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Make items available for students

Ebooks and etextbooks: why it’s so tricky

Our aim is to make as much material available online as possible, so that as many students as possible have access to the learning materials they need.

However, publishers sell books to us (libraries) differently to how they sell them to you and your students.

We outline what the challenges are so that there is a shared understanding of why we can’t make every recommended title available. We also offer some suggestions about what you as lecturers and authors could do to help us to improve the situation.

A list of ebook issues

Here are the main obstacles we face when trying to make recommended books available online:

  • We have to buy ebooks that are licensed to universities. We can’t buy Kindle books.
  • Often ebooks aren’t available to us – some titles are only available to individuals as an ebook, and not for libraries to purchase. It’s been estimated that only around 10% of academic ebooks are available to universities (this 2018 study from SCONUL (PDF) gives a UK HE estimate)
  • When ebooks are available, they are often expensive. Providing access to an ebook for a single user can often cost ten times more than a printed copy. The “Campaign to investigate the academic ebook market” gathered evidence from hundreds of librarians in 2020/21 and provides these two typical examples:
    • a £33.49 Kindle book costs £650 for a 3-user license ebook for universities (ie an ebook that can only be used by up to three people at any one time)
    • a £51.99 print book costs £1,050 for a 3-user license ebook.
  • We can buy some books as ebooks, but their licences are often confusing for both staff and students, and frequently restrictive. Some purchase models we deal with include:
    • credit model ebooks
      we pay x hundred pounds to use an ebook, say, 400 times. When that’s used up, we have to pay again (often more) for more credits. Sometimes a “use” can be just five minutes browsing the text.
    • single-user licences
      like a print book but much more expensive, these can only be read by one person at a time, so we have to buy multiple copies
    • bundled ebooks
      sometimes ebooks are only sold as part of bigger packages. So if we want to give online access to one text, we must pay more and buy books we don’t want or need.
    • etextbooks
      sometimes books are only sold as part of etextbook models, licensing content for use by specific, very restricted cohorts on an annual basis. Quotes for these are usually hundreds, or sometimes thousands, times more than a print title, and this must be paid each year for new cohorts of students to gain access.
  • Publishers can, and do, independently stop selling ebook versions, or change the licence. For example, so that all their 3-user licences become 1-user licences, or to make us pay annually for an ebook already in our collection under a single-user licence.
  • Price rises are common, sudden and appear arbitrary. At least two well-known academic publishers raised the cost for a single-user ebook by 200% or more with no warning in 2021.
  • We can’t scan or digitise whole print books in our collection, as this is against copyright law. Our Online Course Readings service can only digitise one or two chapters of a book.

This list is adapted from materials from The Campaign to investigate the academic ebook market (under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence). This campaign was formed by a group of academic librarians, researchers and university lecturers when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Their aim is to try to get the government to investigate the practices of the academic ebook publishing industry and regulate the ebook market so that it becomes fair and sustainable.

What we do to increase access

We are working with a bigger number and range of suppliers to provide access to core texts. We have increased the capacity of our reading list team to speed up checking lists and placing orders.

We are also reviewing our management of ebook access. Many suppliers place limits on access so that when the ebook has been used a certain number of times, access to that book is removed. Where we can, we are automating payment for more licences, which means that access is continued even when limits are hit. Where we can’t arrange this, we are increasing our monitoring of “turnaways” at the busiest times of the year, so that we can manually increase licenses for access.

We are individually negotiating etextbook access for specific cohorts. This is an expensive option, in licence costs and in the time taken to agree access.

What you can do as an author

If you are writing a textbook, there are some questions that you can ask your publisher about their ebook policies. The ebooksSOS campaign has produced guidance on negotiating contracts with publishers (PDF) along with example clauses to request in your publishing contract.

Or you could consider an open access model. The White Rose University Press considers textbooks for publication, or the OA Books Toolkit can help you to find a publisher.

What you can do as a module leader or tutor

See Reading Lists and Recommended Texts for how you can help when you are creating your reading lists.