November 19, 2017

Academic Ebook Sales Flat, Preference for E-Reference Up

Academic EbooksAcademic libraries continue to add to their ebook collections, but while ebooks are becoming the preferred format for reference materials, many students still prefer to read and study monographs and textbooks in print, according to “Ebook Usage in U.S. Academic Libraries 2016,” a survey conducted by Library Journal and sponsored by Gale Cengage Learning. Forty-seven percent of respondents said that students at their college or university preferred print when reading scholarly monographs, compared with 19 percent who preferred ebooks. And 42 percent said students prefer print textbooks, compared with 31 percent who said students would opt for an e-textbook. By contrast, 56 percent of respondents said students prefer digital reference materials, compared with 16 percent who prefer print reference.

Despite the common assumption that as familiarity with and availability of ebooks increases, the preference for print will decrease, the preference for print appears to be getting stronger over time. When asked “what hinders students/faculty from using your library’s ebooks?” 60 percent of respondents selected “users prefer print,” up from 50 percent of respondents who said this in 2012—when LJ last conducted this survey—and up from 40 percent in 2010. Other barriers listed included: unaware of ebook availability (56%), difficult to read onscreen/online (41%), printing limitations (40%), platform not user friendly (36%), can’t read offline or download (33%), digital rights management issues, (31%), and more.

“The main complaint that I, as a LRC [learning resource center] librarian receive, is that between submitting their homework online and/or working with computers all day, the students feel that their eyes are very strained at the end of day and that makes it difficult to read the text onscreen,” one respondent wrote.

Another respondent wrote that students have expressed frustration with the printing restrictions or Digital Rights Management (DRM) software on some platforms, and “if students have a difficult time using ebooks on one platform, they are less likely to continue using them or try ebooks on another, easier-to-use platform.”

The popularity of reference ebooks, compared with the relative unpopularity of e-textbooks and scholarly monographs, may be partly due to the way in which students are accessing and using these resources. Almost 60 percent said that desktop and laptop computers were the most common devices used to access their library’s ebooks. Only 4 percent said that tablets—including iOS and Android devices—were the most common. This could indicate use of ebook content while actively working on research or papers, rather than studying or long-form reading. (32 percent of respondents said they did not know what types of devices were being used to access their library’s ebooks.)

Research conducted in fall 2015 by James Madison University psychology professors David Daniel and Krisztina Jakobsen also found that students report higher rates of multi-tasking (such as using Facebook, email, and electronic chat) when using e-textbooks, leading to distraction. Daniel has argued that researchers and publishers should study ways to format e-textbooks to enhance their effectiveness.

Acquisition models

This year’s survey also indicated shifts in ebook purchasing trends at academic libraries. Seventy-nine percent of respondents reported that collection subscriptions were their library’s top acquisition model, up from 71 percent in 2012. By comparison, 75 percent of respondents said that their library used “perpetual access,” or title-by-title licensing, down from 83 percent in 2012. Demand-driven acquisition is also on the rise. In 2012, 31 percent of respondents said that their library was using some form of “user-driven acquisition.” This year, the category was split; 49 percent of respondents said that their library used a form of demand driven acquisition resulting in ebook purchases, while 18 percent said their library uses a demand-driven short term loan model. (Responses to this question were “check all that apply,” so many respondents may employ both models).

Almost 40 percent of respondents said that title-by-title acquisitions—in which the transaction is controlled by library staff, and the library can then offer perpetual access to those titles—is their preferred ebook acquisition model. Commenters noted that this model “aligns with the traditional ‘collection building’ and library ownership model,” or that perpetual licenses were “easier to track and manage” and librarians “dislike having to remove items out of the catalog every month.”

Subscription collections and demand-driven acquisition-purchase tied for second as preferred models, with 24 percent of respondents selecting each. Proponents of subscription collections frequently cited affordability and variety, and one commenter noted that titles acquired via perpetual access can become out of date, whereas content is generally updated in subscription collections. With demand-driven acquisition-purchase, commenters focused on variety and relevance, with one respondent contending that the “best use of money is to buy something that someone wants to use.”

Regardless of preferences, a wide range of responses to questions that asked librarians to list all forms of ebook buying that they were currently working with indicate that most respondents are using a variety of acquisition methods to obtain content.

Smaller libraries buying less

Spending on academic ebooks has fallen slightly since 2012, with average spending among all respondents at $62,904 for the 2015–16 academic year, compared with $67,400 for 2011–12. This decline was driven, in part, by notable drops in ebook purchases by libraries at public universities, where average ebook spending fell from $77,366 in 2012 to $64,991 in the current survey. At libraries with acquisitions budgets of less than $100,000, average spending on ebooks declined from $18,929 in the 2012 survey to $11,126 in the current survey. These declines were offset by significant growth in average spending by graduate programs (from $99,943 to $119,905), community colleges (from $15,556 to $20,892), and libraries with acquisition budgets larger than $1 million (from $122,179 to $166,860).

While 54 percent of respondents said that ebook purchases do not detract from budgets for other content, 46 percent said ebook purchases did affect other budgets. Of those 46 percent of respondents who said they used money from other budgets to purchase ebooks, 52 percent said the money came from print book budgets, 13 percent said monograph budgets, 12 percent said money from databases or other e-resources, 11 percent said general acquisitions budgets, and 10 percent said money from journals or serials budgets.

As noted above, graduate programs showed a significant increase in average ebook spending. Libraries serving these programs and institutions were also most likely to report that money had been reallocated from other budgets (52%, with 61% of these respondents saying that ebook purchases were drawn partly from print budgets, and 39% total saying that budgets for monographs, databases, and journals/serials were affected).

“Overall spending on ebooks has been generally flat for the past four years, even if ebooks have accounted for a slightly greater percentage of the overall acquisition budget,” the report notes. “In five years (2021), academic librarians expect ebook spending to grow from 12 percent of the budget to 17 percent. Five years ago (2011), they had expected that ebooks would account for 19 percent of the budget in 2016. So their expectations have been tempered over the past five years as they have seen demand increase but not increase as much as was anticipated earlier this decade.”

The report goes on to note that due to the ongoing strong demand for print content, academic libraries have been careful about “raiding the print budget to pay for ebooks” and that only one quarter of respondents reported that their libraries were currently using money allocated for print to buy ebooks. Respondents also indicated that their libraries were disinclined to buy duplicate copies of print and ebooks simultaneously, and were attempting to base purchasing decisions on how students preferred to access content.

The full 96-page report, courtesy of Gale, is available for free at lj.libraryjournal.com/downloads/2016academicebooksurvey

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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