University of Birmingham

JISC Collections e-textbook business models trials, 2009-2010
Library Case Study –University of Birmingham

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 University of Birmingham. This provides information to supplement the more detailed findings in the final report.

Institution name: The University of Birmingham

General extent of e-book provision by the library:

ebooks are available on our 2 main aggregator platforms:
MyiLibrary (ca 210 titles) and ebrary  (ca 1775 titles:  145 titles on perpetual access, 1630 subscriptions in a ‘bespoke’ collection).
We have some specific subject-based collections (OSO Oxford Scholarship Online, Referex) and books in databases such as EngNetbase, Early English Books Online (EEB0), and on Knovel.

Engagement with teaching staff regarding the trial:

Subject librarians contacted the academic library representatives for their respective subject areas. If appropriate, they also contacted module course leaders directly about the textbooks in the trials taking place with Palgrave Macmillan (2 international studies titles) and McGraw-Hill (1 economics title).

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

The 3 textbooks were made available on our institutional elibrary. This is an Ex Libris product which gives access to all our e-resources.  There was already a platform level entry for MyiLibrary.  Individual title links were created locally on Metalib for the 3 textbooks in the trials.  There were also author/title entries for each title on the Online Catalogue (Talis Prism), with a live hyperlink in each record.

Feedback from teaching staff and students:

We received limited feedback from either academic staff or students on these 3 titles.  Our overall impression is that these proved not to be the ‘most essential’ core textbooks, though the academics consulted thought that it was useful to have e-access.  We only have a limited number of equivalent print copies of these particular texts so potentially it was seen as beneficial for students on a variety of courses to have 24-7 online access.

Views on the level of usage:

We would probably have selected different textbook titles for inclusion in the trials, if we had been given a free choice by the publishers. The usage seemed fairly low compared to other MyiLibrary titles over same period.  One reason is that our other MyiLibrary titles have been requested for purchase by academics to support teaching.  It was interesting to note from the statistics supplied by the aggregator involved that a number of the ‘hits’ appeared to be only for the ‘Cover’ of the book, which is the main access point for our systems.  This suggests that there was less time spent on the actual text than might be assumed at first glance. Overall the statistics were perhaps not that surprising, with the peaks and troughs closely matching deadlines for term assignments.

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

Preference is for a  flexible model that is easy to understand and administer, as well as being cost-effective in purchasing terms.  Most of the ‘in theory’ pricing suggestions made by publishers in the trials are not that transparent, and make ‘per title’ costs prohibitive for larger HE institutions, where FTEs are a factor in the calculation. We would not expect to buy a print copy of each textbook for every student so most of the models proposed would cost considerably more than we would expect to pay in total for multiple copies of print textbooks.  For example: Student numbers x print price of book x 65%.

One essential requirement is for ‘multi-user’ licences for delivery over a secure campus network that includes off-campus access for distance learners and other registered students.

As Library staff, we would prefer to have some control over the selection of titles required for learning and teaching.  In effect this means creating customised collections that are purchased following recommendations or requests by academics.  Ideally, these are selected on a ‘title by title’ basis, with advice from subject librarians and are largely for teaching purposes.  In some cases, purchasing access rights to a ‘subject’ collection may be better value for money if the majority of titles are used as core texts by a School/department.   This is determined by trials, usage analysis and consultation with academics.

At present we have a mixed economy for e-book collections:  one of subscriptions and ‘perpetual access’ titles for ebrary, and mostly ‘one -off purchases’ for MyiLibrary, under the terms of the Joint consortia ‘National Agreement’ on book supply.  Experience has shown that platform hosting fees and the need to buy ‘updates’ to collections bought ‘in perpetuity’ can make budgeting very difficult.

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

Participation in these trials has highlighted some key lessons for the Library’s e-book policy, and the need to carry out further benchmarking against other Russell Group institutions.  We also need to document our strategy for e-books.  This will contribute to the overall Collection Development and Management policy that is being discussed at School, College and University level meetings.

The findings from this textbook trial and other related ebook experience to date has helped to inform discussion at an internal e-books ‘review meeting’.  Library staff involved in ebook procedures came together to share knowledge and suggest improvements to our internal procedures.   As a result, we have identified the need for more flexibility in using staff resources to administer workflows relating to e-books.

Any future trials need to be at least 3 months in length to maximise benefits in terms of staff administration and usage analysis.  We have recognised that the marketplace is changing rapidly so it is hard to keep up with every variation offered by different publishers.

The issue of non-availability of core textbooks for purchase in e-format means that a ‘one size fits all’ approach across all subject areas taught is not likely in the near future.

The comments from the student textbook survey in the trials have highlighted some concerns with the e-format that we were already aware of from the JISC national e-books observatory project.   There is clearly a need for further user education to promote the use of e-books to academics and students alike before we can move closer to a policy of preferring the purchase of e-books to print copies in the longer term.