Date Category
31st January 2022 Blog

The academic e-book market was complex and thorny long before COVID-19, but the severe disruption to education around the world has exacerbated issues around pricing and, access to teaching and learning resources. Here, SUPC Category Manager for Academic Services, Gavin Phillips, explores the positives, negatives and opportunities within the e-book market and offers some suggestions for universities looking to deliver value to students.

The last two years of remote learning have placed considerable pressure on university libraries to deliver online resources.  At the same time, the academic e-book market has been an inhospitable environment for universities aiming to deliver a cost-effective and high-quality service to students, to the point where high levels of friction between universities and publishers are apparent. HE sector groups are taking collaborative approaches, issuing a joint statement and most recently with a joint approach to Pearson Education following a 500% price rise.

We have also seen the collective outrage and frustration of librarians (and others) focused around the #ebooksos campaign, raising awareness of unsustainable price increases among academics and students, as well as providing or inspiring practical actions that libraries can take. The campaign has also highlighted the issue to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), who are currently considering action. Most recently the University and College Union (UCU) demanded a review of the e-book industry.

One can quite reasonably ask ‘what the heck is going on?’ and the answer is probably a resounding ‘it’s complicated’. Some issues are just complex while others are shrouded in a lack of transparency. What we can do is to take a look at the good, the bad, and the confusing of the situation and explore some options to help universities secure sustainable pricing to support student and staff needs.

The Good

Digital resources will probably never suit every learning requirement or preference but often this is because an e-book is little more than a plain representation of a print book. Traditionally, they have added little in the way of functionality, interaction, or the other potential benefits of going digital. The transition towards realising the potential of e-books has been long and slow because publishers weren’t offering institutions enough reason to adopt them, hampering their own development. An increase in adoption should see development speed up and, in the short term, we have seen this increase in the usage of our Books, e-books, e-textbooks, and associated services Framework Agreement. The number of members using the e-textbook lots of this framework more than doubled for the academic year 2020-21 (from 46 to 98 members) and spend nearly tripled (rising from £8.9 million to £25.1 million). It is likely that spend will fall as institutions find equilibrium around the titles that offer them the best value, but early indications suggest that the new adopters will remain.

We are also seeing a library sector that is bolder than before when it comes to negotiating – and this is based on a stronger position. This is partly because something absolutely has to change, but it is also illustrative of the confidence drawn from experience in the journals market. The University of California proved that they could walk away from a giant such as Elsevier and survive, ultimately achieving an acceptable deal with Elsevier. As the UK HE sector nears a similar deal with Elsevier, it is not a huge leap to imagine how the experience might be applied to the textbook market and the academic e-book market overall.

The Bad

The single largest negative is price, with numerous institutions priced out of the market completely and many others, often wealthy institutions, increasingly unwilling to spend on titles that provided poor value for money even during lockdown conditions. After 2020-21 when many libraries spent considerable sums to support students, we are, anecdotally, seeing a much more cautious 2021-22 influenced by low usage statistics.

To this, we can add a disconnection of most academic publishers from the institutions they claim to serve or ‘partner with’. Much effort goes into convincing academics to adopt textbooks for reading lists, but there appears to be little understanding of the way university finances work. I have certainly dealt with publisher reps who seemed surprised that they couldn’t just name their price once they had an academic on board – but the lack of understanding goes deeper. Publishers seem to completely miss that university budgets are planned far in advance, even at the most flush institutions. The result is price rises of several hundred per cent with little or no notice, leaving institutions in a place where they have little choice but to leave students without adequate resources. In some cases, institutions need to write off content they have already licenced because they need to increase access and can no longer afford or justify the cost. There seems to be no real partnership here at all.

Though we attach much of the current friction to the pandemic, it is worth noting that the issues are not at all new, they have just been exacerbated in the last two years. One particular issue is a lack of transparency overpricing. In place of facts, we are given vague explanations about the cost of developing resources and the changing nature of the way these resources are consumed. The phrase ‘industry-standard pricing’ often accompanies these unevidenced claims, which have bred distrust over a sustained period. We don’t know if the CMA will choose to act but it feels natural that they are interested.

The Confusing

It is easy to find reasons to complain about publishers here, but we also need to accept that they are commercial entities with profit and growth targets. We may well be able to navigate through the fog surrounding pricing and we may even be able to reduce prices. However, there remains a possibility that what is genuinely sustainable for publishers and what is sustainable for universities may not be a good fit. Alongside applying pressure on pricing, it is essential that universities consider how they are funding textbook provision. What we are currently considering is, in most cases, what sits within the library budget, but an institution view is needed.

This raises another question, which is why do institutions use teaching and learning resources that are financially unsustainable to begin with? There will be a number of reasons for this, including the fact that these resources weren’t always unsustainable and that large publishers invest a lot of resources intp persuading academics to adopt their titles. Another factor, though, is that awareness around affordability has been relatively low outside of libraries. Given the busy nature of academic and student lives, it is understandable that libraries have chosen to focus on the services they provide rather than lobbying internal stakeholders about textbook pricing but that has started to change. Academics and students are increasingly aware of the issues, driven in the main by the #ebooksos campaign. More questions are now being asked when academics decide which titles to teach with and which publishers to work with as authors.

The Future of the academic e-book market?

So, what are the alternatives? Well, it’s unclear what the overall mix will look like but interest in no-cost Open Educational Resources (OER) is high and developing these may represent a more palatable investment for institutions. Adoption has been slow in the UK, but inspiration might be taken from the USA. Encouragement for the UK can be taken from Open Access institutional presses such as UCL Press and activity such as the Jisc-led Institution as e-textbook publisher project.

  • There is an opportunity for the large textbook publishers to work with the sector towards more financially sustainable licence models, though whether a suitable middle ground can be found is uncertain.
  • There is an opportunity for institutions to review the way that textbooks are resourced, looking beyond the library budget. Although students are increasingly treated as customers the finances supporting textbook provision have often not been developed to match expectations.
  • We may see smaller or more specialist publishers move into the textbook market. They seem more willing to work with the sector and may form part of the solution.
  • We may see regulation of the e-book market, though even this does not guarantee pricing that university budgets can accommodate. Might it also see some publishers choose not to licence certain titles at all in the UK, rather than set a precedent?
  • We may see greater investment in the development of OERs and more successful adoption of them by teaching academics
  • We may see the adoption of Controlled Digital Lending, allowing libraries to take a print copy out of circulation and lend a digitised version in place of it. This would certainly be another string to the library bow but is likely to need a clarification of copyright law, development of systems to manage the authentication, and still relies on the library having print copies available. As e-books develop into less structured learning objects we may find that printed versions become impractical.

So, what will lie ahead is difficult to predict but there seem to be a number of possible options and we may see a combination of several of the above and perhaps other things besides.

SUPC supports a membership of over 140 universities and further education colleges to deliver effective value-for-money procurement. For support with e-textbook, other e-resource procurement or any of your procurement needs, please contact us at