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Toward a P+E eBook Model for Academic Libraries

by | Sep 30, 2021 | 0 comments


By David Gibbs  (Interim Associate Dean, University Library, California State University, Sacramento) 

Against the Grain Vol. 33#4

It is by now well understood that print books and eBooks each have advantages and disadvantages;  each format offers affordances that, depending on the circumstances, makes it preferable to the other.  Many readers find it easier to focus on a print book, without the competing distractions of email, social media, and the Internet that one has when reading on a laptop, tablet, or phone.  eBooks, on the other hand, offer the advantages of instant access, portability, and searchability — all invaluable to students and academic researchers, who are often juggling and synthesizing multiple books at a time.  A 2018 survey by Library Journal confirmed that most college students prefer to read print books for pleasure but use eBooks when doing research (Ennis).  Many have argued that print is better for deep, focused reading, while digital favors search, discovery, and cross-platform information acquisition (see, for example, Wulf).  I personally feel that reading on a dedicated e-reader such as a Kindle provides just as immersive an experience as a print book, with the added benefit of linking out to dictionaries and Wikipedia.  (A Kindle provides just enough communication with the world outside the book to enhance my reading experience without distracting me from it.)  Most academic library users access their library’s eBooks on a computer (usually a laptop), tablet, or phone, and rarely read them cover to cover.  A study at the University of Toronto showed that, for titles available in both formats, both print and eBooks were heavily used for popular titles, and both were little-used for little-used titles (Yuan, et. al).  In other words, it’s the content that counts, not the container, and for books that are likely to be used, a library should ideally be able to provide both formats for its patrons.

Public libraries currently offer a far superior eBook experience to their patrons than academic libraries can, especially for linear reading.  Because they generally purchase fewer unique titles per year, public libraries can purchase multiple copies of popular titles, in multiple formats — print, eBook, audiobook — thus providing options to satisfy differing patron needs and preferences.  (I sometimes check out both an eBook and audiobook version of the same title from my public library and switch back and forth between the two depending on where I am and what I am doing.) Public library eBooks can be checked out online and instantaneously downloaded to one’s reading device.  If no copy of an eBook is currently available, it’s easy to add yourself to a waiting list.  And innovative efforts such as the New York Public Library’s SimplyE e-reader seek to give public libraries even greater control over their content delivery and presentation, allowing them to curate and present their e-collections in ways that are tailored to their users’ needs.

Academic libraries lag far behind.  We have little control over our eBooks, which remain tied to publisher or vendor platforms and subject to their rules and restrictions.  Downloading an eBook from an academic library is usually a hassle, the experience varies from platform to platform, users often don’t understand why an eBook is unavailable and they can’t put themselves on a waitlist, and eBooks are almost never downloadable to dedicated devices like a Kindle. 

When journals first started to be published on the Internet, subscribing libraries were offered online access as a free supplement to the print subscription, a model sometimes known as P (print) + E (electronic).  As readers gradually became more and more comfortable with online access, and eventually came to prefer the convenience of the online format, libraries began to drop their print subscriptions.  Online access went from being a supplement to the print to supplanting it altogether.  Nowadays, the print periodicals section of the library is even more of a ghost town than the book stacks, visited only occasionally by power users and ILL staff.  Libraries typically purchase the print version of a journal only if there is no online version, if the online version is prohibitively expensive, if the print is heavily visual, or if students are still required to consult the print for an outdated assignment. 

Unlike serials, monographs have rarely been available through a P+E model;  print books and eBooks have always been sold as separate products.  Often a publisher will delay the release of an eBook version of a title, much the same way that movie distributors used to delay the release of a DVD or streaming version of a film until the box office demand had been satiated.  (Now, we simply pay more to stream a film while it’s in the theaters.) 

Publishers and aggregators sometimes have “sales,” in which they offer a discount on eBooks that are already owned in print by the library.  ProQuest offers a Title Matching Fast (TMF) service that will match a library’s print holdings to electronic titles for sale.  Such efforts are helpful, but they are retroactive rather than proactive.  Purchasing the same title twice in different formats is inefficient from a workflow standpoint, and the discounts offered are usually inadequate to make up for the fact that the library has already paid for the content.  It would be far preferable for the library to be able to simultaneously purchase, immediately upon a book’s publication, both a print and an eBook copy of a title at a cost that is fair to both the publisher and the library. 

What would a fair cost be?  In the days of P+E journals, there was typically no additional cost for electronic access above and beyond the print subscription fee.  Is there any reason that the purchase of a print book should not similarly come with at least one-user online access?  Consider that, despite what some publishers say, once the publication and production costs of an eBook are recouped, each additional copy sold is essentially pure profit.  (By contrast, each copy of a print book costs the publisher something to produce.)  Normally libraries receive a 15-20% discount on the list price for print books, but no discount on eBooks.  Would it not be reasonable for libraries willing to pay the full list price for a print title to receive a one-user copy of the eBook bundled with it?  This seems fair from a cost point of view, and it would save time for both acquisitions and cataloging staff.  Users would have their choice of format at point of need.  To avoid possible turnaways, libraries could enable automatic upgrades (to a 3-user, concurrent access, or unlimited model), such as are currently offered by both ProQuest and EBSCO.

Even given the option of a reasonable P+E purchasing model such as described above, not every library would choose to acquire a print copy of every title.  In some disciplines, e is heavily preferred.  Some libraries have space constraints or have even gone e-only.  On the flip side, even researchers who prefer to read in print often find themselves in need of an electronic copy of any given title, usually to search for a particular name, concept, or quote.  I have often made use of the free snippets available on Google Books, Amazon, or the Internet Archive’s Open Library for this purpose, but the needed text is not always available, and such workarounds could be avoided if publishers were willing to bundle their titles.

Academic librarians should not have to choose between print and eBook formats when making selection decisions, and they should not have to pay twice for the same content.  I urge publishers to consider the proposals I have made here, and I look forward to reading their responses in the February 2022 issue of Against the Grain.


Matt Ennis.  2018.  “Survey: Print for Reading, ‘E’ for Research,” Library Journal 143:7.

Karin Wulf.  2021.  “Revisiting: Dear Reader, Are You Reading?”  https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2021/06/09/revisiting-dear-reader-are-you-reading/

Weijing Yuan, Marlene Van Ballegooie, and Jennifer L. Robertson.  2018.  “Ebooks Versus Print Books: Format Preferences in an Academic Library.”  Collection Management 43 (1): 28–48.  doi:10.1080/01462679.2017.1365264.  


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