Tag Archives: pricing

Are publishers actually giving us what we want, or what they want?


As an academic, I am continually pressed by publishers to look at their online products.   Publishers seem to have a fantasy that we will be seduced into signing up to (and then becoming dependent on) subscription services.  Many large corporations have the same goal.  I expect it is taught on MBAs, and it will certainly sound good to their shareholders.  Some corporations have been very successful with this model.

However, I can’t see it being successful in the UK (beyond a few niches).  Perhaps the problem is that most of these companies are actually only UK subsidiaries of US based multinationals, and it is in the US that strategy is being set. Indeed, UK managers, if you catch them in the right mood, will often agree that this approach is unlikely to make much headway.

Whether it is due to group strategy being set for the US rather than UK market or not, the impression is that a number of publishers aren’t as agile or creative as they like to suggest.  They are unable to respond to customer demand, and are tied up with rigid strategies to provide what they want us to want rather than what we do want.

The personal copies of texts approach that several universities are already trying to develop could be wildly successful in the UK if priced reasonably, but my experience is that many aren’t set up to cope with ideas emanating from their customers.  Being the publisher’s customer can be hard work.

You can get people at a certain level to understand, but they often seem to fail to convince others further up the chain – perhaps in the US – that the UK market is different and that giving us what we want at an affordable price could be a solution to many of their problems.  Perhaps those online products that they show us are part of the problem.  Publishers must have invested enormous amounts in their development, with reputations of entire senior management teams pegged to their success.  Why supply personal copies of core texts when the corporate strategy is to get users on the adaptive learning system they have invested so much cash in?

Perhaps those of us who share the vision of supplying students with personal copies of their core textbooks need to work together to give senior publishing executives hard evidence that:

1) UK HEIs really aren’t interested in subscribing to walled garden adaptive learning systems in the way private colleges in the US might be – almost regardless of price.

2) UK universities would be very, very interested in providing personal copies of (interactive please!) ePub versions of all core texts to all their students if they could get them at the right price.

 Phil Gee, University of Plymouth

photo credit Gracie via photopin (license)

What about Amazon?

We are always looking for solutions to the challenge of supplying core texts to our students, particularly if we can make the texts easily accessible in ways our students want. If we can find a neat technical solution and a viable financial model in the process then even better!

To this end we were interested to see what – if anything – Amazon is doing in this area and how it might help us increase student reading of core texts and improve the student experience. Given Amazon’s propensity to reach out to potential new business areas and its ability to spot and develop client-focused solutions we hoped to find a lot of information.

While we did find that they have developed a product for the US market called Whispercast, there are as yet apparently no plans to launch this in the UK. One example of an institutional deal is in Brazil, where the Brazilian Ministry of Education – via its National Fund for Educational Development (FNDE) – selected Amazon to convert and distribute textbooks using Whispercast for up to 600,000 tablets used by teachers across the country.


The immediate benefits to us of this kind of service are obvious. The market reach and brand recognition of Amazon mean its services are instantly familiar to students. Amazon’s simple, intuitive ordering, payment and supply models are attractive both to us (in terms of managing the project) and to students and academic colleagues (who would be the primary users). Notwithstanding any ethical issues these groups may have about Amazon, it is a fact that most will be at least familiar with the Amazon interface and many will have been customers in some capacity.

Amazon’s charging mechanism is based on a simple 1:1 transaction model, something we are committed to developing. In many ways, it appears that Amazon’s approach is not really a nuanced institutional pricing model but more of an attempt to encourage institutions to purchase books directly for students using Amazon’s technology and systems.

Further investigation on our part will continue over the next year but we are definitely interested in trying to move this forward for three main reasons:

  • Amazon’s experience of working with publishers and their ability to leverage pricing and availability is something we would be keen to tap into, perhaps with them acting in an intermediary capacity
  • Their experience of supplying both content and devices brings an understanding of the whole supply chain
  • We know that academics and students are increasingly using Kindles – for example, English Literature students are consulting poetry texts in seminars on them – and in addition to provision of core texts we also want to enhance the provision and accessibility of other library material and this could be a way to help achieve it

It’s very early days, but this is something of real interest to us in terms of our options for future core text provision.

Dominic Broadhurst, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Kindle 3 P1 via photopin (license)

Macmillan Education: some thoughts on e-books

Finding new and innovative ways to share our content with our wider audience – both nationally and internationally – is a priority for an academic publisher. The move to digital access has always been welcomed at Macmillan Education and it’s something that we actively look to encourage and be involved in. Education is the nature of our business and we want our content to be as widely distributed, read and enjoyed as possible.


There is a staunch, passionate and valid debate in publishing that steadfastly promotes the undoubted merits of print (and all that reading the printed word on paper represents), but as with anything there are always other avenues to explore and the e-book road is one we are excited about and ready to travel. In truth, we are already quite a long way into that journey.

The heart of any academic publisher is the quality content and resources it produces for its customers – this is what we are judged on, not the medium by which it is delivered. Macmillan Education is aware that publishing needs to take account of the fact that many customers will want electronic access to content, either through their library services or on individual devices (PCs, tablets, smartphones etc), though there is an ongoing learning curve for all involved, from the authors through to the editorial and production teams.

We are already involved in a number of schemes across the UK where our e-books are distributed to students in a variety of ways and the feedback has been very positive. It’s certainly popular with students and academics for all the reasons you might expect – ease of use, quick and easy access, cost and so on.

However, the attitude – particularly among students – that this content should be available for free is short-sighted. The same rules apply to online textbooks as films, music, images and so on. Macmillan Education, as with all academic publishers of note, produce educational content that is written by experts in their fields – it is reviewed, developed and designed extensively before reaching the customer. This process is what makes the difference between content that is freely available on the internet and something that has been specifically designed to be high quality, accurate and detailed for use on an academic course.

Pilots such as the one running at the University of Manchester are trailblazing, impressive and ambitious and at Macmillan Education that is what we strive to be too, so who knows where it will take us? Publishers aim to provide what their customers want, even if at present it seems that the technology needs to catch up with what they are demanding.

Ultimately we are all working towards the same goal – providing high quality, inspirational content to students and academics in whichever format is required, as quickly, easily and affordably as possible.

Rebecca Levene, Macmillan Education
Email: r.levene@palgrave.com

Understanding publishers: a librarian’s perspective


Like many academic librarians involved in purchasing content for their libraries, I have had my share of lengthy negotiations with publishers over the years. As we attempt to launch e-book pilots and develop a new acquisition model as part of the Books Right Here Right Now project, it can sometimes feel that publishers are unwilling or unable to understand our needs and those of our students.

However, one outcome of spending so much time talking to publishers – in person and by email – is that I feel I now have a better understanding of their world. While librarians often bemoan the lack of understanding (whether real or perceived) from publishers, we may be equally guilty of not understanding the environment that publishers are operating in, or naive in our negotiating stance.

The following key points are worth keeping in mind:

Publishers need to return a profit and the margins they want or need to make will form the basis of their negotiations. Unlike libraries, they are not a service but a business and the bottom line is paramount. While there is always room for manoeuvre and sometimes librarians may not push hard enough, unrealistic pricing requests from libraries are doomed to failure.

Publishers have to balance a series of relationships, not just the one with the library. In the context of textbooks and e-books, academic libraries may be major customers but there are two other key relationships that have a bearing on negotiations –

  • Authors have expectations about the royalties from sales of their books -this can have an impact on the pricing of books and also on the granting of digital rights for particular titles.
  • Bookshops – particularly those on university campuses – work very closely with publishers to maximise the sales of textbooks. This symbiotic relationship between the publisher and the bookshop, while subject to other market pressures, can still have an influence on negotiated deals between publishers and libraries.

Seamless access to e-books is still some way off. Despite major advances in technology, the provision of e-books to large cohorts of students through a single, problem-free interface is not yet available. Publishers and intermediaries are working hard to find solutions but librarians need to be realistic in our expectations and understanding of what is currently possible.

Libraries and publishers need each other. While we come to the table with different aims, an understanding of each other’s perspectives and differences is vital to a successful outcome. Now, let the negotiations begin!

Dominic Broadhurst, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Nicola Corboy via photopin cc

Libraries and e-book provision: the purchasing paradigm

As is probably the case with most academic libraries, the University of Manchester Library acquires e-books in three main ways:

  1. Buying individual e-book titles through intermediaries
  2. Purchasing bundled e-book packages from publishers
  3. Patron driven acquisition, in which our library users place direct orders for the e-books they need

We are finding that none of these models are entirely satisfactory for a variety of reasons.


Buying individual titles through intermediaries may sometimes be our only option but the process tends to be cumbersome and the pricing models are confusingly opaque. Even more frustrating is that publishers occasionally withdraw titles from their e-book portfolio so our users are again left without access to the books they need.

Purchasing large ‘bundles’ of e-books from publishers for a set fee or an annual subscription tends to mean that we are paying for a high quantity of titles that our students don’t want or need and which will rarely – if ever – be used. Of course, some of these titles will be of value to our researchers but too often we are paying for content in the manner of contestants on Baggage Battles, relying on luck and intuition when placing bids for unseen material.

Patron driven acquisition (PDA) is an approach many libraries are now using and the attraction is obvious – rather than trying to guess what our readers will want to access, we give them direct control by allowing them to choose and order items themselves and get instant access to the text. This works well when the books they require are available electronically, but having used PDA for a while we know that this is often not the case.

As librarians, we need to take on board what our users are telling us about core text provision. As customers, we need to be much better at challenging the status quo in the e-book market and be much more explicit about what we are willing to pay for.

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No future? The one-to-one pricing model


Without wanting to sound nihilistic, we feel that a publisher pricing model in which we pay for e-book access for every single student on a module has no long-term future.

Pricing is based on the idea that there will be 100% take-up of a recommended text on a reading list. Even when discounts are offered, the quote for a module with 500 registered students, with a typical discounted unit price of £25.99 (instead of £39.99), would still amount to £12,995 for a single year’s access to the text.

This raises some concerns for libraries.

The assumption that all students on a module access the core texts is not a true reflection of reality. We are paying an over-inflated price for our e-book subscriptions and while we do our best (as all librarians do) to ensure that every student has access to the resources they may need, the take-up of any given text ranges from 40% up to 75%, with variations across disciplines.

It is rare to see 100% attendance at lectures and we know from our print book loan records that far less students access the recommended texts than there are on a module, so to apply a one-to-one pricing model for e-books is unrealistic.

The longer term aim of publishers seems to be to make this pricing model the standard for all e-book provision, which will lead to library budgets being massively stretched while paying for resources that will never be used. We have already observed this on modules where all students are given a personal, printed copy of a core text, only to see copies being sold on within 24 hours.

We need to find a way of reaching a more realistic, sustainable pricing model for both libraries and publishers. There is a lot of work to be done but we are taking some first steps by starting this discussion with publishers and hope to see much greater progress in the future.

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