It has become an axiom that today's students don't want to read whole books. Their attention span has declined in the digital age, where surfing and scanning are the norm. They often want reading lists from professors that consist of short articles and specific chapters rather than whole books.
Each term, students armed with reading lists from their course tutors head for the university library at the same time. Only a limited number of copies of key texts are in stock, often forcing some students to go without if they do not want to purchase the textbook.
They are less likely to purchase the textbook if they need only part of it and for a short period. Because of this, they often end up not accessing the material they need, librarians say.
e-Book publishers have seen this gap in the market for some time and are experimenting with licensing e-books to libraries with payment structures in line with the number of expected downloads, which can be calculated, for example, on the number of students signed up to a course where the book is recommended reading.
But university libraries in many countries baulk at the cost of such licences. Many are seeing their budgets cut and those in less affluent countries simply cannot afford a licence that has to be renewed every year for each incoming cohort. The cost of a licence can exceed the traditional cost of, say, a reference copy from which students would normally photocopy a chapter or two (and pay the cost of copies themselves).
Multiple copies are a different story and their need for only certain times is so widespread that a number of commercial initiatives have sprung up, among them Courseload, a US company that calls itself an 'e-book broker'.
Courseload is testing a system to deliver textbooks from major publishers to students on a per-course basis - charging under $50 per student to deliver materials to their laptop for a whole course module with tools that enable the materials to be annotated, as well as be interactive.
Flatworld Knowledge, the largest commercial publisher of open-source higher education textbooks, offers free online access to a range of textbooks for students, and if students want to download, charges around 20% below the print edition price. The books, however, are not true e-books - they are PDFs that are not interactive, searchable or able to be annotated by the student.
Launched last month in Britain, Reference Tree focuses specifically on the higher education market. Its uniqueness lies in the ability for students to purchase e-textbooks by the chapter and for a limited time, thus reducing the cost.
"We enable higher education institutions to license a chapter for six to 12 months so that students can obtain a chapter of a book when they need it," said Amil Tolia, founder and CEO of Reference Tree.
"It represents a high saving over a complete textbook because they get it for a time-bound period," he said. The saving for a student can range from around 20%, when compared to full e-books, and 40% when compared to buying a paper book. A typical textbook may cost £40 (US$63) while downloading a chapter for a term or more would be around £2.10 (US$3.30) - a significant saving.
Some publishers are already beginning to offer book chapters or portions of books rather than complete tomes. "But we are the first to work with a multitude of publishers across a multitude of books making them available in this manner," Tolia told University World News.
Such companies are similar to e-book aggregators. Some of the largest educational publishers are supplying material via Reference Tree and other aggregators, including Elsevier, McGraw Hill, Hodder, Macmillan and Taylor Francis. Talks are ongoing between Reference Tree and Cambridge University Press, one of the world's largest university presses.
Their target is not institutional libraries, with their overstretched budgets, but individual students - a generation that has become used to downloading single tracks rather than whole albums in music. They would download a chapter from a book to their laptops - ubiquitous among students in Britain and many European countries - much as they might download a song to their iPod.
Reference Tree e-books have to be read online - they cannot be downloaded to students' computers, which means students require constant connectivity; but that may not be a deterrent for students who often need a portion of a book urgently and for only a short period.
"Libraries are often looking for perpetual or continuing access to online content after the cancellation of a subscription, where access is maintained to the content for the years or editions actually subscribed to," Laura Cox, Managing Director of Frontline Global Marketing Services, told a conference of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers earlier this year.
However, the limited time frame is an attractive one for students who may need the material for only a term or a year. "Even with a perpetual-access e-book, you really only have the book till your hardware fails," Tolia maintained.
And as online giant Amazon demonstrated last year when it was able to withdraw e-book versions of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the 'buyer' may never really own the e-book at all.
"I think the student market is ready because you have massive uptake in technical infrastructure in the form of laptops and PCs," Tolia said.
But he sees the model as being closer to library borrowing than ownership, though it is different from both, as renting for a specific period transfers the cost to the student rather than the institution.
David Nicholas of University College London's CIBER (Centre for Information and Evaluation of Research) project talks of the 'parallel universe', a place where students spend their time but to which institutions have not yet adapted. "Everything is moving to the virtual environment and textbooks and other materials need to move there too," he said.
Today's 'Google generation' of students are rarely persistent readers. They want information in small chunks delivered to them, rather than to go searching for it, he said.
Even small university presses, moving into publishing e-books, are investigating how to break up the books they publish into sections or chapters, without actually destroying the market for the whole book. They may need to find a solution quickly because students are dictating the way material is consumed.
"The cost of textbooks is spiralling and students are looking for more efficient ways to spend. Paying just for a chapter for a small period is more cost-effective for them," Tolia said.
We give away our ebooks to academic students for free. Most popular books are no longer then 100 pages.
Jan van Schuppen
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