v28 #5 The Affordable Textbook Revolution

by | Dec 12, 2016 | 0 comments

by Robert W. Boissy  (Director of Institutional Marketing and Account Development – Americas, Springer Nature;
Phone: 781-244-7918)

Two personal events in the Autumn of 2014 led to a turning point for what was at that time Springer marketing.  The first event was a visit to the Scholarly Communications Interest Group of the New England Chapter of ACRL.  At that meeting I listened to Nicole Allen from SPARC, who had for some time previously been involved with Public Interest Research Group activity talk about the negative effects of high textbook costs on student outcomes, with the average textbooks cost per year per student being $1200.  Shortly after this, my son James informed me he had joined the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group (ConnPIRG, http://connpirg.org/home and https://www.facebook.com/TrinityConnPIRG/?fref=ts) at his College (Trinity College, Hartford CT) and that their first program was to push the Higher Education Committee of the Connecticut State Legislature to adopt affordable textbook policies.  He and his fellow students testified at the state house to help press their point.  They met with success and legislation has been filed.  The affordability of textbooks was clearly an issue not to be ignored.

Most librarians I speak with agree that library-owned resources are definitely part of the open education resources (OER) programs they promote.  It occurred to me that even though Springer, (since 2015 Springer Nature), had enjoyed good uptake of their eBook packages, the very nature of package buying might be hiding useful resources from both faculty and library staff.  The truth is that, as of spring 2016, Springer Nature has over 3100 e-Textbooks included in its contemporary package offerings.  It is true that the former Springer tended to publish textbooks outside of the Freshman 101 course category, and for this reason many people outside and even inside the company did not perceive the company to be a textbook publisher.  This too served to hide the many textbooks in the purchased packages.

This article is not an advertisement;  it is a cautionary tale for publishers and for librarians.  If you sell content in some kind of package, make very sure you spell out the categories of content in that package.  If you are selling a package of monographs, a package of reference content, or a package of e-Textbooks, the content will be clear to the buyer.  But if you are selling a package that includes encyclopedias, atlases, handbooks, yearbooks, monographs, introductory undergraduate textbooks, advanced undergraduate textbooks, graduate textbooks, etc., you should remind the people making the purchases exactly what they have licensed.  At Springer Nature we decided to do just that in the spring of 2015.

My then colleague Sarah Schulman was asked to create a document that we could send to opt-in faculty members at schools that already had a lot of our eBooks to encourage them to request a list of their e-Textbooks.  We call this an account development campaign, as it is designed to increase use of content that is already owned.  Sarah put together a dynamite promotion, mostly image, limited text, and with a very simple message:  Click here to request a list of e-Textbooks already permanently available at your institution.  We called it the “affordable textbook revolution.”  We ran this campaign in mid-June 2015 to give faculty time to consider these textbooks for their courses in the fall or the following spring.  Remarkably, 70% of the schools that received the message responded with at least one faculty member, and sometimes as many as ten faculty members asking for their custom lists.  Anyone who markets to faculty knows they are severely stretched for time and highly unresponsive to the normal type of publisher pitch.  Getting this level of response showed us that we had clearly touched a nerve.  Affordable textbooks were an idea whose time had come.  Seeing the result, we ran the campaign again in the fall of 2015 with a different set of schools and with equally good results.  We also started to send the custom lists of licensed textbooks to our library contacts to make sure they were aware of our activity in the area in case they got faculty requests as a result of our campaign.

In 2016 we began to understand that affordable textbooks were going to be atypical as a marketing topic.  This would not be a limited term effort which is often the norm with a new individual journal or book.  Affordable textbooks, fueled by the strong current of the Open Education Resources (OER) movement, were an idea that we would need to keep after and prepare permanent tools to manage.  Accordingly, in spring 2016 we sponsored an ACRL-Choice Webinar on affordable textbooks to let people know of our support of the OER movement and incidentally to let them know of our new Web page covering affordable textbooks (https://www.springer.com/gp/librarians/affordable-textbooks).  The page has a short form to request either a list of all our contemporary textbooks or a custom list of previously licensed textbooks.  We then sponsored a second ACRL-Choice Webinar showing our support for the Charlotte Initiative, (featured at the Charleston Conference 2015 and the ER&L Conference 2016), with its admonition to sell and buy eBooks in academic settings that have no digital rights management (DRM), unlimited concurrent use, with permanent access.  Since Springer Nature is the largest eBook publisher in the world and backs these terms, we felt we had a natural ally in the Charlotte Initiative.  Six hundred people registered for the Charlotte Initiative Webinar.  At the time of this writing 90 librarians from around the world have used the Springer Nature affordable textbooks Web page to request lists of e-Textbooks.

There is a phrase that was commonly used when I was growing up in the 1970s — If you’ve got it, flaunt it!  And that kind of sums up the experiences described in this article.  But this is not just a publisher feel good story.  If you go to the library Web page of the University of North Carolina Charlotte, you will find their Faculty eTextbook Database (http://library.uncc.edu/).  I have held this effort up to every librarian I meet as a model.  The database contains lists of the e-Textbooks from every publisher from whom they license, arranged for easy browsing and search.  The site also features a second function designed for students.  It contains a list tagged by faculty name of textbooks adopted for current courses with cover art and links to the full text of the eBooks.  Students just need to type in the name of their professor, click on the e-Textbook for their course, download the textbook to their device of choice, and they are ready for their first class.  Cost to the student — $0.00.  Of course, we hear from some students and faculty that printed textbooks are easier to study from and provide for better learning and retention.  Leaving aside any review of the literature on textbook preferences and learning outcomes, there is a simple way to address this issue: give faculty and students an online and a print option.  In the OER movement the call to arms often involves free online resources, but few realistically feel a print counterpart should necessarily be free as long as it is inexpensive.  At my firm at least, library purchased online resources are paired with optional print-on-demand for $24.99.  I often tote a 700-page print textbook to conferences to demonstrate that, once e-Textbooks are licensed by the library, any print-on-demand book or textbook (we call it MyCopy) is just $24.99 if you feel you need print.  This is better than the cost of photocopying, and the quality is excellent.

Reference content is a second issue that requires more visibility.  Many librarians think of reference works as something separate and different from other types of purchases.  Reference works cost more than monographs, and they are not always sold in a package with monographs and other content.  But when significant numbers of reference works are included in package purchases, they can also be overlooked or hidden by the other content in the package.  The exact same student needs associated with baseline learning from textbooks are met in the baseline information of reference works.  How reference works are made visible and accessible to students in the electronic resource age is a task for academic librarians, but simply knowing what electronic reference works are on license is a start.  Publishers can help here.

There was a time when academic libraries in the United States would never buy textbooks or take part in an effort to make textbooks more affordable, but that time has passed.  In the rough and tumble discussions of the open access and open education movements, it is easy to forget that most scholarly publishers do attend very closely to the real needs of their readership, including their financial state.  Sometimes this means it is necessary to join with libraries and champion causes that seem non-commercial or even anti-commercial.  But when an important cause can be met with a considered response that mainly requires visibility and promotion, it should be done.  Publishers spend a lot of their marketing budgets on pressing faculty, students, and librarians to buy new things.  The era has now arrived when publishers should spend some of their marketing money and time on promoting what has already been bought.  It’s simply good account development.


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