30 June 2010

The Ebook Revolution in the Academy

I just attended the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) conference in Salt Lake City. I've seen the future. Print is declining and, at least in academic publishing, is about to fall off a cliff. University libraries are moving to e-books as quickly as possible, for two main reasons:

1. Ebooks never go out of print, so there is no reason to buy them purely against future need, as has been the case with print titles. Since about half of all library books are never used (really, zero usages, ever), that represents enormous cost savings. For the University of Arizona, for example, buying only titles that researchers actually used would mean saving about $20 million over ten years.

So U of A and most other schools are revamping their acquisitions to be patron driven. For example, in one system, if a library patron wants to use an ebook, they click on a link and it is rented to the library by a vendor. After three or four usages (rentals), the ebook is automatically purchased. Libraries are willing to pay higher than print cost for ebooks if they are actually used, and with the upside that they quit purchasing books that are unused.

But in fact, ebooks are generally much cheaper than print titles, since they are often purchased in large bundles for just 25 or even 10 cents on the dollar of print cost (and needing a fraction of the conservation and storage costs). And with library budgets being slashed, print books are seen increasingly as a nostalgic luxury.

2. Users now expect instant (= digital) access to information. The current generation of students, so-called “digital natives,” have ceased to regard libraries as repositories of information, and are as comfortable reading books digitally as in print. And since digital is more convenient, use of print materials is dropping. Print is therefore both more costly and less used.

Protests that paper books are preferable to ebooks are not borne out by usage rates. At Univ. of Chicago, they have tracked usage rates for titles held in the collection in both paper and digital formats. The print titles average .43 circulations per year, and 3.81 circulations over their lifetime in the collection. The very same titles in electronic format averaged 17 uses per title per year. That’s 34 times the usage rate for digital items over their identical paper counterparts.

Even when digital collections are purchased as large packages, usage of the entire package per year is consistently over 80% (i.e., only 20% of titles are not used at all per year). However, usage of print materials in collections is a fraction of that and falling. Circulation rates of printed books per student have fallen by half in the last 15 years, and are accelerating. Presently, 75% of all library print materials are used just 0-1 times per decade; 47% are never used at all. And again, these printed book usage rates are falling at an accelerating rate.

What many of us who are older utterly fail to appreciate is that the rising generation has no preference at all for print over electronic reading. In fact, just the opposite. We duffers who extol the tangible aesthetics of print over cold and soulless digital are like the ancient scribes who carped that scrolls were far preferable to those newfangled codices (i.e., books). Parchment better than paper. Elegant scribal handwriting over ugly movable type. Really.

As a press director from MIT said, “What is amazing is the generation gap between people who are 30 and people who are 23.” This is why print is dying; younger readers do not like it. The overwhelming and rising demand from students and scholars generally is for e-pubs that are supported on multiple platforms, DRM-free, and available off-line. Think iPads, iPhones and Kindles. If you snooze on this, you lose basically everyone under 30 as your readers. Again, academic ebook sales are growing 300% a year and rising, while print book sales are stagnant or falling.

This is not just terrible news for print book lovers, but much more so for publishers. They were stumbling out of conference sessions to the nearest bars. They, too, have seen the future.


Mister Fweem said...

What I find fascinating and troubling about e-books, however, is that the digital natives believe these books should cost them pennies on the dollar because, as I've heard time and again, "they don't have to pay to print them and ship them." Too many digital natives, i fear, are forgetting that printing and shipping are only part of books' cost -- there is also remuneration to authors, editors, publishers and others to consider. There are too many who accuse Amazon.com, for instance, of price fixing digital books at $9.99 as too expensive, while publishers are clamoring that the price is far too cheap. Throw into that mix the anti-copyright zealots and we're seeing lines drawn for the battle all over the place.

Conversely, in no other age has publishing been so open to everyone. Over the past six months I've literally published, in installments, my first novel on my blog. I haven't received a dime for it, but by golly it's out there for the public to read. Fascinating future we're heading into.

carl g said...

It's of course true that, in the cost of publishing a book using traditional models, the cost of printing is not great. Typically about $4 for a hardback, for all physical costs, for a major release. The rest goes into overhead or back to the authors.

But today, when most information is free to both publish and read, it takes some real added value to justify either that overhead or even payment to authors. The internet reduces the need for publishers to almost zero, and the biggest enemy to authors is hyperabundance (another big theme at my conference). With so much more being published in every conceivable format, every unit is of course worth less. We are facing much less a format problem than the basic economic problem of a flooded market for the written word.

Anyway, at my conference it was not students demanding lower ebook prices, but librarians. A director from the library consortium for the Big Ten Midwest schools told the publishers simply: "If you want to sell us your books, make them ebooks, bundle them and discount them." And library purchasers can make those demands. Publication is still growing and library budgets are shrinking (and most students do most of their research on the internet anyway). It's a buyers market.