The market in academic ebooks needs to change

How does the market in academic ebooks work? Not in the interests of students, staff or universities, argues Anthony Sinnott.

The pricing of academic ebooks matters.

It always has, but it’s hopefully obvious why it matters more now, and will likely matter a great deal still into the future.

There are problems. Current “industry standard” pricing models create revenue where none previously existed, severely reduce opportunities for second hand markets to exist, tie institutions (unhelpfully) to platforms, retain ownership and overall control of the resource in a way that means it can ultimately be denied to the user at the whim of the publisher, and front load all risk and “future use costs” to the institution at the point of initial sale.

A newly launched campaign kick started by Johanna Anderson at the University of Gloucestershire argues that academic publishing practices are making ebooks unaffordable, unsustainable and inaccessible to university libraries and therefore to students, academics and other users. I’ve joined with many others calling for urgent regulation of the market, and here I set out why.

Creating revenue where none previously existed

It is an atypical scenario for an institution to invest in every single student getting an individual copy of every single book (limited examples of a significant book being purchased for students on a particular module/course notwithstanding).

The idea that every single student who might see or read a particular text must be accounted for (in terms of revenue generation) is one that simply does not exist for the physical resources that we buy.

But there is an attempt to establish this as the norm for ebooks – an attempt to capture revenue from spaces where none would have existed, and justify this by describing the new resource (e-book) as being fundamentally different enough to warrant this.

It is not that this is an inherently bad thing – every business has the right to explore revenue streams. It is that it is so cynically engineered and constructed through heavy handed restriction of an ostensibly open product, and hidden from any transparency.

Goodbye to second hand markets

As well as all the fancy bells and whistles surrounding ebooks, they also embody the ability for the owner to apply access restrictions beyond the point of purchase.

There are arguments to be had about second hand transmission of copyrighted work that continually play out among smarter and more informed professionals than me. The issue is that it represents a significant shift in power and control to the publisher and is simply never discussed.

We assume that making sure that any avenues by which access is obtained without being paid for is blocked would be the goal of publishers, but we never see this articulated (strategically or objectively).

We are left to assume that this is the goal and that frustrating Digital Rights Management is the tool to achieve this. We are in the business of serving our communities and anything that is of detriment to their experience has a real impact on value to us. If buying into these technologies reduces the flexibility of student activity later, then this automatically makes it more dangerous and less valuable to us, no matter how much marketing material is produced to describe it as “more flexible”.

Tie institutions to platforms

University acquisition teams often place value on flexibility and the freedom to apply choice. Anything that abrogates this feels like an attempt to squeeze us into somewhere we don’t necessarily want to go.

If the only way to buy your book is to tie ourselves to a platform that we otherwise would not consider, then this is limiting behaviour that is likely to cause us significant ethical, logistical, and practical issues that we will not thank publishers for.

Front loading risk and “future use costs” at the point of sale

Libraries are typically expected to take all of the risk and foot the entire bill for actual usage, possible usage, hoped for usage, and fictional future usage of an ebook at the first point of sale. This is so rigid, unimaginative, and inflexible that it forestalls a huge amount of potential constructive work. It is one of my great professional frustrations and a source of profound anger that professional publishers approach this space with such paucity of ambition and limited thinking.

There are ways to address this – purchasing models that could tie revenues to actual usage, spread the risk at first purchase, allow for self determination and untether some of the untapped potential of ebooks, but these remain locked away behind the flat out refusal of publishers to engage beyond baby steps.

The irony is that universities are always ready to invest in new systems and developments, and Librarians are one of the most open communities that exist. It is a ripe area for trial and error, for experimentation and for exciting adventures into the boundaries of what could be possible combining digital resources with accessible pedagogy.

But all of this untapped potential stops at the point when we are told “Nope. Single user only. And it’s 50x more expensive because lots of future people might use it.” We require more acknowledgement of the fact that we have significant skills and experience that could contribute to vast improvements in this area. Refusal to engage in this area will, likely, continue the race to the bottom that we are currently in.

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