Surveying authors on resourcing university-led e-textbooks publications

This blog post was written by Mafalda Marques and Graham Stone, Jisc Collections.


The survey for resource profiling towards project embedding was developed by Errol Rivera and Laurence Patterson as part the contribution from the University of the Highlands and Islands/Edinburgh Napier to the institution as e-textbook publisher project.

The survey was described by Rivera in a recent blog post as “a tool meant to enable the embedding of a viable and sustainable model for the publication of e-textbooks by a university”. The survey invites authors to answer to questions on four areas of interest:

  • Skills set
  • Time spent writing e-textbooks
  • Appropriate compensation
  • What department or other institutional structure is better suited to manage the publication of e-textbooks.

The survey was completed by those who contributed to the e-textbooks published by UHI/Napier. However, we thought that the survey results would provide a benchmark for other institutions seeking to embark on this journey and as Rivera puts it, want to know “how much did it really cost” to produce as e-textbook? Therefore, as part of the institution as e-textbook publisher project we have invited all the e-textbooks authors to complete the survey, so that we could look for common themes across the projects.

Who completed the survey?

The survey was completed by the e-textbooks authors/co-authors (40% responses), editors (20% responses), editors and authors (20%) as well as by support staff, i.e. administrative and marketing staff (20% responses). Our authors/co-authors/editors skills set varied. Some contributed solely to authoring one or more e-textbook chapters, while others combined this with managing the “whole process from conception of book, content page, peer review, liaising with all authors, communication [with the] publishing team for delivery of book chapters, [coordinating the] external review and promotion of final book”. Support staff tended to provide more ad hoc support during a specific stage of the project.

Time commitment

In order to understand the time commitment involved in writing the e-textbooks, the survey asked how much time authors/co-authors/editors allocated weekly to the publication of the textbooks.

Answers from support staff ranged between three hours per month to 35 hours for the whole project. However, it is more difficult to quantify the time commitment from authors/editors/co-authors. For many, the time spent on the project depended on the particular stage of the e-textbook production process. One author reported that ‘[w]eekly allocation does not accurately reflect the time spent on the project. Book publishing was staged process and thus on some occasion[s] I have to only work on this project to ensure delivery of objectives on time’.

Some of the authors were able to estimate a weekly allocation ranging between 0.5/1 day per week and 12 hours per week. Nevertheless, some of these authors also stated that projects went through stages of requiring more or less time. Therefore, their time allocation could change depending on the workload. This highlights how difficult it is to estimate the real costs of producing a textbook.

We asked authors to give a rough estimation on the total time spent working on the most recent book since its production began. Answers ranged from months, 0.5 to 1.0 day per week, 10% of their time over two years, 120 hours or three weeks or between 250 and 322 hours. This shows just how different the experience can by depending on the type of book being written, the discipline and the size of the team.

One author suggested that it would have been useful to have developed a “guideline to estimate the time allocation required for the production tasks – such as proof-reading, formatting”. In hindsight this is something that would have helped enormously.

For support staff it was easier to estimate the time spent on the project as their contribution included fewer but very specific tasks – between 35 and 40 hours.

Looking to the future, we asked respondents to estimate the amount of staff time required to meet a production schedule of one e-textbook per academic year. Half of our authors answered that it would take them 1-2 days or 10-20% FTE per week, or 2-3 weeks. One editor replied that he would need “[o]ne day a week, but […] would also require one research day a week, which would only leave three days for teaching commitments”. Another valuable comment was that the time commitment would depend “on how much material I would need to generate from scratch”.

Support staff said that they would need 3 hours per month or 17 hours per book. The latter responses show that there is a variation in terms of time commitment depending on the type of contribution these staff make on the publication of e-textbooks.

Allocating costs

The survey asked that, if another member of staff took over the author’s role, what the appropriate compensation would be (£/hour). Half of the respondents were not able to estimate this. However, one author suggested that if an e-textbook would be specially commissioned, “the rates of pay and workload would equate to the existing salary of the commissioned member of staff […]”. Moreover, this author suggested that “a more useful figure would be the cost of the time required by the technical staff to proof, format, and manage the various production stages of the publication”.

The remaining authors/co-authors/editors highlighted that a minimum level of expertise would be required for someone to undertake their role and pointed that the compensation should be between £15 and £100 per hour, or between £33k-£40k per year (i.e. the starting salary for a full-time lecturer/assistant professor).

Institutional structure

The final set of questions focused on understanding what department or other institutional structure is best suited to manage the publication of e-textbooks. When asked if their responsibility on this project reasonably fell under the purview of the department authors/co-authors/editors currently work for, 90% of respondents (including support staff) said yes. In addition, when asked if there would be another department or structure within the university that should manage the publication of e-textbooks, 70% said that there was not another structure better suited to manage e-textbooks publications. One respondent went further, saying that they were “setting up a digital humanities centre, which could eventually take responsibility for leading projects like this”.

When asked if e-textbooks publications should exist as an independent department (i.e. a university press), 50% said yes, 30% were not sure (20% of these respondents were support staff), and 20% did not answer the question. For those that answered yes, one comment was that the current service “could warrant its own unit [and] benefit from being stand alone as it could focus primarily on publishing ebooks”. Others suggested that it could evolve into a press and “be at least partially student ‘owned’ through explicit connection to digital media courses”. Another respondent said that the service could evolve to “an online publication strand to the work of the [current department, and it could benefit from the already existing] processes for learning design management and production”. One respondent who was not sure answered that it depends on the available time and resources, both human and financial.

Other issues

The survey concluded with an invitation to discuss any other aspects not covered in the survey. Specifically areas that upper-level management should consider when determining resources for future university-funded e-textbook production.

Authors/co-authors/editors highlighted issues such as increasing collaboration between early career and senior staff, authors’ compensation (e.g. financial compensation, academic promotion, taking time off from teaching), providing support on ethical and copyright issues, increasing in-house support (e.g. use of internal proofreading services), and making funds available for specific areas (e.g. providing funding for illustrations). In addition, suggestions were also made about supporting the development of new authors within the institution, further developing and harnessing open educational approaches and exploring the potential to engage students in the sharing and publication of their work and as contributors to public knowledge.


We believe that, although inconclusive – we didn’t get a simple “it takes X hours to write a textbook” answer, these are valuable insights into the authoring and research process for an e-textbook and could be used by institutions considering funding this area. Particularly around author rewards, e.g. buying out teaching time etc. and this is an area that Jisc would like to take further in due course.



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