Monthly Archives: February 2015

VitalSource event: a student delegate’s report

A university campus can be a strange sight these days – even in a library full of old and new books, there can sometimes seem to be many more laptops and tablets. This is no bad thing: for many students, working digitally can be more convenient or preferable.


The e-textbook platform company VitalSource recently held a convention for publishers and universities to discuss the future of e-books and several student Library Ambassadors were invited to sit on a panel to provide some student perspectives in the discussions.

It was definitely interesting to get a ‘behind-the-scenes’ view about e-books from publishers and university staff. For students it can all seem quite simple, but of course there are many commercial and management issues involved. Companies like VitalSource are trying to streamline the process but it can be far from straightforward.

It was highly encouraging to hear university representatives say that they are trying to take the cost of buying books away from financially-stretched students. At the moment, the University of Manchester Library is introducing e-book pilots for subjects with compulsory set texts such as Medicine, Law and Psychology.

As a lot of this provision is arranged with the schools it partly explains why I haven’t seen many e-books up to this point, studying English. Other students on the panel from Arts and Humanities disciplines had similar experiences and there could be the potential for unequal provision if students in some subjects are getting free access to their core readings while others are missing out.

Students from all disciplines can benefit from e-books for numerous reasons and the university is doing the right thing in prioritising digital reading provision. As more students choose (or need) to live at home, further from the university – or have complex timetables due to commitments in part-time work or work experience – being able to access learning materials away from campus is incredibly helpful.

The VitalSource day also highlighted another advantage of e-books: as each student can possess a digital copy of the text, they can annotate the material as they wish. For an English student tackling the complex language and formal features of verses of poetry, this function would be greatly appreciated!

I think it is fair to conclude from the VitalSource event that universities do want to help students get the resources they need in the way they need them, and are concerned about students fulfilling their potential and having a good university experience. It’s just that – with thousands of students to support – it’s sometimes hard to figure out what will help the most.

This underlines the importance of students being vocal about their needs and preferences and using the materials provided as much as they can. There are people who want to listen as much as we want to read!

Isabelle Bowen, MA Literature and Culture 1200-1700, University of Manchester

photo credit: A Sea of Laptops During a Lecture via photopin (license)

Planning for semester two


Time waits for no-one and working at an academic institution we started planning for semester two while semester one was just beginning.

For those of us working on the Books Right Here Right Now project (#BRHRN), this meant that in October 2014 we were already thinking about additional pilot projects that would run from January 2015.

There were three main drivers for this:

  • To gather further evidence to support project recommendations, particularly in terms of student usage of the e-books
  • To maintain the visibility and impetus of the project
  • To offer pilots as a potential “carrot” to schools and individual academics as part of our wider academic consultations

Once funding was secured from the Library’s content budget, the process of identifying suitable titles began.

To add more value to the project and broaden our evidence base, we decided that candidates for participation in semester two pilots would need to be either a school or discipline – or publisher – that we had not already worked with in previous pilots.

Interestingly, it appears that the increased visibility and momentum of our project has led to some encouraging developments in terms of the Library’s negotiations with publishers. Publishers are no doubt seeing our involvement in student text acquisition as another potential revenue source, while we believe that academics are becoming increasingly aware of the role and value of the Library in this area through our ongoing programme of academic engagement.

As a result, publishers who were previously unwilling to work with us are starting to come on board and we are having more success in terms of negotiating new pricing models. We are also beginning to be included in discussions about potential deals that previously involved only the schools and publishers.

As a result of all this activity, the following developments are taking place in semester two:

  • We are running nine additional pilots, providing approximately 2000 more of our students with their own e-book
  • Disciplines newly involved in the pilots include Nursing, Physics, Materials and Chemical Engineering
  • All but one of the pilots are using the VitalSource platform to provide the text directly through Blackboard, the students’ virtual learning environment

We will be studying the usage figures closely and collecting feedback from students and academic staff in a number of ways. As with the semester one pilots, we’ll report back on how things are going here… so keep your eyes peeled for updates!

photo credit: calendar clock via photopin (license)

VitalSource Northern Summit


“Just the facts, ma’am.”*

I recently attended the VitalSource Northern Summit which provided an interesting forum for discussions around improving e-book provision within the higher education (HE) sector.

Thankfully – as the presentations showed – things are moving on from truisms about uncertainties and fluid markets, with evidence of distinct and navigable landmarks emerging out of proverbially choppy waters. Principal amongst them were statistics indicating how students are using the material offered to them, dashing some commonly held assumptions (not least my own!).

Only 1% of material on the VitalSource platform is actually printed out. Relatively few students download material at all, let alone to a multiplicity of devices (something borne out by data gathered so far for the pilots we’re undertaking in Manchester), with well over half the material simply accessed online.

Furthermore, the threat to publishers (and bookshops) of a disappearing student spend may be considerably less than feared. Phil Gee from Plymouth University pointed out figures they’d recently garnered: a third of their students don’t buy any books at all; the remaining two thirds have a mean number of three purchases, while the overall average expenditure of around £60.00 per student is distorted by the traditionally heavier spend of medics.

With annual student fees of £9000 now an established feature of the academic landscape – and with institutions committing to “no hidden student costs” as a result – this baseline figure for student spending on books is unlikely to rise in the immediate future.

The guaranteed spend of an institution in a pressurised market might therefore be seen in a rather more attractive light than the suspicion with which it is often viewed, as well as affording new opportunities for add-ons that do generate revenue. The most obvious of these – a realistically priced Print on Demand service – is something being investigated by VitalSource. Similar options offered by the likes of Springer have been well-received by users at the University of Manchester.

Evidence-based pragmatism will have to be the order of the day in negotiating new payment models, but the opportunity to advance towards guaranteeing access to texts for all students – regardless of distance, time and financial constraints – is surely one that should be grasped.

Ian Fishwick, University of Manchester Library

*Evidence of course indicates that the “Just the facts…” tagline associated with Dragnet was never actually spoken in the series.

Dragnet title screen” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Blackwell’s: a campus bookseller’s viewpoint


After reading contributions from students, an academic and a librarian, I’d like to share some thoughts from another link in the ‘recommended reading’ chain – the campus bookseller.

Academic bookselling in the 21st century is a challenging pastime – the days of “pile it high, and they will come” are gone. Nowadays Blackwell’s is a multi-channel retailer: we operate ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops but also sell online; we sell print books and e-books; our shops stock a variety of products, all the while keeping academic books at the core of everything we do.

What continues to be our lifeblood is information about recommended texts and our booksellers pursue this information all year round. While we love to receive reading lists from academics in a neat spreadsheet, with details of the publisher, edition and how highly the title is recommended, we will take the information in any form we can get it – a single line in an email, a conversation in the queue at the coffee shop, or whatever the 2015 equivalent is of “on the back of a fag packet”.

Invariably, despite our best endeavours, we will always have a customer asking for a recommended book we know nothing about. We’ll act quickly to source the book as soon as possible, but finding out late reduces the opportunity to negotiate the best price with the supplier (which we can then pass on to the customer) or to obtain an edition with exclusive content, which is becoming increasingly common in academic texts.

Taking steps to find out about recommended readings and responding quickly enables us to compete with Amazon, who are often assumed to be the cheapest supplier. While they may be for a short time, the price of textbooks can fluctuate alarmingly and titles will often go out of stock. We work hard to ensure a consistently low price and we work with the lecturers and publishers to produce ‘custom books’, only available at Blackwell’s Manchester. We can also bundle course texts together, with further price reductions for buying the pack.

We’d have to bury our heads in the sand to ignore the growth of e-books – indeed, Blackwell’s has been selling e-books in various forms for many years and we have our own e-book platform, Blackwell Learning.

There’s a swathe of research on the subject of e-books, some of it mentioned in earlier posts on this blog. My personal view is that that while e-books now take up a serious chunk of the general book market (fiction, biographies etc), the consumers of academic and professional books have been slower to migrate, though this will accelerate over time.

We work closely with the University of Manchester Library and have been observing this pilot scheme with interest. Of the free e-books made available so far, a couple have seen a big drop in print sales in the bookshop while other titles have stayed pretty level. One or two titles actually sold more than last year, so nothing is clear cut.

We’ve been consolidating content from multiple publishers (in other words, running bookshops!) since 1879 and the Blackwell Learning digital platform is a continuation of this work. Our role as campus booksellers is to continue to offer the right book at the right price, at the right time and – increasingly – in the right format.

Paul Thornton, Manager, Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Manchester