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How to shake up ebook publishing


Open access can remedy astronomical prices and restrictive licensing, say Lucy Barnes and Rachel Bickley

One of the many lessons of the pandemic has been that traditional academic ebook publishing is not fit for purpose. Astronomical prices, restrictive licences and a lack of institutional digital access to core texts have left massive gaps in university libraries’ online resources. The impact on students and lecturers has been severe. 

In response, academic librarians have launched a campaign for an investigation into the industry. Librarians have compiled examples of unaffordable and unavailable digital texts, highlighting how single-user ebooks often cost more than 10 times as much as print copies of the same works. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the UK’s professional body for library and information workers, has petitioned the Competition and Markets Authority in this area. 

The response from publishers has been dismissive. They argue that the costs of print and electronic material are not comparable and that prices are in line with the market. Universities minister Michelle Donelan has refused to intervene.

Complex system

The current system for distributing ebooks is costly and complex. Publishers are pushing models in which libraries pay for a one-year licence based on the number of students who might use a book. This ties libraries into recurring—and likely increasing—annual subscriptions. 

Some publishers want to distribute ebooks via subscription to platforms. This will cause problems similar to bundling in journal publishing—forcing libraries to buy titles they don’t want in order to get the ones they need—and could tie libraries to single platforms and publishers.

Accessibility is another problem. Ebooks often lack assistive technology, and publishers’ policies, particularly on digital rights management, make it difficult to share content as you can with a physical book. Pearson, for example, recently moved to further restrict permissions to print, copy and download its ebooks.

Unsustainable situation

Market forces cannot operate properly here. An alternative book might not exist, and if a text is high on reading lists or heavily used in research, it is difficult for a librarian to mandate a switch. 

Pressure can be brought to bear when authors are choosing a publisher and when lecturers are setting reading lists, but academics have little reason to consider book pricing and distribution, especially for library ebooks, where prices are often not publicly available. 

The situation is not sustainable. Publishers seem unwilling to engage in meaningful dialogue and university libraries cannot afford escalating prices for content they do not even own. Some lecturers are having to redesign reading lists around what is available and affordable, and in many cases libraries are unable to procure digital copies of core texts or books written by their institutions’ own academics. 

With many universities likely to retain elements of blended and remote learning even once face-to-face teaching resumes, the demand for ebooks will not disappear. So how can these problems be tackled?

Open access

One clear route forward is open access, where publishers make titles available as free ebooks, with no restrictive licensing or rights policies. Open-access books are far cheaper to distribute and there’s no need to pay expensive intermediaries to handle complex licensing agreements.

Progress is being made towards open access for academic books. Multimillion-pound projects such as Community-Led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs, and policy developments such as UK Research and Innovation’s review of open-access policy, are building support and pressure for this transition. More universities are founding open-access presses, and older presses are changing their funding models

As Paul Ayris, founder and chief executive of UCL Press, has argued, universities can take more control of publishing. However, funding open access is a complex and controversial topic—and an immediate, universal switch is not feasible.

Even so, closed-access presses can learn from open publishers and make their ebook production more effective and efficient. A good start would be to cut out unnecessary gimmicks such as digital post-it notes and to focus instead on producing a greater number of accessible ebooks, while reducing licensing and digital rights restrictions. 

Meanwhile, academics should be more aware of ebook pricing and accessibility when signing book contracts or choosing textbooks, and seriously consider open-access alternatives. They have the power to put pressure on publishers to create, license and price ebooks accessibly.

Lucy Barnes is an editor at Open Book Publishers and Rachel Bickley is senior academic liaison librarian at London Metropolitan University

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight