We’ve all been there. Deadline looming, haven’t done the reading, scrolling through the library catalogue in the hope of finding something in electronic format to avoid making the long trek to the library. Only the text isn’t available as an e-book. And another one tells you that there is somebody else accessing the resource. What’s the point in that? Aren’t e-books supposed to be more accessible?
The pandemic, of course, meant that e-book access became even more important, for now it wasn’t simply a case of being on the other side of campus with a deadline looming, but on the other side of the world. Publishers were generous at first, offering free access to lots of textbooks which had not been made easily available in electronic form before. However, this free access was withdrawn after the first lockdown, and since then, lack of access to e-books has become increasingly frustrating both for libraries and for students. So, you might wonder, why don’t we simply buy more e-books? Easy solution, right?
But wait…. it’s not that simple….
There could be any number of reasons why you’re getting blocked from accessing that core text, but these are some of the most common ones:
- It’s not available. Contrary to common assumption, publishers don’t actually make everything available as an e-book, particularly older titles which have often not been digitised. We can’t buy the kinds of e-books individuals can (like Kindle books) due to licencing restrictions, so even if it is available on Amazon, it doesn’t mean we can buy it for the library.
- It’s available, but not licensed for sale in the UK. This is very common.
- It’s too expensive. Often, e-books cost six or seven times as much as the print version of the book, for a copy that only one student at a time can access.
- The e-book is available, but only if you buy a whole bundle of titles which come with it, which we might not need. Imagine not being able to buy clothes individually, only as whole outfits.
- The e-book is available only as something called an e-textbook – a rental model which works out at the cost of buying each student on the course an extra-expensive textbook every year.
Hang on, you keep talking about ‘licences’ – what are they?
It may surprise you to learn that we don’t actually own e-books, we simply have a licence to use them. The publishers are the ones who make the ultimate decisions about how the books can be used, and they can raise prices or withdraw e-books from sale whenever they like.
In an ideal world, every licence would be unlimited use – this means that everyone can access the e-book at once, and as many times as they like. However, these are less common (and much more expensive) than single user or three-user licences, which only allow one (or three) people access to the book at any one time. Anyone else trying to read the book will get one of those annoying little messages telling you the user limit has been reached. Basically, these e-books are like very expensive physical books. When we can, we buy several licences, but the amount that we can feasibly obtain depends on cost.
Alternatively, some licences allow unlimited access at any one time, but once 200 (or 400, or 300 or whatever number the publisher has set) people have used it, it expires. (One ‘access’ is counted as one user reading the book any number of times in a 24-hour period, so don’t worry if you need to open the book a few times to get that essay done.)
You keep talking about cost? How expensive are we talking?
In a crowdsourced list of comparisons of e-book and print book prices, the average print book price was £57.29, while the average e-book licence price was £602.10 for a one-user licence. This is only an average, however – one title which costs around £50 in print was nearly £3000 in electronic form, while another title available for £40 in print is only available online as a £10,000 e-book.
In addition, many publishers have increased their prices dramatically over the last couple of years – an e-book that cost £20 in 2020 is now nearly £1100, and back in November, one of our main publishers suddenly told us with a week’s notice that they were going to raise their e-book prices by 500%. This caused chaos as libraries had already organised their budgets based on the old prices.
Pricing also generally tends to be higher for core textbooks in the sciences, for these courses rely more heavily on a few key textbooks which are marketed as ‘premium’ by publishers. However, the problem exists across all subject areas.
So, what’s being done about this?
A campaign called #ebookSOS has been launched to call for an investigation into the academic e-book market. Researchers, librarians and lecturers have signed an open letter to bring this matter to the government’s attention.
For more information on this, see this one minute video from e-book SOS, complete with cute animated blob to explain it to you.
What can I do to help?
If you would like to, you can sign the open letter calling for an investigation into unfair e-book practices. Otherwise, unless you are publishing your own research, the best thing you can do is to be understanding if the resources you want are not always available in the ideal format, and know that all of us in the library are trying our best to get them to you. Remember that if you just need a chapter from a book, you can use our Bath Copies service to request it, and if you need accessible copies of any texts, the library can provide you with those as well.
Finally, if you are a researcher reading this, consider checking what the terms of your agreement with publishers are, and whether the e-book model they plan on using is library-friendly…e.g., unlimited access, allows libraries to buy the book rather than rent it, and doesn’t charge ridiculous prices.