The digital model that treats books like magazines

The digital model that treats books like magazines

The digital revolution has been something of an asteroid for the whole publishing industry, but it has presented particularly gnarly challenges to libraries, colleges and schools. 

How to transfer collections from the stacks to the screen? How does digital lending work, both practically and financially? Which texts would publishers be willing to digitise, and which would languish in analogue ignominy on the shelves?

As institutions have rushed to evolve their offerings, it has become increasingly obvious that e-books are not always the solution - especially when it comes to specialist texts. 

“Complicated books need to be digitised exactly as they are,” explains Adam Hodgkin, co-founder of Exact Editions, a digital platform for magazine publishers that was launched in 2005.  “Many books, especially those that are highly designed or heavily illustrated, are not being sold effectively to institutions, mainly because the e-book file format does not work for precisely laid out pages.”

Having spent the past decade turning complex consumer magazines into their precise digital doppelgangers, the Exact Editions team is now hoping to do the same for books. Their new digital books service launches this week across a variety of genres - history, literature, poetry, ecology, sociology, and biography – in partnership with four publishers: Carcanet, Seren, Liverpool University Press, and Permanent Publications.

Although Exact Editions digital books will look exactly like their print counterparts, they also feature advanced search technology, smart linking capabilities and institutional functionality. They can be read across web, iOS and Android native apps using IP authenticated network access, and when purchased, the institution receives the book as a perpetual access acquisition, including no usage limits and instant availability for all users.

However, Hodgkin believes that it isn’t just the design of these exact digital reproductions, but their method of distribution, that will catalyse change in the industry. Just as they sell magazine subscriptions to universities, colleges, corporate and government libraries, Exact Editions now plans to sell books as digital editions licensed on a campus-wide basis – a move that will require publishers to adopt a whole new attitude to the pricing and value of books.

“Because book publishers have hitherto been thinking about supplying digital books to universities as analogous to making a print sale, it appears rather illogical or even unfair to charge much more than would be charged for the printed book,” Hodgkin says. “But this mindset ignores the value that comes from granting and delivering campus wide, multiuser, perpetual access to a digital resource.”

Instead, Exact Editions sets a matrix from which publishers choose the ‘level’ at which their book should be priced. A small institution will pay considerably less than a large university (so The Royal College of Music will pay much less than the University of Texas), but the publishers themselves decide whether the book should be priced at a low, mid, moderate or high level. So the lowest priced books at the smallest institutions might cost $25 for outright purchase, while the highest might set a large campus back $495.

“We’re not going to annoy our friendly library partners by suggesting that publishers should price books at the same sort of level as the most recherché scientific periodicals,” Hodgkin says. “But we do say that books can be worth a lot more to universities and libraries when they are in digital format.” 

He believes that by developing these “flexible and generous” licensing models, book publishers will begin to reclaim some of the library budgets that have been lost to books in the last twenty years. 

“STM (scientific, technical and medical) publishers have for too long exploited the opportunity for big deals and bundled pricing,” he claims. “Books need a subtler and a more competitive approach, an approach where the publisher is in charge of the pricing and the librarian in charge of the selection. Less bundling and more competition will help the market to grow.”