On Friday 13th November our campaign was featured on BBC News Online, University staff urge probe into e-book pricing ‘scandal.

Current academic publishing practice is a matter of public interest as it has a negative impact on society and, ultimately, we all pay the price. It was a fantastic article which raised the issue beyond the academic community.

However, we were frustrated to see it contained disappointing but unsurprising comments from several publishers and the Publishers Association. In response, Anthony Sinnott, Access and Procurement Development Manager, University of York wrote the following excellent rebuttal, which we urge you all to read.

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” I am in enthusiastic support of The Campaign to Investigate the Academic E-Book Market started by @hohojanna. I shared and read with interest, the article that the BBC penned about this well justified activity. I have been thinking, over the weekend, about the publisher contributions to this piece and have articulated them below as it is easier to consider them as a whole rather than tweeting separately about all the individual points of interest.

This is the BBC News story: University staff urge probe into e-book pricing ‘scandal’ publisher contributions are in italic below and my response follows each quote.

Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said the industry understood the budgetary pressures facing libraries, but added: “Many of the examples cited by this campaign are not comparing like for like.

It is very difficult to take this comment at face value. We are inundated with slick marketing material encouraging us to take up one of the ‘per student pricing’ models and in all of these, the relative pricing of a print title and access per student is highlighted as a selling point. It seems shifty at best to take the position that the comparison between print and digital cost is fine to be used as a mechanism to sell products but suddenly problematic when used to highlight value disparity.

It is this kind of casual dismissal that presents a blocker to proper discussion about this issue. Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of e-book pricing understands that it is a surface level dismissal at best and it speaks to a desire to avoid any transparent or nuanced discussion. The Publishers Association should recognise that these complaints are coming from experienced and knowledgeable professionals who have an intimate understanding of the complexities and require more meaningful engagement than empty platitudes at this point.

“Prices will vary according to the level of use a book receives and the investment made in creating the product. A digital textbook is often put together using multiple authors over a long period, is regularly updated, has additional functionality and might be used by entire cohorts of students on a course or lent thousands of times.”

This point seems to be little more than a bait and switch. It utterly ignores the reality that many librarians and publishing specialists are presented with daily. Digital textbooks are just as often simple PDFs with minimal accessibility and there are thousands that are absolutely nothing more than scans of a pre-existing text. The argument seeks to take a reality that is true for a tiny minority of the resources in question and use it to apply to all, again hugely oversimplifying a complex ecosystem in an insulting and condescending manner that does not indicate a desire for meaningful discussion.

On the most basic level it ignores the fact that print books can also potentially be used by entire cohorts of students, especially when factoring in the type of crippling DRM common among e-books purchased via aggregator (at the insistence of publishers). We understand the difference between the two, but the Publishers Association seems to have little knowledge of the fact that we assess value on an individual, context sensitive, basis and that we are perfectly capable of factoring the positives of e-books and the negatives of limited license when making these comparisons. In short, it doesn’t matter how many times a single user licensed e-book is used, it is never worth 10 x the print price.

However, publisher Taylor & Francis, which also owns Routledge, said: “Comparing individual print costs to a digital licence which gives access to many readers does not represent the reality of how the different formats are used.”

Not like for like, as I expect Taylor & Francis know, having explained this to their representatives on multiple occasions, but as a frame of reference to justify increased costs, it is certainly illustrative and important. Again, publishers seek to ignore the fact that print usage is not entirely divorced from e usage in the manner that they would like it to be.

“Taylor & Francis believe our e-textbooks are fairly and competitively priced for the library market.”

It is eminently understandable that this is their position, it would be disturbing if it wasn’t. However, this ignores the completely arbitrary nature of e-book pricing, the massive shifts in cost, the sudden withdrawals from sale, the changes in terms of access, and the complete lack of transparency around the whole thing. In light of that reality, terms like ‘fairly’ and ‘competitively’ come across as self-serving, dishonest, and utterly indifferent to the widespread condemnation of their practices seen in the letter. 

The company also pointed out that during the pandemic and lockdown it had provided some free e-book access to students as well as free upgrades to libraries from single to unlimited user access.

Like many other publishers, and gratitude was expressed from all quarters for the generosity of some publishers and providers. Is the pandemic over, though? Did I miss that? Are we not now in another lockdown? The fact that we are hearing about publisher support in the past tense from their own association is far more damning than anything I could say at this point.

What is also true, though, is some publishers used extended access as an open sales pitch, while others withdrew said access with extreme haste. There have also been disturbing examples of massive price increases on individual titles, since February, with no corresponding increase in quality, access, or additional features. It is massively difficult not to view this with extreme cynicism.

Helen Kogan, managing director of publisher Kogan Page, said the firm’s pricing was “consistent with industry standards”.

“It allows flexible options for multi-user and perpetual access licences which provide a fair return to authors and ensure investment in high-quality, rigorous academic e-books to support students’ learning.”

Are there industry standards to e-book pricing? This will come as a massive surprise to acquisition librarians no two of whom have ever detected the slightest scintilla of pattern to the arbitrary and capricious smog that is e-book pricing (beyond the constant upward trajectory). In this case, consistent with industry standards seems a substitute for ‘equally vague, confusing, and disjointed’.

The unsaid, obvious, things that the current ‘industry standard’ pricing models do are:

  • Create revenue where none previously existed
  • Severely reduce opportunities for second hand markets to exist
  • Tie institutions to platforms
  • Retain ownership and overall control of the resource in a way that means it can ultimately be denied to the user at the whim of the publisher
  • Front load all risk and ‘future use costs’ to the institution at the point of initial sale

I can understand why none of the above are covered by publishers as part of their marketing and PR but they are true nonetheless, and until we can have actual conversations about these things that are detailed and meaningful then it is difficult to see how progress can be made.

Overall, initial reactions from publishers are expectedly disappointing. I hope they decide to engage in a more constructive way in the future and look forward to next steps. My conviction is that Open Access is the only viable resolution long term but I applaud everyone involved in this action and think it is the most active stance currently being taken (which I very much appreciate)

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Anthony has since expanded on these comments. Please see page 2 for more

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