E-phemeral E-Books

In a bid to stoke interest in e-books, some university presses let students and scholars rent electronic volumes for a fraction of the full price.
July 7, 2011

Can academic presses harness the recent popularity of textbook rentals to steer customers toward e-books?

A number of presses are hoping so. At a time when many customers are making decisions with one hand on their wallets, academic presses are looking to stoke interest in their electronic versions by offering digital rentals for a reduced price.

For example, instead of buying a paperback or e-book for $20 at the Stanford University Press website, students and scholars can pay $5 to access an e-book for 14 days, or $10 for 60 days.

“The humanities and social science communities … have been relatively slow to adopt e-books,” wrote Alan Harvey, deputy editor of the Stanford press, in an e-mail. “This program is our way of aiding the transition; offering very cost-effective and efficient ways for scholars and students to access our content.”

Stanford is not alone. Academic presses at several other universities are running similar rental programs, including the presses at the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, and Ohio University.

Through Adobe Digital Editions, customers browsing press websites can purchase temporary access to an e-book, which they can read both online and offline for the duration of the lease. Some presses, such as Iowa, set the rental period — 120 days for a $10 flat fee — to correspond with the length of a semester. Others offer shorter-term options and variable pricing. The Michigan press, for instance, lets students rent an e-book for 30 days at 40 percent of the full e-book price, or for 180 days at 75 percent of the full price.

In contrast with the recent boom in the market for print textbook rentals, none of the presses contacted by Inside Higher Ed reported huge sales in temporary e-book licenses. But the idea is not so much to make a mint as it is to create a pathway to using e-books by offering a cheaper, temporary option for a reader who might not be looking to build a personal digital library. There is no secondhand market for e-books like there is for print volumes; temporary licenses lets students save on books they have no intention of keeping .

“Our goal is to get the book into the hands of the students in some way that meets their needs,” says Karen Hill, associate director at the Michigan press. “Also, professors have indicated an interest in the 30-day option as a method to keep book prices down for their supplementary book list for their courses.”

Another goal is to spur interest in e-books. While the writing on the wall says digital texts and e-readers are the future, the numbers on the balance sheet say most students and scholars are not choosing digital over print — at least not when it comes to serious reading. E-book sales have risen for a number of university presses in the last six months, but as a percentage of total business they remain in the low- to mid- single digits at most presses.

“Though some presses might reasonably think that this undercuts sales of print or full-priced e-books, we're really trying to incentivize sales in an area where we've lacked success,” says James A. McCoy, director of the University of Iowa Press.

Rental options might not catalyze a full-fledged e-book boom, press officials say. But they might capture certain customers who would not have otherwise bought the book — such as the student weighing the cost of investing in books that do not figure prominently in the syllabus, or the scholar scanning peripheral titles for research, says Garrett Kiely, director of the University of Chicago Press.

“We wanted something that gave us a little publicity,” Kiely says. “…We wanted people to understand how they can use [e-books], how they differ from print.” Since Chicago Press started renting out access to e-books two years ago, the program has stuck. “It started out as a bit more promotional, and now it’s settled in as a business model.”

Who rents e-books? Press officials cannot say for certain. But at the Stanford press, basic customer profiling points to students who want access to readings in a pinch. “Most of the purchases are late in the evening, often at weekends, and from campus addresses,” says Harvey, the Stanford press deputy director. “The inference is that the purchases are by students needing the books for reference, immediately.”

Of course, a student feverishly shelling out for a temporary e-book license during a weekend cram session and a student choosing to rent an e-book over various other options at the beginning of a semester are two very animals. The extent to which e-book rentals will become a mainstream way of getting course materials remains to be seen. And from a business perspective, offering temporary e-book rentals only makes sense if only a small proportion of customers buy that way — or if the same customers end up buying e-books at full price. If everybody chose to rent, the presses would lose money.

“In an ideal world, the rental option slowly takes the place of physically mailing exam copies, saving printing and freight and flooding the world with free books while still providing an inexpensive way for faculty to assess the book,” says Kevin Haworth, executive editor of the Ohio University Press. “But right now, it's just one of a number of ways that we are trying out various strategies for reaching the growing e-book market.”

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