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?

Institution as e-textbook publisher project workshop, 16 June, Birmingham

Jisc are pleased to announce that bookings are now open for the Institution as e-textbook  publisher project workshop in Birmingham on 16 June 2017.

The Jisc Institution as e-textbook publisher project is a four-year project investigating the viability of higher education institutions publishing their own e-textbooks. The overall objective of the programme, which started in 2014, is to assess whether the e-textbooks that have been created provide:

• A more affordable higher education for students
• Better value for money than commercial alternatives
• An improved, more sustainable information environment for all

In this workshop the four project teams will reflect back on the last three years of the project under 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, distribution 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?

Delegates will be encouraged to contribute thoughts and ideas in relation to their own institutions in the afternoon workshop. These ideas will help shape a proposed toolkit for institutions, which will be a major outcome of the project.

The workshop will appeal to potential authors, librarians, learning technologists and senior university staff who may wish to consider publishing their own e-textbooks.

Programme and registration:

Venue: Radisson Blu Birmingham (

Date: 16 June 2017

Start / end time: 10:00 – 15:45

Creative Commons and Open Access Books

Creative Commons and Open Access Books
by Chris Penfold, Commissioning Editor, UCL Press

Creative Commons licences determine how open access content can be reused, and each licence permits the content to be reused in different ways. The most common licences are:

CC BY: Allows others to redistribute, edit and build upon the content, even commercially, as long as the original author is credited.
CC BY-SA: Allows others to redistribute, edit and build upon the content, even commercially, as long as the original author is credited and the new content is licenced under identical terms as the original content.
CC BY-ND: Allows others to redistribute the content, even commercially, as long as the original author is credited. If the material is modified, it cannot be distributed.
CC BY-NC: Allows others to redistribute, edit and build upon the content, but not commercially. The original author must be credited.
CC BY-NC-ND: Allows others to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, but not commercially. If the material is modified, it cannot be distributed. The original author must be credited.

Authors are gradually warming to licensing their work with CC licences. The benefits of CC BY, in particular, are now widely understood and appreciated. CC BY fully realises the potential of open publishing to transform content into an effective tool for education and research: the less restrictive the licence, the more widely and flexibly the content can be redistributed and reused. Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, which was published by UCL Press as part of the JISC e-textbook initiative, enjoys the benefits of this licence.

However, while CC BY is the most popular licence among UCL Press authors, some still opt for a more restrictive licence. This decision is no longer driven by a fear of commercial exploitation – once the most common concern, in my experience, as authors envisaged their work being repackaged and sold by a predatory publisher – now, the fear is centred on poor translation. The discussion, then, has shifted from the implications of NC to ND.

Authors in area studies, for example, who strongly anticipate an international readership, want any translations of their work to remain under their control. This has become a pressing issue in relation to policy and cases where certain jargon has no agreed equivalent in other languages. Also, authors who focus on generating new ideas to tackle the world’s global problems – ideas that are not yet established in other countries and cultures – depend on careful translation to ensure that the ideas are interpreted correctly. Authors in these disciplines desire the freedom to undertake the translation first and in their own time, or to collaborate with a translator they know and trust. Although UCL Press encourages the adoption of CC BY, we allow authors to choose the licence they prefer, and we agree that a more restrictive licence can offer an important security measure in specific cases. This security measure, when adopted, is not primarily for the benefit of publisher or author, but for the benefit of the discipline.

New e-textbook ‘Key Concepts in Public Archaeology’

Key Concepts in Public Archaeology

We launched our e-textbook, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology this week. This book appears on our innovative, browser-based HTML platform: This collection is edited by Gabriel Moshenska, Lecturer in Public Archaeology at UCL, and it brings together contributions from the dynamic field of public archaeology. It is aimed at both undergraduate and MA students and provides a broad overview of the central themes in public archaeology. The book also takes into account the growth of scholarship in this area from around the world and seeks to clarify what exactly ‘public archaeology’ is. The first nine chapters are now published, with more chapters to be added to the platform in the next few months allowing it to become an ongoing, evolving resource.  The chapters cover a variety of different areas such as ‘Community archaeology’ and ‘Digital media in public archaeology’ and feature a number of illustrative case studies.

The platform is published on has been specially developed by UCL Press in collaboration with the award-winning digital developer Armadillo and includes scholarly functionalities such as the ability to highlight, search, annotate, export and cite content as well as saving personalised copies of individual books. We believe these tools really add to the user experience and allow for a unique reading experience. We will also produce an open access PDF as well as a traditional print edition this summer. Alongside these formats, we are working with the digital developer YUDU to produce the complete textbook as an app. The app will offer another option for readers, featuring scholarly functionalities as well as animation.

Our Marketing and Distribution Manager is now promoting Key Concepts in Public Archaeology in the coming weeks using both traditional and online marketing channels including mailing lists, listservs, social media, the UCL Press website and other tools to promote the book as widely as possible. This is the second book UCL Press has published as part of the Jisc ‘Institution as e-textbook publisher’ project. As the final part of the project we’ll also be conducting surveys to gather feedback from students, lecturers and librarians about these books to assess how they have found the user experience, in order to inform UCL Press’s future textbook publishing strategy. We look forward to sharing these learning outcomes with the other participants in the project and contributing to the wider discussion about the future of academic textbook publishing.

Blog post author: Jaimee Biggins, UCL Press

Launch of the e-textbook Using Primary Sources

The e-textbook Using Primary Sources has been released today (24 January). The e-textbook was edited by edited by Dr Jonathan Hogg and includes contributions from over 30 academics. This project is a collaboration between Liverpool University Press, the University of Liverpool Library and Jisc, and is available for free on the platform, BiblioBoard.

LUP ipad cover v5

Using Primary Sources is an Open Access teaching and study resource that combines rare archival source materials with high quality peer-reviewed chapters by leading academics. It covers major themes within the medieval, early modern and modern periods, such as religion, ideas, conflict and class. This unique and easy to access e-textbook provides students with the opportunity to examine rare and original material in detail on their computer, tablet or phone as well as learn how they can integrate the source material in their own written work.

To tell us more about Using Primary Sources, Liverpool University Press interviewed Dr Jonathan Hogg, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool and General Editor of Using Primary Sources.

Thank you Jon for agreeing to this interview. What is Using Primary Sources?
It’s an exciting, accessible and unique e-textbook that aims to help students improve their approach to historical research and writing. As part of the project we have digitised archival materials from Special Collections & Archives here at the University of Liverpool, and used them as the basis of chapters that explain to students how they might research and write about a theme. Each chapter contains an essay based on a specific theme: for instance, Popular Religion, or Social Class. Here, an expert author walks you through how you might approach research on that particular theme, what types of primary source you might select to explore that theme, and how you might integrate primary sources into arguments that you want to make in your coursework.

How can teachers and academics integrate Using Primary Sources into their lectures, seminars and the classroom?
There are lots of ways the textbook can be used. The chapters are not designed to be definitive: the advice offered on conducting and writing up research is intended to be suggestive, which will make for good discussion in class. Tutors and students might talk through the advice that is being offered, and then either build on it, suggest alternative ways to think about problems, or set tasks based on the advice. Also, a great class exercise would be to look at some of the digitised primary source material in detail, encouraging students to think about the different ways we might analyse and interpret sources. We are producing lesson plans in the coming months, so look out for those!

Can you suggest ways a student can use Using Primary Sources to benefit their work?
I would advise students to think about our textbook as a starting point. Students might start by reading a chapter on a theme that relates to something they are currently researching, or whose content relates to an essay they are writing. Then, you should think about the advice that is offered. How well does it relate to the work that you are doing? Are there ways to build on the advice that’s given, perhaps using different sources? Do you need to go away and read some of the secondary material to gain more understanding of the theme? In the end, think about the different ways that you can conduct a strong research project, or explore an essay question, and then develop and plan a core argument using your own analysis of primary sources to back up points within your written work. So, we hope that chapters offer good advice on the research process as well as helping with essay writing.

How does someone access Using Primary Sources?
It’s very easy. Simply follow this link to access the textbook: You will find three volumes arranged chronologically. Then, simple explore the chapters, and read the expertly written essays. Take a look at our Guide if you are unsure how to use the resource.

What can we expect from Using Primary Sources in the future?
We will be publishing over a dozen more chapters in 2017. We are also developing lesson plans for tutors and students, and we want our students to get involved in curating sources online. The best place to check for updates and news is the project’s Twitter account@LivUniSources. We would really appreciate any feedback you may have, so please email us at  to let us know what you think about the textbook! We hope that you enjoy the book.

This blog post was first published in:

More information on Using Primary Sources can be found in:,924186,en.html#.WIeC6PKyrIX

Blog post author: Alison Welsby, Liverpool University Press

Introducing the institution as e-textbook publisher project

In this first blog post Jisc Collections introduces the ‘Institution as E-textbook Publisher’ project.

Since April 2014, Jisc Collections has been funding four project teams from UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to investigate the viability of publishing their own e-textbooks. The overall objective of the project is to assess whether the textbooks created assist in the aims of providing:

▪ more affordable higher education costs for students;
▪ better value for money than commercial alternatives;
▪ an improved, more sustainable information environment for all.


Four project teams – from the Universities of Liverpool, Nottingham, Highlands & Islands with Edinburgh Napier University, and University College London – received funding for a period of four years (April 2014 – September 2018) to:

▪ create two e-textbooks each;
▪ apply business, licensing and distribution models; and
▪ report back on the impact, value and viability of the models chosen.

The e-textbooks

Each project team has been working on the development of two e-textbooks (read more). These cover a range of subjects from public archaeology, plastic surgery and ethics to financial management, corporate responsibility and research practice:

▪ University of Liverpool: 1. Using Primary Sources; 2. Essentials of Financial Management
▪ University of Nottingham: 1. Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability in Practice; 2. Applied Ethics
▪ University of the Highlands and Islands & Edinburgh Napier University: 1. How to Write a Research Dissertation; 2. Undertaking Your Research Project
▪ University College London: 1. Reconstructive & Plastic Surgery; 2. Public Archaeology

The projects have been experimenting with different business and licensing arrangements to find an optimal model, which can then be applied to future e-textbook publishing within their institutions and beyond (read more). They have also used distinct technologies/software and utilized various distribution channels and marketing strategies based on what they considered to be more appropriate depending on the advantages of the different resources as well as on the subject areas of their e-textbooks and target audiences.

Outputs and knowledge transfer
The process involving the development of the e-textbooks is documented in Jisc Collections website so that other HEIs can learn from their experiences, follow the recommendations made by the project teams, and replicate some of the steps they followed.

A toolkit will be produced in 2017-18 to detail the various steps of the e-textbook development and dissemination process (planning, production, business models, licensing, technology/software, distribution, and marketing) as well as the financial costs involved in producing e-texbooks, and mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of the e-textbooks and their uptake by students.

We will produce a series of blog posts on a number of key themes and invite each project to provide regular updates. In the meantime, you can also read the two articles published on Insights which give more detail on the processes involving the development of these e-textbooks (article 1) (article 2).