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E-books and Accessible Format Books: E-book availability, ownership and prices

A short guide to understanding e-books and other accessible format books

E-book availability, ownership and prices

When buying a print book, libraries own it outright and are free to lend it as they wish to library users. This is not the case with e-books. Publishers do not sell e-book ownership to institutions, they only sell e-book licences to access e-books. Therefore libraries do not own them outright and it is only the publishers who decide how e-books can be used e.g. they control and impose access restrictions on borrowing, scanning, copying, etc.

Only around 10% of academic titles are available as e-books at the time of writing. Many e-book titles cost several times their print equivalent or more. Many publishers withdraw e-book titles from sale to institutions and only allow private individuals to purchase e-books via platforms such as Kindle, Nook, Kobo etc.  Therefore, if a title appears to be available as an e-book, a lot of the times, it may only be so for individuals, not institutions. Some e-book licences are only sold within specific countries which means that we cannot buy them.

Apart from when an e-book is open access (freely online to anyone and with no restrictions) which is the most helpful publication model for both universities and students, paid-for e-book licences can be:

  • Unlimited access DRM-free e-book licences which include unlimited access to users: practice up to 9,999 users can access a title at any one time (which is unlikely to happen so virtually unlimited) with no DRM (Digital Rights Management) restrictions on printing, saving, copying, etc. – this is the best licence type.
  • Unlimited access as above but with restrictions on copying, saving, printing, etc. – next best model.
  • Three-user licences where only three users can access a title at any one time with restrictions on copying, saving, printing, etc.
  • Single-user access where only one user can access a title at any one time, again with restrictions on copying, saving, printing, etc.
  • Credit model licences varying from 200 to 400 credits per year where one credit is used every time an individual accesses a book (in a 24 hr period).
  • E-textbook model is a fee per student subscription-based model used by some publishers especially with key titles where a publisher quotes a price according to the number of students at an institution – usually many hundreds or thousands of pounds per year per title. This is a very unsustainable model for most university libraries since a yearly subscription running into hundreds or thousands each year for one title is beyond many library budgets.

Some e-books titles are available through a variety of licence models while others have only one model.  The library aims to buy the best licence types where budgets allow. If not possible, multiple single-user licences can be bought, depending on whether a title is in on essential, recommnede or background reading and how many modules use it.

Some e-books are only available to be purchased in bundles with other e-book titles which may not be needed. Some e-book models charge a fee per student per year which means that costs quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of pounds every year for one e-book licence.  Learn more about these from the #ebookSOS campaign and sign the open letter.