“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.