Dissemination, distribution and discovery of e-textbooks

This blog post was written by Alison Fox, Marketing and Distribution Manager, UCL Press.

UCL press published two open access e-textbooks with Jisc as part of the ‘Institution as e-textbook publisher project’. The first was Textbook of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Published in June 2016, content from this book was downloaded 23,067 times in 156 countries and with 3998 page views of the HTML version in the year to December 2017.This was followed by an HTML edition of Key Concepts in Public Archaeology in February 2017 (with 15559 page views to the end of December 2017) and PDF version in September 2017, from which content was downloaded 4011 times to the end of 2017. They were both also made available for sale in print via traditional retail channels.

Both textbooks are available in a variety of formats, each requiring a different strategy in order to reach the target readership. For this blog post, we’ll concentrate on our open access formats (PDF, HTML and app) and how each of the decisions that we made makes the books more discoverable.

Both textbooks are based on popular, well-respected courses at UCL, and their publication reflects a UCL Press goal to provide open access textbooks to students in order to enhance their experience, something which is captured in UCL’s 2034 strategy. Open access textbooks are increasingly important to both provide high-quality educational materials to students, as well as open important research to a wider audience for free. With this in mind, our marketing and distribution strategies are inevitably different from a commercial publisher, as are our goals and the markets we wish to serve.

Textbooks follow a unique pattern — those who make the decision about which book is used (faculty members), aren’t the same as those who use the textbook (students) or those who make the book widely available (librarians or booksellers). This cycle still applies with open access, and, though there are fewer barriers to reach the reader directly, students still rely on lecturers in order to signpost relevant reading material, and for librarians to make sure that this content is easily available and discoverable via internal systems. In order to reach all parts of this cycle, our dissemination strategy reflected this knowledge – in order for the textbooks to be successful in their aims, we needed to reach all three groups, and work with trusted infrastructure.

In addition to UCL Press’s in-house open access platforms UCL Discovery and ucldigitalpress.co.uk, we also worked with a number of other vendors to maximize the reach of our open access offerings. Many of the platforms that we worked with help to enable discovery via provision of a suite of discovery tools for library catalogues; including MARC records. These platforms included JSTOR and OAPEN. We have also benefited from the assistance of UCL’s library services, who have added the textbooks to the reading lists system, created MARC records, and disseminated these more widely to the library community and made the books discoverable in UCL’s library discovery system.

Other platforms were chosen for their wide reach, and included Internet Archive, WorldReader and Google Books (from Jan 2018). The app versions of the books were made available via the two biggest app stores: Apple’s App Store and Google Play. The apps were created as an experimental format, and downloads of these were low in comparison to other open access formats – why this was may be worthy of additional research at a later point.

We also worked within the traditional publishing trade ecosystem by producing a for-sale epub version, which was distributed to booksellers, wholesalers and library suppliers via NBN International’s Fusion system. An Amazon Kindle version was also available via Amazon, with POD print (both paperback and hardback) available to booksellers, library suppliers and wholesalers.

Metadata was provided to many of our partners via an ONIX feed, which was enriched with additional keywords and information to aid discovery. Our marketing efforts also aimed to reach each of the key audiences using a number of different methods including social media, email, advertising, online campaigns and author activities.

As a small, institutional publisher with the goal of meeting the needs of those affiliated to the institution, and limited resources in comparison to the commercial textbook publishers who have large global teams that include campus marketing teams, many of our marketing activities have been UK-based, with a primary focus on serving the needs of UCL students. However, the open access nature of the textbooks, and the platforms we have worked with in order to distribute the content, allow those who have not been actively marketed to organically discover the publications.

The textbooks were well supported by the editors’ and contributors’ departments, and have been adopted for course usage. For the Textbook of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, we produced a credit-card sized flyer to help stimulate usage, and similar materials are in production for Key Concepts in Public Archaeology for the next intake of students for the linked module. Authors have also emailed links to the books to their contacts, attended conferences with materials, featured their books on their department communications channels and websites, and carried out a number of other activities to support the books. We have been delighted to receive feedback from the editors of Textbook of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, about the wider reputational benefit to the department and the authors themselves.

Compared to monographs, textbooks have a longer period in which to gain traction – their usage varies within the academic year, and it is essential to reach lecturers at the right time. With this in mind, we are currently working to identify routes to academics that we have not yet reached, by undertaking market research to reach a much wider targeted course adoption as well as ways to make the books more discoverable via indexing services and dedicated textbook platforms e.g. the Open Textbook Network.

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