The academic textbook of the future

by Emma House

26 Jan 2017

It is often claimed that digital has been slower to impact the academic book world than it has been in other areas of publishing. While digital revenues for fiction makes up 35% of the overall market, for academic and professional books the figure is just 25%. However, this hides the level of change that has already begun in the academic book publishing market. The academic book is becoming more flexible, adaptable and personalised than ever before, and the scope for innovation in the future is even greater.

The slow growth in digital partly reflects the fact that many students still prefer print textbooks over their digital counterparts, which they can annotate, use more easily during revision and buy second hand. Although the digital market for textbooks is growing, this attachment to the physical book makes it unlikely that digital will threaten the existence of the print academic book. Instead the future is likely to see the two formats exist side by side, and together form part of a publisher’s overall business strategy. But that is not to say that the dynamic between the two will not start to change. While digital books used to be the best possible copy of the print book, the digital book of the future is likely to be more interactive and integrated – transforming the academic book into an all-encompassing learning experience.

Already the new formats and resources that publishers are starting to create highlight the scope for change. For example, Pearson last year launched an interactive learning resource called REVEL, a platform containing interactive media, videos, quizzes, an assignment calendar and a performance dashboard. The resource reflects a wider move by educational publishers towards making a greater contribution to improving teaching and learning outcomes.

Meanwhile publishers are using their digital products to analyse and understand the impact and use of learning materials in a way which would not have been possible with the physical book. Springer Nature now offers title and chapter-level metrics across all their books via Bookmetrix, allowing it to analyse a book’s reach and impact, as well as showing researchers the level of engagement their research has had and how it has performed against other titles. Additionally Learning Management Systems coupled with publisher platforms and digital textbook resources can now provide feedback on how students are understanding different texts, allowing students to better tailor their study and revision, and educators to offer a much more personalised experience to individual pupils.

The emergence of digital books has also enabled publishers to pursue new models for providing access to their materials, enabling it to be accessed by an ever growing audience. For example ProQuest is currently piloting a new ebook acquisition model called Access-to-loan, which allows libraries to make ebooks available to their users before purchasing a book outright, allowing them to buy it only if there is significant use, providing a middle ground between short-term loans and outright purchase. Other business models include evidence-based acquisition, which allows libraries to access content for a set period, after which they can select which titles they want to license based on how much they were borrowed during the trial.

It has also allowed publishers to offer students different ways of accessing their materials. Students can now rent books, purchase individual chapters and pay-per-view‎ as well as purchasing textbooks outright. Increasingly learning materials are also being bundled with tuition fees. Many universities are now trialling pilots or running established schemes which offer print and/or digital textbooks to students included in their fees.

One of the biggest transformations digital has brought about is provision of learning materials for the print disabled. New ebook standards (EPUB 3.1) and improvements to digital readers mean that students can access ebooks in a format suitable to their disability. Much work needs to be done to educate the ecosystem from publishers to intermediaries to students about EPUB ebooks, but the future looks much rosier for those learners who have previously had to wait a long time to have access to books.

Even as the academic book evolves, what will remain constant is the need for a robust copyright regime to make sure that authors and publishers alike will be able to be remunerated for their work. As long as this intellectual property framework remains strong, academic publishers will be able to continue to reinvent their textbooks and learning resources. Already the developments taken by academic publishers highlight the potential advances digital can bring to the market. While a part of the sector will remain in its more familiar physical form, academic book publishing in the future will become increasingly dynamic and will keep finding new ways to present content in innovative formats, to better understand and adapt to users and to make products accessible to wider audiences.

Emma House is Director for Publisher Relations at the Publishers Association.

BAR29 Editorial FigB Academic Book Week logo 200pix
As a contribution to Academic Book Week, the British Academy has published a series of perspectives on the ‘Academic Book of the Future’. Articles by Marilyn Deegan, Kathryn Sutherland, and Christina Kamposiori have already been published in the January 2017 issue of the British Academy Review; and Alan Staton has written a piece for the British Academy Blog.

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