University of the West of England

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

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 the West of England. This provides information to supplement the more detailed findings in the final report.

Institution name: University of the West of England.

General extent of e-book provision by the library:

We use 4 main platforms: Netlibrary, eBrary, DawsonEra, Safari, plus some ‘one-off’ publications purchased directly from publishers eg Palgrave Dictionary of Economics Online.  For business students we would check all reading lists for availability of ebooks, and order one if available.  This would normally be used to enhance access to hard copies rather than replace them completely, but we have noticed a reduction in complaints from students about the lack of availability of reading list titles in the library as a result.   All our ebooks are listed on the library catalogue so that if a student does a search for a particular title, both the hard copies and the ebook would come up in their results, and they can just follow a link to access the online version.  We have also carried out our own research study into the use of ebooks by both students and academic staff and published an article giving details of this.

Engagement with teaching staff regarding the trial:

The library at UWE became involved because the publisher of our trial textbook approached the module leaders about taking part in the custom-published textbook aspect of the trial.  One of the module leaders is the editor of the book.

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

The book was made available via the library catalogue (see above).   Details of the text for the module were given in the module handbook supplied to the students at the start of the academic year;  the e-book was also mentioned in this handbook.  UWE makes heavy use of the VLE Blackboard, so the Blackboard site for this module also included a mention of the e-book, plus a link to it.  During seminars in November we ran workshops for the students (as we have for several years), and we showed students very briefly how to access and use the e-book.

Feedback from teaching staff and students:

There are 2 module leaders for this module.  One commented:

The main benefit was using the electronic copy during tutorials as a reference source for students preparing exam questions – it enable them to pinpoint very quickly where the quotes we use come from and to use searches to find similar terms.

Besides this, I’m not sure what we can conclude – students’ learning styles may be different to my own book based learning model, and without qual research to compare before and after I think we’d be making guesses.

When we told her that we may not have access to the e-book again next year she added:  A shame as the electronic version has proved more useful than I thought it was going to be.

Views on the level of usage:

To be honest, I’m surprised the book wasn’t used more, but this might reflect our unrealistic expectations of students’ engagement with textbooks!!  There were 1103 accesses, which we did not  think was that high considering the numbers of students and the fact that we would have expected them to be using the book to prepare for seminars on a regular basis.  The main peaks in usage could be explained by the November seminars we ran to help them with their assignment work, and the pressures of revision and exams in April/May.  However, some students may have already purchased a hard copy before they realised an e-book would be available and then continued to use it.  Having said this, we would  be delighted if loan copies of textbooks were used this heavily and we are only aware of one other e-book we have purchased for business students where the usage comes close to this.

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

The model the publisher  originally suggested was a single fee based loosely around the number of students using the book.  This was increased following the trial.  The price per student was extremely reasonable, when they are currently paying over £40 each for a print copy.  However as there could be a fairly large number of students on the module, this could represent a price of £3200, presumably plus VAT.  There is absolutely no way that we could pay this for access to a single book via the library – this represents around 10% of our total book budget for this year.  However, if there was a mechanism for recouping this cost from students, this would be more viable but we just don’t have systems in place to deal with this sort of situation.  This means that this model would not be a practical alternative for us.

We also have some concerns about how ‘textbook’ or ‘core textbook’ would be defined, as a title that might be essential reading for one module could be background reading for other students. Similarly a book that is an essential text at one university might be background reading at another.  Academic staff also change texts fairly frequently, so that the situation could change year on year.

It seems to me that the Dawsonera model we used for the trial worked well.  We’ve been using this model (ie we are given x credits when we buy the e-book and once those are used up we buy x more) for 2 or 3 years and and it generally works fine.  It seems fair as the more a book is used, the more we would pay – and this reflects what would happen with print copies – if they are heavily used we need to buy more.

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

It would be fair to say that the trial consolidated and confirmed our expectations regarding  e-textbook provision and its potential. There was certainly demand for our particular e-textbook.

Perhaps ultimately, of most value to us was the opportunity to take a close look at the use of a particular high demand title in such detail, which gave us an indication of how much reach an e-book could have at peak times over the relative use of its print equivalent.  Although this was indeed interesting to us, what we saw happen wasn’t really counter to what we had expected to see from the outset, although as we mention above use may have been less than we might have anticipated.

It’s also worth noting again that the issues around the pricing model already identified above probably suggest to us that in the case of a costly item (as our particular text would be) we do nott have a mechanism to recoup that level of proportionate expense from a library budget at present, despite the good value the cost offered in this particular case on a per student basis. This probably leaves us with questions to consider, or problems to solve, if indeed they could be, should such costs become a reality for us in order to offer e-textbook provision of this kind across further subject areas/budgets in the future.