Why publish e-textbooks?
This section of the toolkit explores why an institution might want to consider establishing an e-textbook publishing venture.
About this guide
This section considers the stakeholders that might need to be involved, the wider landscape of institutional textbook provision, including examples from the USA, the costs and resources required, and the strategic questions an institution would need to consider before embarking. Of course, there are also many potential benefits, and this section considers those too.
It is aimed at institutions considering embarking on an e-textbook publishing venture who either have little or no general publishing experience. It aims to give libraries or education departments an overview of what is involved, in order to help them assess whether or not such a venture is feasible at their institution and how to build a case at their institution to invest in it and support its development.
When considering the high costs of buying textbooks for both students and libraries, it can be tempting to think that institutional publishing, particularly of open access textbooks, could solve many of the issues. While this is true up to a point, and there are undoubtedly benefits. It would also be unrealistic to think that the institution could easily replace all required textbooks with editions it has produced itself.
So when undertaking the research into such a venture, and considering the costs, scale and resource needed, the institution will need to consider carefully what it hopes to achieve in order to establish its overall strategic objectives which will inform carefully researched costs, plans and workflows. The toolkit sets the scene for this critical stage of research and planning, and explores the potential benefits and the challenges of embarking on textbook publishing, while also providing some practical guidance on different ways this can be achieved, either by individual institutions or collaboratively.
How to kick start institutional publishing
It is widely acknowledged that the current textbooks publishing model is unsustainable for a number of reasons. The high price of textbooks is problematic for both students and libraries, especially in an age of rising tuition fees.
It is not unreasonable for a student paying over £9,000 per year in tuition fees that they would have an expectation for the provision of course materials as part of their fee and increasingly universities are providing this via OERs and Moodle where possible.
Many new developments are emerging to address these problems. In the USA, a plethora of initiatives for institutional publishing of open access textbooks has emerged (Open Textbooks Network, Open SUNY Textbooks, OpenStax from Rice University) and in the UK, new subscription models for textbooks are emerging such as Perlego, a model in which students pay a low monthly fee (around £12) for access to thousands of e-textbooks.
Why start an e-textbook publishing programme – benefits
Given the above, it seems like a logical step to consider publishing e-textbooks at one’s own institution.
The benefits for students are clear. If high-quality e-textbooks tailored for the courses were made freely available by the institution, it would help students save considerable sums. It would also directly benefit the students with print disability in the institution, for whom accessible digital texts are much easier to read and process.
For the institution it would offer ease of access to course materials, which are otherwise subject to time-consuming and expensive copyright clearance, it would save academics time sourcing course materials, it would save library budgets and it would give institutions a leading edge in delivering an excellent student experience. Organisations creating their own digital textbooks can also ensure they meet high standards of accessibility, enabling disabled students to be more independent. This can directly reduce support costs.
Collaborative ventures such as the Open Textbooks Network (OTN) in the USA, bring together a number of institutions who share resources and a platform in order to achieve a critical mass of freely available textbooks. Such an approach can potentially deliver cost savings to a wide range of institutions and their students by providing economies of scale and a central discovery base. It thus allows new entrants an easier route to publishing open access e-textbooks than starting from scratch on their own.
How to start an e-textbook publishing programme
The impetus to start a textbook publishing programme can come from a number of different areas within the institution, but frequently the initiative is driven by the university library or the educational resources team. In order to identify how to drive such an initiative forward, wider discussions with all stakeholders at the institution will be needed, since publishing requires input and funding from a number of different areas that need to work collaboratively. As well as the library and the educational resources teams, key stakeholders could include staff and senior management from departments such as education and student affairs, teaching and learning, as well as research departments, since academic authors will play a crucial role in e-textbook development.
Institutions vary in the provision they already have in place to develop e-textbook publishing. Some universities have a university press (see a university presses special issue of Learned Publishing) and some have very well developed open educational resources (OERs). Both of these provide an excellent starting point for developing e-textbook publishing since they have established some of the processes needed, and the staff will have a number of the skills and connections required, to get started.
If your institution has neither of these, there will need to be a concerted drive to bring together the various stakeholders to identify the costs (see costs section below), resources and skills needed to establish such a venture, and to apply these requirements to questions of scale and strategy.
If an agreement has already been reached, and plans and costs have been approved, more details of the acquisitions process, editorial and production workflows, and marketing and dissemination, are provided in other sections of this toolkit. If institutions consider acquiring, distributing and using academic content such as e-textbooks, a research tool was developed to promote discussion on the suitability, readiness and opportunities to procure academic content, self-create and/or self-curate academic content, and explore the creation and/or acquisition of open-licensed academic content.
Summaries of the business models behind the publications in the Jisc institution as e-textbook publisher project can be found in the business models document.
Scale and strategy
If one takes the key strategic objectives to be:
- The provision of free e-textbooks to students in order to save them money
- To improve the student experience for all – and particularly disabled students
- Saving the library money and disability support services money
Then the institution will need to give some consideration to the type of books to publish, how many, and the intended market, in addition to the cost, resource and skills needed. The following questions provide some guidance as to the kinds of questions an institution will need to consider before deciding on a strategy:
- Which courses will most benefit from free digital e-textbook provision? For example, which courses have the most students and therefore the greatest demand for textbooks in the library?
- Or, are there courses where there is currently no e-textbook provision that you could seek to provide?
- What are the competing e-textbooks and how will you improve on them, or replace them for free with something of equivalent quality and content?
- How many e-textbooks would you need to publish to really make a difference to your students and your institution?
- Over what period do you plan to develop this venture and what is the long-term commitment of the institution to funding, resourcing and promoting this activity?
Part of your strategic planning should involve researching the market carefully to assess other e-textbook products – both the e-textbooks themselves and newer subscription platforms (‘Spotify for textbooks’ model), their pricing strategies, and their dissemination strategies. This will help to inform your activities, to ensure you are competitive, and to analyze how you can make your e-textbooks widely available. See the paper by Steve Stapleton at the University of Nottingham on the work they carried out on their two e-textbooks in order to benchmark against other publications.
The reputational benefits to the institution can also be significant. If a department’s course materials are made openly available, they can then be accessed around the world and can come to offer additional means for potential students and others to see the key content of the course. Providing such free coursebooks is still very rare in the UK, so to do so demonstrates that a university is forward-thinking and is concerned to provide the best possible student experience. This can also help the institution’s TEF rating.
In time, and if properly resourced with financial investment and staff, an e-textbook publishing operation has the potential to grow into a significant and reputable concern that benefits the institution and its students. Models to aspire to include those such as Open SUNY (State University New York) Textbooks, whose textbook publishing programme now includes over 20 titles, and the Open Textbooks Network, a collective platform for hosting open access e-textbooks produced by a number of institutions.
As well as providing educational resources to the institution’s own students, if the e-textbooks are published in an open access model they have the potential to reach well beyond the institution itself and to make the course materials of the institution and its brand available to a much wider audience, thus benefiting the institution’s reputation. Open access resources need no Technical Protection Measures on the files, making them much more compatible with assistive technologies.
Costs and business models
Institutions should enter into such a venture with eyes wide open to the need for investment, resource and skills in order to deliver a venture of this type at any reasonable scale. Of course, such investment is provided on the basis of the returns it will deliver – to the student and the library in terms of cost savings, and to the institution as a whole in extending its global brand awareness and its reputation as an institution committed to the improvement of the student experience.
The key costs involved in running a publishing operation can include:
- Staff – some staff with publishing skills, some staff as a percentage of existing roles (digital education, teaching, marketing and communications, academic liaison)
- Editorial and production costs (see the publishing process section)
- Digital development
- Infrastructure, eg digital publishing platform (your own or a third party’s)
- Printing (if selling print copies as well as digital)
- Marketing and sales/dissemination – direct costs and staff costs
- Overheads, eg computer equipment, rental (some institutions may provide these as a departmental cost)
- Author royalties or fees
This list is not exhaustive, and whether or not all these activities need to be undertaken, and whether or not all these activities will have to be paid for directly, will vary from institution to institution depending on their individual circumstances. When the average cost per book is calculated, and the number of staff needed to handle particular numbers of books is understood, then it is relatively easy to go on to calculate approximate total costs depending on the number of books that is being aimed for over a certain number of years.
Summaries of the business models behind the publications in the Jisc institution as e-textbook publisher project can be found in the business models document. In brief, we have provided a number of suggestions below:
Institutional funding for a new open access university press
Partnering with existing university press
As extension of the activities of an existing OER department
A publishing service provider that offers a full range of services including hosting platform and publishing services
Use open source platforms
While commercial models achieve sustainability by paying for their production and dissemination costs through sales, open access and institutionally funded models would struggle to achieve the kind of revenue needed to cover all their costs, and might not be producing any commercial output at all. Therefore, sustainability in this context refers to an institution’s belief in the value of the project and its willingness to fund it.
This is why it is so important to work with the key strategic areas of the institution and to secure their ‘buy-in’. There has to be demonstrable evidence that the service you are providing is valuable to the institution. Further thoughts on different aspects of sustainability can be found in the sustainability document.
Many of the strategic, funding and resource considerations have already been covered above. One further key challenge is the author incentive to write textbooks. Where monographs count towards career and REF evaluation, textbooks do not. Some authors who write textbooks are paid a royalty by commercial publishers and sales can be significant, whereas royalties are not paid on open access titles. For academics, finding the time to write textbooks in an already busy working environment can be particularly challenging.
Within an individual institution, incentives could include time off teaching duties in order to write a textbook, contribution of textbooks writing to career evaluation processes at the institution, teaching excellence awards or grants. However, if the sector as a whole is committed to changing the textbook provision landscape then more coordinated national effort would need to be undertaken to identify ways of rewarding academics and providing time for them for this activity, which ultimately benefits the entire HE teaching community.
During 2018, Jisc ran a research project to understand why authors choose to publish e-textbooks and other learning resources. UK academics were invited to share their views and experiences via an online survey and a series of focus groups. This will help us understand how to support academics who want to share resources in order to provide the best possible learning experiences for their students.
This section of the toolkit has provided an outline of the benefits and challenges of setting up an institution e-textbook programme, in addition to providing a wider picture by illustrating other projects and initiatives. It is hoped that the information provided will help colleagues put together a case for an institutional initiative regardless of the size of the university or publishing ambition.
The four projects in the institution as e-textbook publisher project have shown that this can be done within an existing university or library press at a larger scale (Liverpool and UCL) or at a smaller scale within the learning technologies or educational development department (Nottingham and UHI/Napier). The fact that all four projects have committed to taking their programmes forward indicates that this can be sustainable. However, before making a case, it is important to understand the entire process and what is likely to be involved. This will be discussed in the following sections of the toolkit.