An Introduction to the ROMe Project

This blog post was written by Steve Stapleton, Associate Director – Learning Technology, University of Nottingham.

As part of the Jisc Collections funded e-textbook project the University of Nottingham has created and self-published two e-textbooks in two different subject areas. This will hopefully help address the question of whether institutional publication models can help provide a more affordable higher education, and promote a better, more sustainable information environment for libraries, students and faculty.

The title of the first e-textbook is Applied Ethics. This was authored by academic staff members from the Department of Philosophy. Nottingham’s Department of Philosophy is a centre of excellence in research and teaching and especially strong in the areas of metaphysics, mind and language, and ethics.

The title of the second e-textbook is Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability in Practice. The authoring of this publication was be led by a team from the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR) at Nottingham University Business School. The ICCSR was established in 2002 with the aim of leading the international development of responsible and sustainable corporate practice. The Business School team partnered with the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS), which is the new not-for-profit body being established to identify, recognise, promote and support high standards of practice by individual Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability professionals.

The University of Nottingham acted as the publisher of both titles but different business and distribution models were used for each. Applied Ethics was published as an Open Educational Resource (OER) under a Creative Commons licence. Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability in Practice was published using a Freemium model, with some versions of escalating functionality and support being offered to different audiences.

The e-textbooks (along with some other self-published e-textbooks from Nottingham) can be found at: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/open/ebooksandibooks.aspx

Two posts will follow on the specifics of the Nottingham project: 6C model and dissemination.

Institution as e-textbook publisher project workshop group sessions

This blog post was written by Graham Stone, Senior Research Manager, Jisc.

As part of our Institution as e-textbook publisher project workshop in Birmingham on 16 June 2017, we asked our projects to cover the following broad themes in their presentations:

• Costs: how long did the books take to write, what were the hidden costs?
• Benchmarking: cost benefit analysis and evidence to invest in more e-textbooks
• Technology: the technology used including lessons learned and issues faced
• Licensing: issues encountered including CC licenses, 3rd party copyright issues
• Dissemination, distributions and discovery: concepts and processes behind the dissemination, uptake, and wider adoption of the e-textbooks
• Uptake: evidence of usage by students and courses
• Feedback: Would the authors do it again, would they act as champions?
• Implications of implementation: What are the implications for the wider adoption of the e-textbooks at other institutions?

In the afternoon group session, delegates and speakers contributed their own thoughts and ideas in relation to their own institutions. We’ve distilled the ideas in this blog post to give you a flavour of the session. Next steps for us are to use the ideas to shape a proposed toolkit for institutions, which will be a major outcome of the project.

Costs
Institutions wanted to know more about ‘hidden costs’ of creating the textbooks in order to plan all the details. For example, the time taken to write, but also other areas that may progress at a different pace.

We hope to be able to make a number of survey documents live on the blog very soon – one is an excellent survey of authors, which will help institutions to understand these costs. We hope to survey all of our authors and provide an analysis too.

Questions were asked about the full costs of this form of publishing verses commercial publishing. This is more difficult to quantify due to the different nature of each project. As are the costs of dedicated staff, as each project uses a different business model. However, we hope to capture some of this for the toolkit too.

Business models around crowdfunding and subscriptions were also mentioned. There is an overlap here with the OA monographs toolkit, which is also planned for 2017/18.

Benchmarking
Benchmarking against commercial publishers was mentioned and we will provide some further details about this in the toolkit. It was thought that qualitative benchmarking might be too expensive to do. However, we think that the survey templates we hope to make available will help in this area.

There was some overlap here with evaluating uptake, international students and outreach were mentioned.

Regarding the question about the need to benchmark and for whom was it necessary, the USP and distinctiveness of a textbook was suggested. We will ask the projects to expand on this.

Technology
Comments on technology discussed the need to make sure that technology followed engagement and pedagogy and not the other way round. The need for proper resourcing and the use of open source technology was also mentioned. We will pull together the experiences of all the project as part of the toolkit.

Licensing
Issues around 3rd party rights and CC licences were prevalent. We will add more information to the toolkit. However the Jisc/AHRC OAPEN-UK guide to Creative Commons is still available. In addition, there might be external guidance such as Extended Collective Licensing.

Dissemination/Discovery
Delegates wanted to know about both internal (VLEs) and external dissemination (Kindle, Google Books). We will ask the projects to provide more information in the final year of the project about how they planned and evaluated their dissemination and discovery.

Uptake
Institutions want a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data and we hope to provide this, both as survey templates and analysis.

The need for pre-determined aims of success and the definition of value were mentioned and we will ask projects to provide their experience.

Student value was important and we will have more data on this during the final year.

Feedback
Feedback from authors and students was considered essential and we’ll provide some more details on this in the coming months. Learning technologists and tech companies were also mentioned.

We are planning some further case studies from authors and analysis form surveys in the next year. As mentioned above, we hope to provide some survey templates.

Implications for implementation

Opportunities
Delegates saw a number of opportunities, such as dissemination of ideas beyond the authors HEI, institutional reputation, collaboration, student experience, value to pedagogy and potential recruitment.

Challenges
Potential challenges were seen as IPR and licensing, too narrow a focus for widespread adoption, collaboration vs competition, accessibility, dissemination via platforms, issues around providing continual content, sustainability, preservation, working out pedagogical value and time.

We’ll ask the projects to report back on their experiences in due course.

Other
Finally, we asked delegates to tell us if there was anything we had missed regarding a potential toolkit. Collaboration, shared costs and centralised resources were mentioned as were shared platforms.

Concerns were expressed about which technology to use, long term preservation and the risk of dumbing down if HEIs produce their own learning resources.

A question was also asked about why a ‘core textbook’ was not featured in the project and whether it was too difficult. Regarding this, the second Liverpool book could be considered a ‘core textbook’ in this sense and a blog post will be published in due course.

We hope you find this useful – comments are always welcome. We will continue to blog as the toolkit takes shape.

The Rise of New University Presses and Academic-Led Presses in the UK

This blog post was written by Janneke Adema (University of Coventry), Graham Stone (Jisc) and Chris Keene (Jisc) and was first released in the Library & Scholarly Futures blog.

Our new report: Changing publishing ecologies: A landscape study of new university presses and academic-led publishing maps the rise of new university presses and academic-led presses in the UK.

The landscape of academic publishing has seen a discernible increase in new publishing initiatives entering the sector over the last few years. These new publishing initiatives have a potentially disruptive effect on the scholarly communication environment, providing new avenues for the dissemination of research outputs and acting as pathfinders for the evolution of academic publishing and the scholarly record.

In 2016 we commissioned a research project focused on institutional publishing initiatives which includes academic-led publishing ventures (ALPs) as well as new university presses and library-led initiatives (NUPs). We are pleased to announce the publication of the report ‘Changing Publishing Ecologies. A Landscape Study of New University Presses and Academic-led Publishing’, which charts the outcomes of this research.

The report, by Dr Janneke Adema (Coventry University) and Graham Stone (Jisc, formerly Collections and Scholarly Communications Librarian, University of Huddersfield), benchmarks the development of NUPs and ALPs and fills in knowledge gaps. It complements our previous  research, such as OAPEN-UK, the National Monographs strategy, the Jisc/OAPEN Investigating OA monograph services project and the new Knowledge Exchange Landscape Study on Open Access Monographs which will be published in September 2017.

The NUP and ALP strands of the research study were co-ordinated and run in tandem by Stone and Adema. This study was informed by a desk top review of current library publishing ventures in the US, Europe and Australia and an overview of international academic-led initiatives and their existing and future directions. The NUP strand consisted of a survey, which collected 43 responses, where the ALP strand was informed by interviews with 14 scholar-led presses. Taking different approaches for these two types of press, the report captures the take-up, reasoning and characteristics of these initiatives, as well as their future plans.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations to help support and foster new developments in this space, share best practice, collaboration and the tools and services to facilitate further innovation. As such the report recommends to support community building for both NUPs and ALPs, the establishment of guidelines for setting up a press, the provision of legal advice and guidelines for preservation and dissemination, and the development of future projects to support these new initiatives. In particular, the community professed a need for the development of a toolkit that would aid both existing NUPs and academic-led presses, as well as those universities and academics that are thinking about setting up their own publishing initiatives. This toolkit, based on information collated from the communities, could consist of how-to-manuals, best practices guidelines, standardised contracts and agreements and alternative FLOSS software able to support the production process.

The findings of the research carried out as part of this report provide an evidence base for future support for both new university presses and academic-led publishing initiatives to help create and maintain a diverse publishing ecology. We plan to work with both communities, its members, and partners to further build on these recommendations and seek suitable ways to take these ideas forward to realisation.

eTIPS Use Case Blogpost

This blog post was written by Jacky MacMillan, Head of the University of the Highlands and Islands Educational Development Unit*

As the eTIPS project has progressed, at an institutional level there has been a significant interest in ways in which the outputs of the project could be embedded to maximise the impact of the eTIPS team’s work. To that end the project team have identified four distinct use cases:

Global enhancement opportunity

The ease with which the eTIPS project has been able to access a global audience with the books published through the project, has left us in no doubt that it is possible for the university to command a global audience for ebooks published in the future. The distribution channel selected for the project, Amazon Kindle is both readily accessible and powerful. Whether or not the drivers for publishing work are about income generation, as an opportunity to enhance reputation or raise the profile of the university and promote the work that it does. The analytics available show that sales and page reads are worldwide including the EU, Japan, US and South Africa.

Digital learning resources

One driver for the initiation of the eTIPS project was the expertise which the university has through its Educational Development Unit in producing high quality engaging digital learning resources. Being able to create learning resources as ebooks is of significant value. The convenience and ease of use of the outputs of the eTIPS publications suggests that well formatted platform independent text based resources have merit in their own right as digital learning resources. Students tell us they appreciate the functionality and clarity offered by the Kindle format as well as the ease of access on and offline that the ability to download to a device brings.  Adding the ‘ebook’ to the suite of tools already available to staff has potential to widen access to learning programmes, enhance the student experience and contribute to the open agenda.

Professional development

Throughout the course of this project the eTIPS team have been mindful of the potential that epublishing has to develop writing skills in academics. The team recognises that writing skills, whether it be for academic publishing or for learning materials delivered on line is an important digital literacy competence required of our academic staff.  The team recognises that academic writing and publishing in peer reviewed journals may be a daunting prospect for an early career academic. It could be argued that an early foray into epublishing with support on hand from an experienced team has the potential to develop competence and increase confidence. The team argues that for an early career academic, epublishing provides a springboard to academic publishing and furthermore, supports engagement with the local and wider FE and HE communities.

Publishing for students

With many initiatives professing the benefits to the learning experience of student generated content it is difficult to ignore the potential that epublishing has in this regard. At the time of writing the university has initiated a pilot project to enable academic staff to support their students to write and publish a chapter of an ebook as part of their coursework. Furthermore the team has been approached on several occasions with requests to publish student dissertations. In a similar vein to the first use case, there is potential to take the best of our students work and publish and distribute it in ebook format. By publishing students’ work in this way there is potential to enhance organisational and individual reputation globally. Offering to publish the ‘top two dissertations’ could incentivise student achievement.

* As a Senior Fellow of the HEA, Jacky established and has led the University of the Highlands and Islands Educational Development Unit since its inception in 2011. With a passion for equivalence in access to education in the Highlands and Islands her experience is in establishing and managing technology enhanced learning (TeL) projects, such as eTIPS nationally and internationally. As well as TeL, her academic interests are in entrepreneurial leadership and virtual teams.

Feedback from an author: an academic’s experience

This blog post was written by Professor Frank Rennie*, Lews Castle College, University of the Highlands and Islands

The principle benefits that I have realised from participating in the e-tips project to explore the e-text publication of the scholarly output for a university are, the speed of publication to the global readership, and the added value that can be obtained by repurposing in a different format work which is already substantially completed.

In evaluating e-text publication, I think it is red herring to dwell upon the length of time required to produce the initial manuscript. As with a conventional hard-copy book, the time taken to complete the manuscript for e-publication can vary from a single week of authorship over-drive, to the patient aggregation of many years of painstaking working and re-working. The crucial consideration is that, like any good book, the text needs to be well-written and the subject needs to be worth reading. After completing the manuscript, I was pleasantly surprised how easy the process was to release the text for worldwide publication. After the proof-reading and the confirmation of the final draft, the actual formatting was completed in an afternoon, and the e-textbook was available online within 24 hours. As this was an experimental project, most of the team were closely involved with every aspect of the publication process, and while this can be fulfilling for an author, it can also lead to over-complication of decision-making, and the slowing down of production. I was certainly more closely involved with each stage than with any previous ‘conventional’ book publication. A recommendation for the future is that while there may be opportunities to involve the author(s) in various aspects of the publication process, these opportunities should be subsidiary to a strong central decision-making and time-tabling.

In the case of the e-textbooks produced by this project, there was no expectation of any royalties accruing to the authors, but this might be a consideration for future publications. It could be envisaged that different royalties agreements might be made on a sliding scale for different types of e-publication. In the case of re-purposing work for a module textbook, the main writing might be completed as part of a normal academic workload, with a quickly turned-around product for students and professional recognition of the author being the only rewards. At the other end, of the scale, a flagship e-textbook or the collected proceedings of a conference, could produce a financial incentive for the author or be designated to an appropriate charity.

The main reward for an author, as with some many other ‘conventional’ books, is for the author to see their name in print and have a feeling of satisfaction that their work is being read and appreciated. A key benefit for the institution is that the authors are recognised as being scholars/academics of a particular university, and that both the university and the authors gain an enhanced visibility on the global stage.

Having participated in this project, both as a lead author and as part of an editorial team, I can see many other opportunities for me to disseminate my work in e-publication format. This includes short texts/extended-essays which have been prepared for specific academic modules, or the aggregation of blog posts curated over a prolonged time on a particular theme. The advantage to me of the e-publication format is that it enables the global dissemination of my ideas to what might be a fairly specific minority-interest readership. It also useful for fast-moving areas of education/research where the half-life of useful knowledge is likely to change quickly. An advantage to the university is that it is a relatively low-risk means of making the scholarly products of the institution highly visible to a potentially large but anonymous readership. The success of academic e-publishing will be determined by reputational quality, of the institution and of the academic, but it is a meritocracy to which I will happily contribute.

 

* Frank Rennie is co-author of both eTIPS publications – Undertaking Your Research Project, and How To Write A Research Dissertation. He is Professor of Sustainable Rural Development at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland and Assistant Principal at Lews Castle College UHI. His research interests are in new approaches to online education and networking for sustainable rural development. See http://www.lews.uhi.ac.uk/frennie and https://uheye.wordpress.com/ or @frankrennie  Contact mailto:frank.rennie@uhi.ac.uk

Institution as e-textbook publisher workshop

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Jisc’s institution as e-textbook publisher project is a four-year project investigating the viability of higher education institutions publishing their own e-textbooks.

On 16 June 2017, Jisc and the four project teams hosted the first workshop to an audience composed of librarians, learning technologists, senior university staff and academics. The workshop reflected back on the last three years of the project on a number of broad themes:

• Costs: how long did the books take to write, what were the hidden costs?
• Benchmarking: cost benefit analysis and evidence to invest in more e-textbooks
• Technology: the technology used including lessons learned and issues faced
• Licensing: issues encountered including CC licenses, 3rd party copyright issues
• Dissemination, distributions and discovery: concepts and processes behind the dissemination, uptake, and wider adoption of the e-textbooks
• Uptake: evidence of usage by students and courses
• Feedback: Would the authors do it again, would they act as champions?
• Implications of implementation: What are the implications for the wider adoption of the e-textbooks at other institutions?

Programme

• Welcome address by Graham Stone.

• An overview of UCL’s textbook publishing programme by Lara Speicher and Jaimee Biggins.
UCL Press discussed its textbook publishing programme in the context of the overall textbook landscape and how its two books for the Jisc Institution as E-textbook Publisher project – Key Concepts in Public Archaeology and Textbook of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery – have helped UCL Press to assess the challenges, processes, costs and opportunities for creating textbooks. UCL Press’s presentation also identified how textbook publishing fits with institutional strategy, and the challenges that other institutions without a university press need to consider if they are thinking of initiating such a programme.

• The eTIPS project: a collaboration between the University of the Highlands and Islands and Edinburgh Napier University by Prof Frank Rennie, Prof Keith Smyth and Laurence Patterson.
This session explored the eTIPS project, established the methods explored by the project of authoring and producing academic textbooks, and discussed the chosen route and outcome of distribution. Finally, the speakers looked at opportunities for further embedding the concepts presented by eTIPS beyond the project.

• Using Primary Sources: content, creation and collaboration at the University of Liverpool by Emma Thompson and Alison Welsby.

• ROME: reframing open markets for e-textbooks by Steve Stapleton.
This presentation focused on the University of Nottingham’s creation, publication, licensing and use of two e-textbooks.

• The presentations Q&A can be found in here.

Wider adoption of the e-TIPS model

This blog post was written by Professor Frank Rennie*, Lews Castle College, University of the Highlands and Islands

e-TIPS was an experimental project, so it would be wrong to predict a massive sea-change in the adoption of e-textbooks, but our experiences allow us to speculate on potential implications and opportunities for the future use of e-textbooks in education.

Firstly, the ease of production, distribution and promotion of the e-textbook is so straightforward that it is hard to see why this will not be a preferred means of globally distributing educational texts in the future. Given the basic quality requirements of a good topic, a good writer, and a relevance to readership demand (whether for entertainment, or for knowledge acquisition) this e-textbook production model offers an unprecedented opportunity to enhance education. A key element of the model, which needs to evolve with time, is the institutional motivation for the production of e-textbooks. Does the university simply wish to brand itself as a source of top-quality academic books? Is the intention mainly to re-purpose the work of the university academics, (i.e. work already produced for another purpose) or to commission new works of text? Is the intention to distribute the e-textbooks freely as an incentive to further studies? Should the e-texts be produced as a potential income-stream for the university, or should they be distributed at the lowest possible price to be affordable to international students? These are matters of institutional policy, rather than technical aspects of e-textbook production, but the decisions will influence the number, style, and educational purpose of all subsequent productions.

Secondly, the implications of this model can be applied to a very wide range of publication types other than just standard textbooks. The format may not be optimum for high-definition photo-books, but for standard texts with a few illustrations there are possibilities of making available as institutional products everything from extended essays, subject monographs, creative writing collections, research dissertations and consultancy reports, as well as conference proceedings and collections of themed papers. The e-textbook format is ideal for texts which need a quick turn-around, as well as for minority interest subjects, or limited-demand specialities. With an appropriate attention to the quality of the proposed contents, this production model could offer a great opportunity for the democratisation of scholarly information, giving early-careers researchers, students, and experienced writers an equal opening to make their work available to a global readership

The production and distribution model selected for the e-tips project was through Amazon Kindle, and it is recognised that this might not be everyone’s preferred choice, but there were three clear factors in this decision. As already indicated, the practicalities of turning the completed manuscript into a e-textbook is very easy and well-supported through the Kindle formatting. Secondly, in the publication process, a number of tasks which can be quite complex for conventional hard-copy books, such as the pricing for different countries, the promotional opportunities, and of course the global distribution of the finished product, are easily selected and subsequently dealt with by the online supplier. Thirdly, there is a distinct advantage in making your e-textbook available through a platform such as Amazon with its mass popular appeal, rather than to expect that readers will seek the publication on your university website, or discover the book by chance.

Since we started this project, Amazon have extended their services to enable e-books to be converted into print-on-demand paperbacks, and we have taken advantage of this service to enhance the availability and flexibility of our e-textbooks. There is now global availability of both the original e-textbook, and the paperback subsequently re-produced from the same file, and we have ensured that paperback copies are also available in all our university libraries.

The final challenge is to agree how the various tasks of the e-textbook production model can be embedded in the normal, mainstream work of the university so that a greater amount and variety of scholarly materials is available to a wider, international readership. We have largely solved the practicalities of e-textbook institutional publishing, and what now remains is a question of changing academic culture and the behaviour of individual scholars.

 

* Frank Rennie is co-author of both eTIPS publications – Undertaking Your Research Project, and How To Write A Research Dissertation. He is Professor of Sustainable Rural Development at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland and Assistant Principal at Lews Castle College UHI. His research interests are in new approaches to online education and networking for sustainable rural development. See http://www.lews.uhi.ac.uk/frennie and https://uheye.wordpress.com/ or @frankrennie  Contact mailto:frank.rennie@uhi.ac.uk

 

The Challenge of Open Access Textbooks

This blog post was written by Lara Speicher, Publishing Manager, UCL Press

Among the many proposals UCL Press receives it is often noted how few of them are for textbooks. When we discuss this with our academic colleagues the most frequent reasons given for this are that an author can potentially receive a substantial amount in royalties if they publish a textbook with a commercial publisher, that textbooks are very time-consuming to write and compile, and that textbooks don’t count in the REF. It is understandable that an author would not find it a very attractive proposition to write an unremunerated textbook and that other priorities such as monograph writing, which will directly contribute to an author’s career, or a generous offer from a commercial publisher, will take win the day.

However, from an HEI’s and a student’s point of view this is a very unsatisfactory situation. Textbooks are very expensive for students to buy on top of their fees and living expenses, and buying large numbers of print textbooks is increasingly challenging for squeezed library budgets. And now these issues are starting to bite as textbook sales are in decline. Last autumn, three major textbook publishers, Pearson, Wiley and Barnes & Noble Education, all reported sharp falls in textbook sales in the US, attributed to students’ greater awareness of textbook rentals and ebooks, students buying textbooks when needed rather than at the beginning of the year, and campus bookstores keeping their stock tight due to a bad year of returns (unsold books being returned to the publisher) in 2015 (Financial Times, 2016). Unsurprising that students are turning to other options when textbook prices are reported to have risen by more than 800 percent in the last three decades (University Business, 2014)

So what can institutions do about this? That is what the Jisc Institution as E-textbook Publisher project has been exploring during the last four years with four HEIs: University of Nottingham, University of the Highlands and Islands, Liverpool University and UCL. Each of them is publishing two textbooks under a variety of models – indeed, the project was keen to encourage experimentation with technology, delivery methods, licensing, pricing and business models. The project will report at the end of 2017, and each HEI will describe the processes they went through, the challenges they faced, and the solutions they found. They will also report on usage statistics, student and academic feedback, and whether it is sustainable for HEIs to produce their own textbooks. The key challenges that are immediately apparent are the staff resources and publishing expertise that would be needed in order to produce textbooks on any kind of scale comparable to commercial publishers, and the investment that would be required on the part of HEIs to pay authors and the production costs.

UCL Press is eager to develop its textbook publishing programme, to address the current situation and in order to fulfill one of its 2034 strategic goals to be a global leader in the integration of research and education, underpinning an inspirational student experience. The authors of the two textbooks produced by UCL Press in the Jisc Institution as E-Textbook Publisher programme, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology and Textbook of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, were both committed to open access from the outset, and they could see the benefits of the key texts for their courses being made available freely to their students and to a wider global audience. In addition to the obvious cost-savings for UCL’s students, and the advantages for the academics teaching the courses who can make tailored education material freely available to their students, the other key benefit includes the dissemination of UCL’s teaching to other courses worldwide, which has a positive reputational impact and could even help recruit students by making UCL’s courses better known. UCL Press will be making a new call for textbook proposals in May and we are planning to offer a fee of £1500 to up to 10 UCL authors. While this amount is small in comparison with the potential earnings an author might receive from a commercial publisher, we hope that it will provide a little extra incentive for those authors who are perhaps already interested in exploring more innovative and fair ways of providing textbooks.

Clearly it is going to take a major shift to overturn the current model entirely since textbook publishing is big business, requiring significant investment and generating significant profits. However, there are clear signs of change and innovative approaches underway. OpenStax, developed by Rice University in the US, is an innovative open access textbook platform, published in the form of ‘pages’ that can be compiled into different collections and components. SUNY Open Textbooks, developed by the State University of New York Libraries, launched in 2012 and has published 18 textbooks with several more forthcoming. This is very much a community project and while it offers publishing services for authors, and editorial support, it does not appear to offer remuneration, relying instead on educators who want to provide an alternative model for the greater good.

The Jisc Institution as E-textbook Publisher is kick-starting thinking and experimentation in the UK and the hope is that it will lead to fresh approaches and sustainable models for further development. The advent of TEF provides another incentive for HEIs to raise the topic of institutionally produced textbooks higher on the agenda.

eBooks Benchmarking: Price

This blog post was written by Laurence Patterson, Edinburgh Napier University

Commercial Academic eBooks are cheaper and more broadly distributed now than they have ever been. Now this could be a happy coincidence that sees the consumer spoiled for choice (around 20,000 new Kindle academic texts per year) and with a few spare pennies in their pocket. But the likelihood is that the publisher (and the self-publisher) feels they exist in an ever-competitive online distribution market, where the hard-up student, and not the acquisitions department of a University library, is their customer.

Consider the outcomes of work we’ve been doing on the eTIPS project in recent years around the falling cost of eBooks across the Amazon Kindle UK Store. Each December or so, we looked at the top sixteen Kindle titles returned from an Amazon search for the term ‘research dissertation’ (the area that eTips etextbooks cover). Across the sample are always high-end, quality titles, as well as those that obviously haven’t cost as much to produce from scratch, like eTIPS’ own, at £1.99, retail and, in the four years we’ve been checking, the average cost of the top sixteen has gone down by about 25%. The average price, now, £19 still seems high, but talks to the strategy of traditional publishers’ strategy to price a Kindle publication at around the same point as a print title.

eTIPS have been keeping an eye on the degree to which the price of a Kindle book fuels the number of times it is purchased and download, tracking movement, on AmazonUK, of ranking positions for thirty competitive Kindle titles, since 2015. We have produced a plotted graph of the ‘journey’ of each title, by its weekly ranked placement. Broadly, data suggests that price of a Kindle eBook is an important consideration for the customer, although it is not as simple to suggest that the rankings of those cheaper are higher than those which are more expensive. We should factor in (at least) two elements alongside. The first, reputation, indicates that, generally speaking, where the book is from a known author and/or a known publisher, it performs well, ranks highly, irrespective of price. This is particularly the case in co-authored Kindle titles. The second, promotion, respects that the publisher may lower the price of the title over a given time to incentivise sales or, indeed, through Amazon Kindle Unlimited, may provide the title for free for a day or two.

Consumer subscriptions-based models such as Kindle Unlimited, Scribd and Oyster have the potential to change our perception of the value of a digital learning artefact, such as an eBook – as Spotify and and Deezer have done for music, and Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have done for movies. It is likely that the commercial academic publisher will be forced reconsider its distribution strategy as a result.

Cost to publish an e-textbook

This blog post was written by Laurence Patterson, Edinburgh Napier University 

Opting to produce bespoke learning content over buying-in something off-the-shelf is, in these rather austere and unpredictably inverse times, certainly a daunting prospect. You may have the planning and writing process down to a fine art, it might even be the case that most of your content is already written and edited, but unless the time you’ll take is accounted for from your standard working hours, you’re going to discover, rather quickly, that the first time you produce your own book for students is content creation is expensive.

Initial costs lie in setup. Let’s consider that you have a rough outline – a plan – that you know the theme of the book – medicine, commercial law, sports science. Because of this, you might already know your audience – your own students. Or perhaps you see the audience as more broad – as we did in for eTIPS’ first two eTextbooks – a combination of our own students, and the millions of Kindle readers across the globe. Consider, then, that you already have in place a few individuals whose roles in producing the eBook are clear (though whose time is not entire in producing it – they have other projects, too). And consider that you do have most of the content already, albeit rather more cobbled together than in a coherent form, and only the writing – nothing visual, interactive, or otherwise ‘ready-to-go’ at this stage, a little from lecturers’ notes, and from the one or two conversations you’ve had as a group.

Those costs of setup reflect the creation of four key strands of work which continue through a bespoke eBook project – commissioning (the book theme), distribution (the audience), collaboration (the production team), and creation (the content). Arguably, the more efficient one is in commissioning a title, the more streamlined the strands that follow are.

Ongoing costs lie in staff time. As you move through an eBook publishing project, the collaboration and creation strands will require most from your budget. Consider the time and effort required to outline what content might look like, how effective distribution streams may be established, what points of accompanying interactivity, images, tables and multimedia the eBook may have, and who manages the process to the point of (and beyond) publication. There are likely countless meetings between the academic and the instructional designer and, if content is provided online, where you would place this – the VLE, a website, or somewhere else. Written eBook content may be sourced from existing sources – for example, from lecture notes, conversation with academics, external open-source materials – so that the bespoke nature of content is in its procurement and adaptation, an activity undertaken by a designer. Alternatively, content may be sourced directly (though with some mediation from a designer) from and written by academics, and is therefore entirely original and bespoke.

Importantly, as a group of people learn a method of doing something, and repeat, they improve – and the time they’ll spend doing it, and therefore the costs of doing it, will go down. Taking a stance toward continual improvement and careful accounting of costs across strands of activity will help to limit unnecessary spend in successive publications, and build towards a workable process of production and distribution.

What is the point of your eBook? Establishing your ‘return-on-investment’ is important. Are there opportunities to recoup costs? Is it internal only, dovetailing to your institution’s strategic objectives around publication, research, learning and teaching, digital resource management, open education agenda? Are you seeking commercial opportunity through Amazon distribution, creating paperback versions of your publications to broaden appeal?