Getting students to jump on the e-train

One of the advantages of switching from general trade publishing to SMT is that I get to see a whole new side of the publishing world. One of the areas that has caught my specific interest is students. This is, I feel, one of the more interesting groups for publishers to target: they are young, tech savvy, not rich yet and very engaged online.

So I expected students to be a huge market for scientific and academic publishers. But to my surprise, according to market research firm Student Monitor, only 11% of all students buy e-textbooks. Here are The 10 most important reasons:

  1. Availability: not all books they need are available and students typically take an all-or-nothing approach, which means they like to buy everything at once and at the same time;
  2. Cost: e-textbooks prices are still relatively high and combined with the starting cost of buying a device it’s still rather pricy;
  3. Ownership: they can’t lend or sell e-books to others.
  4.  Ease of use: note taking is still not advanced enough for most students;
  5. Storage: most devices, especially at the low end of the market, offer a fairly limited storage and e-textbooks are usually rather heavy: few books on a device;
  6. Competition: there are better online alternatives for getting information.
  7.  Awareness: most of today’s students grew up with print and are not used to digital;
  8.  Experience: studying from screen is different than from paper;
  9.  Findability: It’s still hard to find a lot of e-books (metadata)
  10. Expectations: in general, students expect more usability and social integration.

Some of these look familiar: availability, cost, ownership - general drivers of e-book adoption we've seen pop up in research over the last few years.

The other reasons, though, point towards some specific issues that the big SMT publishers face. The most poignant conclusion one can draw from this study is, I feel, how e-book publishers have as yet failed to connect to what students really expect from them. Clearly, there are huge issues regarding usability which must be looked at properly when we want to drive e-book adoption beyond the early adopter stage.

Academic publishers have been rushing to get their print books converted into digital texts, but it may be a case, for once, of too much too soon. Just presenting a digital version of a textbook or reference book is clearly not what users expect.

SMT publishers must innovate the product beyond just e-books. We need to give students a better alternative to paper, not just a digital version of a print book. Because studying is one of those reading activities that is surrounded by a social context: note taking and sharing, discussing, accessing information at any time and place, social media.

 More so, even, than a novel would – a novel is read, not used, and any (social) media integration is a plus, but not a necessity.

Besides, a textbook is a need to have item, which makes it a whole different product than a novel. So competition for digital products will logically revolve about services around the text itself – around the experience of studying digitally not reading digitally.

This is, of course, easier said than done and getting the digital books out there is a necessary learning curve for any publisher. But it is good – in this industry as in any other – to stress that the experience of the individual user must be the focus of digital innovation, in an industry that is used mostly to deal on an institutional level.

Big challenges lie ahead – but we wouldn’t wish it any other way…



Untapped potential

I got my Kindle while studying for my English Literature MA, and it was really useful, but also slightly frustrating because there's so much untapped potential for academically orientated ebook functionality. Although you can do a lot, current ereaders aren't really up to scratch for study purposes, and I don't know of any tablet apps (Android or iOS) that really tick all the boxes in terms of integrating the experience of reading with that of studying and writing academically.

For example, an ebook reader designed for academic study would ideally double up as a citation manager. You'd be able to use differently formatted highlights for quotes, categorise citations, and export to a word processor with automatically formatted footnotes or endnotes. Easy integration with Endnote and Zotero would be a real bonus.

At the moment, citations are a bit of a pain. Academic conventions on citing ebooks are still developing, and although the Kindle can now provide page numbers for a corresponding paper edition, not all books have it.

A dedicated ebook reader for academics should also be able to connect easily to online journals. While studying for my MA, I sent loads of scholarly articles to my Kindle, which was very handy, and better than printing reams of articles, but still a bit clunky.

Ebook and physical book bundling would really make sense with textbooks. We're not yet at the point where electronic only makes sense for most people. But being able to search textbooks electronically and to carry them all around on one device is really handy.

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