25 Jun 2013

Are e-books any of our business?

Guest Post by Jack Hyland, Assistant Librarian, DCU (@jackwhyland)

Image: Johan Larsson
If you haven’t noticed, higher education libraries are stuck in a long and complicated e-books crisis. It’s very different from the serials crisis, with its clear battle lines drawn between Open Access evangelists tilting at predatory publishers, but a crisis that could leave both libraries and traditional publishers side-lined as redundant middle men.

Higher education e-books are nothing like the slick and highly successful e-book Kindle model. They’re clunky DRM-laden PDFs, sold from publisher to aggregator to library with a series of constantly changing business models. They’re just about tolerable for users to read on a PC screen but close to useless on any other device (phone? Tablet? Good luck trying). But students seem to be OK with them, preferring reading a bad online version for free rather than spending €50-€70 on their own print copy. The publishers know this, and they’re terrified. They thought a dual model of print and online was sustainable but its killing them, and they’re backing out: either refusing to sell e-versions to libraries or hiking the prices and restricting the access terms to make them less attractive.

So where are we going? Nobody knows, but there have been some interesting suggestions, such as a Spotify for e-books. Here’s what I think – in five years, libraries will have no role in handling the Big Undergrad Textbook – venerable beasts like Sociology by Giddens. If publishers don’t adapt and start selling online very widely and very cheaply, someone else will. The Big Textbooks are easy kill for ambitious startups, people like Flatworld Knowledge and  OpenStax, who provide very readable access to more generic undergrad content across all platforms for free or close-to-free. Students will soon access this content direct – there’s no need for libraries here.

With most other book content, like more specialised textbooks, supplementary readings and research monographs, I think we’re on safer ground. A lot needs to change here – publishers needs to provide better interfaces and better business models and we libraries need  to be willing to negotiate a fair  price for this. But can publishers survive on all these titles with much smaller demand, without the Big Textbook cash cows? I just don’t know. Will we also see the rise in the university press for e-books, or radical redefinitions of what we think of as books? Perhaps, but maybe not in the short term.

While we’re slowly getting there with the e-textbook, one medium that’s crying out for online delivery is the dusty, discipline-specific reference book. Students should, but don’t use them  - (mention of them in my classes meets blank-faced silence – worse than PowerPoint slides of Boolean Venn diagrams). But publishers don’t know what to do with them online.  A massive, once-off purchase? An annual subscription? In any attempts I’ve made to move online with them, publishers have replied with some jaw-dropping ten-fold price increases from the print version. And even if I went for it, would students use them instead of Wikpedia? I’m not sure.

We shouldn’t waste a good crisis. So what can librarians do, short of becoming publishers ourselves? One area we need to do better in is liaison with lecturers in sourcing texts. Instead of taking the lecturers title request and making guesstimates on projected demand (3 e-book copies, 5 short loan print copies etc.), we need to work with them to try to figure out how to get  (1) the best quality texts at (2) reasonable prices and (3) all with 24/7 access across all platforms for all students and (4) trying to do all this across all modules. It’s a very tall order, but if should be very interesting seeing if we can do it.

*Thanks to my colleagues Miriam Corcoran and Mary Kiely for their advice in researching this.


  1. Thanks Jack. Some very interesting ideas - I do agree we may be moving away from the traditional print undergrad textbook as we know it, which is no bad thing for libraries in my view. For one, it will free up some staffing resources and the space for libraries to develop the more unique aspects of their collections. As well as the developments with commercial ebooks, there is also the increasing emergence of open access book publishing (still some way behind it's periodical cousin obviously). Add OERs and MOOCS into the mix and who knows what 1st year reading lists of the future will look like!

    Amazon's recent bid for the rights to resell ebooks adds a further dimension - particularly for the textbook market I imagine. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/24/ebook-publishing-amazon - another development worth watching perhaps.

  2. Institutions should be aiming to facilitate optimum online access to core texts and even if libraries are not directly buying and managing access, we should still play an important role in other areas like policy - deciding formats, deciding whether money should be spent directly by students or come from their fees, negotiating purchase terms if necessary etc.