers have been forced to be even more selective about which titles they will publish and have reduced print runs dramatically. The net effect is that less and less research in these fields is being published and disseminated.

The availability of quality research will be helped by making monographs available as open-access e-books, but will require innovation, experimentation and exploration.

Caren Milloy is head of projects at JISC Collections. Keep up to date on the business model experiments at www.jiscebooksproject.org