JISC Collections e-textbook business models trials, 2009-2010
Library Case Study –UCL

Background, introduction and link to the trials

In Autumn 2008, JISC Collections engaged consultants to arrange a series of trials involving publishers of core textbooks serving UK higher education, the principle aggregators used by HE libraries and a selection of higher education institutions. The purpose of the trials was to try to find appropriate business models that would allow for library-delivery of e-textbooks to students.

In April 2009, and preceding any trials, the consultants produced a landscape report which surveyed the current status of the higher education textbook market in the UK and also drew on examples from overseas to chart the development of the e-textbook and the various initiatives being pursued by publishers.

One of the aims of the landscape report was to put forward recommendations about options for business model trials for widely‐adopted core textbooks, in order to provide data to inform future strategy for all stakeholders. Following discussions by the consultants with a number of libraries, publishers and aggregators, the trials began in September 2009 with ten UK HE institutions, eight textbook publishers and three aggregators taking part. Publishers placed between 1 and 3 textbooks in the trials, and in the majority of the cases, the textbooks were made available via the library’s aggregator of choice. There were 17 e-textbooks in total across 24 trials.

The overall objectives of the trials were:

  • To analyse the economics of a selection of business models for e-textbooks and course text e-books in terms of impact on publisher print sales / revenue and library budgets
  • To assess the management of a selection of business models for e-textbooks and course text e-books in terms of administrative burden and ease of implementation
  • To make recommendations about business models for e-textbooks and course texts e-books following the trials, that are sustainable both in terms of profitability and value for money.

The case study below gives brief details of the experience of participating in the trials by the Library at the UCL. This provides information to supplement the more detailed findings in the final report.

Institution name: UCL

General extent of e-book provision by the library:

UCL Library Services currently subscribes to between 2000-3000 ebook titles (this does not include text databases such as EEBO). A significant number of these titles have not been catalogued – the number of uncatalogued titles is currently being quantified. Access to these titles is via a number of publisher and aggregator platforms, including: Knovel, Taylor & Francis, Net Library, EBL, Wiley, Science Direct. In addition, we will soon begin using Dawson Era.

Engagement with teaching staff regarding the trial:

Given that we were asked not to market these titles any more than we would usually, subject librarians in the relevant areas – Economics, Laws and Political Science – alerted staff in these departments to the availability of the trial titles once these had been confirmed. Reminders were sent closer to the start of teaching that the titles would be available from the start of term.  This information was communicated by email and also in the context of departmental library committee meetings and via Faculty bulletins sent out by the Library during the first term.

How details of the e-book were made available and how it was accessed:

All 4 titles were catalogued and links were added to the catalogue records. In addition those titles that appeared in reading lists within our online reading list system were flagged up as being available as e-books (this only applied to the International Relations titles).

Feedback from teaching staff and students:

There was relatively little feedback from staff or students during the trial. This is not unusual – we tend only to get ‘feedback’ about e-resources when something stops working. One course tutor in Political Science did comment enthusiastically about the availability of the titles in their area and suggested that we should buy more e-books.  The feedback contained within the trial survey is not unlike feedback that we have received previously. Students appear to have difficulty locating e-book titles (even when they appear in the catalogue) and in some cases using them, although they are generally positive about their availability.

Views on the level of usage:

Given the small number of titles involved in the trial and the fact that only 2 out of 4 were known to appear on reading lists the level of usage is not surprising. Proportionate to print holdings UCL’s e-book collections are tiny and students are not in the habit of looking for or using e-books as alternatives or substitutes for print. If anything, the usage amongst Laws students is encouraging  as this title was not linked to a particular reading list.

Preferred pricing models from publishers for library-delivered e-textbooks:

Were publishers to actually deliver e-textbooks then we would welcome pricing models that allowed us to purchase titles individually, with unlimited concurrent usage and off-site access.  Generally, we would prefer the Dawsonera model of buying content as and when and paying for the amount of usage actually needed.

Useful lessons learnt from the trial in terms of future library strategy for providing access to e-textbooks:

Perhaps the most important lesson from this (and other e-books trials that we have been involved in) comes back to the issues of critical mass. Without a critical mass of titles available end users are not in the habit of using (or even looking for) e-books, so it is difficult to assess their levels and patterns of usage and also gage what wider  impact this has – it is very difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from such a very small sample.