The Future of the Book in the Digital Age

Cleveland Park Library

The Future of the Book in the Digital Age

Guest Author: Ioan Suciu, Georgetown University Press

Man Reading eBookThe future of the university library is up in the air, literally in the cloud. At a time when cloud computing and digital distributions are on the rise, academic publishers and some of the nation’s biggest booksellers have been slow to adapt.

Last month’s bankruptcy filing by Borders is the latest example. Booksellers and lenders risk sliding into obscurity as digital editions become ubiquitous.

University libraries, with their vast collections and back catalogs, are a critical link in the academic publishing cycle and the distribution of scholarly writing. Without them, the integrity and availability of textbooks, research articles, reference texts and other scholarly texts may be threatened.

The very shape and nature of textbooks is transforming. “The trend away from reading long-form works will continue,” explained Alan Harvey, editor-in-chief of Stanford University Press. “The challenge for scholarly publishers is going to be to find a way to repackage their content in different, more appealing forms.”

Transition from Print to Digital Textbooks

Something unexpected happened at the Cleveland Park branch of the District of Columbia Public Library last year: they ran short of e-books for a growing segment of their customers. In the days following what some called the “iPad Christmas,” hundreds of new iPad owners turned to the library for content to view on their new devices. Despite more than 12,000 e-book titles in its collection, “the system does not currently have the funding to fully meet this demand,” explained Debra Shumate, branch manager of the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library.

This is bad news for university libraries.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, tablet and e-reader use doubled among 18- to 29-year-olds last year in a trend that is predicted to accelerate. “In my opinion, demand for popular materials will push electronic books forward, enhancing the adoption of academic materials in this format,” said Shumate.

This illustrates a paradox in digital publishing. While it takes investment to transition to a fully digital collection, waiting for the demand curve may lead to failure for academic publishers, especially when the popularity of new devices creates new niche markets overnight and allows outside organizations to fill this need.

Digital books are not a new innovation, with some placing the genesis 40 years ago with Michael S. Hart’s Project Gutenberg, which created the first “e-book” in the world: “The United States Declaration of Independence.”

In today’s society, not just teachers and students are leading the change to digital textbooks; politicians are pushing the boundaries as well. In California, former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced an initiative in the summer of 2009 that would replace some textbooks with free, “open source” digital versions. President Obama has proposed investing in the digital age and creating free online courses—pledging to “bring high-speed wireless Internet to 98 percent of Americans within the next five years,” and enabling students to “take classes with the digital textbook.” 

While it is highly unlikely that printed books will completely disappear anytime in the near future, their role in higher education could diminish much more quickly than expected.

As a group, library professionals may not recognize the true magnitude of the challenges posed by digital content. According to a Library Research Service (LRS) study, 86 percent of those surveyed believed that paper books and digital books would coexist in their collections, and 75 percent believed that print editions would always continue to exist. At the same time, The Association of American Publishers recently reported that e-book sales for the first half of the year were up more than 200 percent.

Digital publishing expert Rob Reynolds projects that by 2014 digital textbook sales in the United States will represent 18 percent of all new textbook sales. This increase will boost revenues for e-textbooks to more than $1 billion and will have a significant effect on traditional textbook publishing. The 2010 Horizon Report, which “identifies and describes emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning or creative inquiry on college and university campuses within the next five years,” places this figure slightly higher, predicting that at least 25 percent of higher education textbooks will be digital within the next two to three years. 

While digital books are becoming unavoidable for publishers and readers, libraries face significant obstacles in providing these resources to users. At Georgetown University Library, for example, “pricing, standardization and licensing, are the most important issues to e-textbook acquisitions,” said John Bushman, associate university librarian for scholarly resources and services.

The biggest current issue is that there is a lack of publishing infrastructure to take an e-textbook and deliver it across all available platforms and operating systems. Therefore, the question about switching from print to digital in the classroom is: Could providing access to e-textbooks be enhanced by libraries facilitating use of iPads, smartphones and e-book readers via standardized platforms?

Some U.S.-based institutions have started handing out tablets to students pre-loaded with content; others have started renting out e-readers. Sem Sutter, the head of collection development at Georgetown University, said the university’s library offers Amazon e-book readers for check-out to students, faculty and staff. “Reservations are facilitated on a first-come, first-served basis,” Sutter said. John Buschman, the associate university librarian, mentioned that the library will still develop its print collection in addition to purchasing high demand titles for the Kindle collection and acquiring other kinds of e-readers in the future. “Most students still prefer print books to e-reader titles,” Buschman said. But, Emily Severy, a Georgetown graduate student said: “I definitely think that the use of e-textbooks would be enhanced if the library facilitated the use of tablet-PCs.”

Teaching and Learning "Leading the Transition"

In 2009 Blockbuster had more than 60,000 employees. A year later, it filed for bankruptcy. As with iTunes, Netflix and news aggregators, new technology creates the opportunity to fundamentally change the way people interact with content, but it is the user who leads the transition.

The Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) of Georgetown University is a perfect example of how this cycle may play out in a higher education setting. The CNDLS works with faculty on developing particular units or assignments that utilize mobile technologies. As these projects become more successful, they are increasingly accepted by students and faculty. 

“This suggests that teaching and learning are leading the transition to digital textbooks. We’re developing curriculum that plays to the strengths of digital texts and interactions rather than providing students with mobile devices and e-content and then seeing what teaching and learning opportunities we can make happen,” said Janet Russell, professor and associate director for CNDLS. Shuang Nie, a graduate student in the Communications, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University, agrees. “This makes learning very effective and money saving; teachers can also benefit from this because mobile technology can give them more flexibility in teaching. They can adjust learning materials according to their students’ reflections,” Nie said.

People stopped going into Blockbuster video stores when it became more convenient and enjoyable to search for movies online. When students are able to access the textbooks and other course materials whenever and wherever they are, scholarly publishers will be forced to adopt new business models.

E-textbook technology can help encourage better teaching practices and greater experimentation with core content, as well as the ability to add assessment tools that provide educators with information about their students’ needs and learning habits. As we move toward increasingly available and accessible digital materials, the primary purpose of university libraries and academic publishers will be to provide students with core content that enhances and expands the future of higher education. Yet, the transition has been slow due to a preference for print.

“I have never used an e-textbook and have not been in classes with professors who have assigned them,” said Alli Hoff, a student at George Washington University. Despite what seem to be favorable conditions for the rise of the e-textbook, the adoption rate of printed textbooks is still higher than the adoption rate of digital textbooks. Based on the “Outsell Market Report, May 2010,” sales of digital textbooks are expected to rise to $8.3 billion by 2020 while traditional text books sales will rise to $9.7 billion.

“The problem is that e-textbooks have very little traction here at Georgetown University, so far. Certainly, there are some professors who are using them—e.g. I include an e-version for student purchase of the biochemistry book I use in my class. I have had only one student that I am aware of using this option,” noted via e-mail Professor Janet Russell, the associate director of CNDLS.

The lack of available core reading list titles in digital format, the slow pace at which academic publishers adapt to change, as well as a potential lack of awareness of available e-textbooks may contribute to this low adoption rate. “You would have to make sure students know this option is available to them,” said Gillian Davies, a student in the College of Arts and Science at American University. Gillian was not aware that the university has e-text books and e-readers available until she started working as a student intern at the Media Center.

Technological limitations currently seem to be the main obstacle to higher demand, but this may change as advances are introduced. Students want improved support for taking notes, checking references and viewing figures--features that are not yet widely available. “The e-textbooks make it more difficult to write in or highlight, which makes it more difficult to retain information,” said Davies. At the same time, Roxanne Smith, a graduate student at Georgetown University, mentioned that students want to be able to search and navigate quickly. “Right now, searching is not a problem at all in most texts. Navigation seems clunky on phones, kindles, computers—none of them seem to have figured out how to mimic the ease of flipping through pages quickly and easily,” Smith said.

New and Innovative Business Models in Publishing

If university presses and libraries are to survive, they will need to adopt new and innovative business models that borrow heavily from the technology sector. In order to provide faculty and students with the materials they want, and in preparation for a universal digital environment, library-academic press consortiums will be necessary, and more cooperative arrangements between university presses will be required.

The merger of two major university press e-book initiatives could have a significant impact on the market for scholarly publishing and research. The University Press Content Consortium (UPCC), which will launch on January 1, 2012, will offer integrated book and journal content allowing students to search more than 15,000 e-books from a projected 65 university presses, according to Michael Kelly and Josh Hendro (Library Journal, 4/15/11, Vol. 136).

In April 2011, the Scholarly Communications Committee of Georgetown University organized a symposium, “Transformative Publishing: Academic Libraries, University Presses, and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” The symposium examined current and future publishing collaborations between research libraries and university presses.

“Issues related to copyright, fair use, open access, the evolution of e-book aggregations with a variety of business models have brought librarians and publishers into conversation in new and dramatic ways,” wrote Patrick Alexander, director of Penn State University Press, and co-director of Penn State’s Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing. Richard Brown, director of Georgetown University Press and former president of the American Association of University Presses, summed it up this way. “Three activities will help us see where reading is going: aggregation, sharing and universal access.”

In the transition from print to digital, academic publishers face issues related to the cost of e-books versus the cost of print textbooks, digital business models and copyright protection. Joseph Guttman, business director at the University of Pennsylvania Press, said that they simultaneously publish books both in print and e-book format at a rate of 80 to 90 percent a year. “In the traditional demand-driven business model, costs and expenses are defrayed by consumers who want to purchase our books and journals. In the open-access world, publications are capitalized mostly by the institutions that produce them,” he said. Over the next five years, Guttman expects e-books will generate 30 to 50 percent of their book sales.

Alan Harvey, deputy director at Stanford University Press, said they publish 165 new books a year, and more than 90 percent of these are available in e-book formats. “For true scholarly publishers such as ourselves, there are only very marginal savings in the shift to e-books,” Harvey said.

Flat World Knowledge, an innovative college text book company, already offers instructors a complex customization platform that allows them to edit e-textbooks, add new material and interactive media, and then publish the book in digital and print format. University presses can learn and adopt this business model and technologies to provide publishers with insights and targeted publishing.

According to Publishers Weekly, McGraw-Hill, a leading textbook publisher that offers 95 percent of its catalog in digital format, has signed an agreement with interactive textbook company Inkling to make the most of its titles available through Inkling’s applications for Apple’s iPad. Inkling is the front-runner in the tablet textbook market, and its textbooks use video, audio and interactive features like tests, note sharing and highlighting tools to create content.

The integration of multimedia and interactive features, such as audio, video and hypertext in the context of e-textbooks, influences and enhances students’ knowledge acquisition and learning. With technology like this in the classroom and the ever-increasing popularity of tablets, smartphones and e-readers, academic publishers and university libraries must take steps to make their content available on any screen, anytime and anywhere. Once the center of academe, university libraries may go the way of record stores, music CDs, Blockbuster Video and Borders.  

-- Ioan Suciu, Georgetown University Press