Preventing the second Big Deal

E-resources license negotiators, start your engines!

A group of content aggregators are approaching colleges and universities promising lower costs for vitally-important materials, as well as fast, convenient, patron-friendly digital access—but only if we risk content and platform lock-in, and sign contracts for massive amounts of content at once, including much we don’t need and only some of what we do.

Think I’m talking about another serials Big Deal? For once, I’m not. I’m talking about college textbooks. Some of the e-textbook startups I’m seeing bid fair to lead higher education down the same bad financial and collection-development path the Big Deal did. Academic librarians stand a good chance of preventing the worst excesses, but only if we speak up fast.

Our students have complained about textbook pricing for years, all the way up to state legislatures. Sensitive to the disapproving rumbling about cost escalation in higher education, colleges and universities are casting about for any way to save students money. Since textbook costs are highly visible to students, they’re a logical target. All this takes place, of course, in the shadow of the Wiley v. Kirtsaeng lawsuit, which may soon remove imported textbooks—a major source of lower-cost textbooks for US college students—from the scene.

Startups such as Courseload, CourseSmart, VitalSource, and CafeScribe have inked deals with (or spun off from) major textbook publishers for content they now seek to bundle for sale to universities. Crucially, none of these new companies has a booklist spanning every major textbook publisher, so an institution that signs an exclusive deal with one company will inevitably lock a great many e-textbooks out of consideration. This is unlikely to go down well with faculty, who are accustomed to complete control over which textbooks they assign. Consider, for example, the fury of a textbook author on campus who knows that her book has an e-version, but can’t assign it because her institution signed with a Big E-Textbook Deal provider that hasn’t licensed it.

Cost, both of the deal itself and the necessary integration into campus IT infrastructure and processes, is another serious question: will the price-points be low enough that signing deals with multiple providers is financially feasible? If they are at first, how long will they remain so, after pilot projects and their loss-leader prices pass into history? And what happens if campuses find themselves locked into particular platforms? Campus spokespeople for these deals hold a touching faith that the “negotiating muscle of the full university” will keep prices down. The history of the Big Deal in serials shouts otherwise.

Larger, decentralized universities, such as those that have already signed on for Internet2’s pilot e-textbook project with CourseLoad, appear especially at risk for signing a deal they’ll regret later. If not enough e-textbooks from the bundle achieve adoption, much of the contract money, in addition to the money spent integrating the textbook system with campus courseware, would be flushed down the toilet, rather than saving students any meaningful money. Imagine what state legislatures would make of that on flagship state-university campuses!

Why might the level of adoption be especially inadequate at large institutions? Because they use a lot of books from a lot of publishers, tracking instructor and student textbook preferences and purchasing behavior is no simple task. Merely asking the main bookstore cannot suffice any more owing to the diversity of textbook-sales outlets—online and off-, new and used, domestic and foreign-printed. Estimating total per-student textbook costs is likewise difficult, and the variance is liable to be extreme, such that “average cost” figures do not adequately capture student realities. Given that, how can anyone estimate how many instructors might be able and willing to migrate to e-textbooks offered in a Big E-Textbook Deal, how many students those instructors represent, and what the ultimate student cost savings (if any) would work out to?

Complicating the issue further is instructors’ and students’ ambivalent-at-best response to e-textbooks generally. Even an instructor willing to migrate might not be willing to migrate to an electronic option. Students still vociferously prefer print, desiring better study affordances than current e-textbook platforms can muster. Finally, the “you lease your books, not own them” situation the Big E-Textbook Deals create, with its attendant demolishing of the used-book market, doesn’t appeal to many students and may even fail to save many of them money.

No sane librarian would sign an exclusive contract under these conditions. Any sane librarian would negotiate hard on any contract at all, with multiple competitors in play and lock-in looming dangerously. Ah, but on how many campuses are librarians actively involved in e-textbook negotiations? Nearly all the spokespeople and committee members I’ve seen in the press (the library trade press aside) about e-textbook pilot projects come from academic-affairs offices or campus IT, and that worries me.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can step forward to help.

No one else on campus has our depth of expertise, negotiating skill, and intelligent skepticism. We know from harsh experience the many and varied ways content and platform providers can put our campuses over a barrel. We’ve grilled the salesfolk, read the legalese, struck damaging clauses out of contracts, insisted on better, and said “no” when that was the only sensible option. While I can understand a certain reluctance to bring our experiences with serials to the table—we didn’t exactly cover ourselves with glory in that saga—perhaps we redeem ourselves now by preventing a similar trainwreck with e-textbooks.

Librarians at smaller institutions might do well not to bring these e-textbook deals to the attention of their campuses or consortia, not until some of the bugs shake out and the shape of the deals after pilot projects end is clearer. Should Big E-Textbook Deals flame out at flagships, smaller institutions may sidestep a great deal of hassle and embarrassment merely by prudent delay. I surprise myself by saying this—I approve of experimentation!—but I can’t help fearing all the ways these deals are liable to blow up, as the Big Deal did before them.

Since the e-textbook market is still young, open access has a strong chance of getting in on the ground floor, avoiding the messy many-front battles it has been fighting in entrenched serials markets. It doesn’t hurt that some faculty arrive at an open-access solution spontaneously in response to student financial travails. To aid discovery for open-access e-textbooks, the University of Minnesota has developed an online catalog for them, including (among others) offerings from pioneer open-textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge. Minnesota is also paying faculty to review the books for accuracy and quality. Following Minnesota’s lead bids fair to create a pool of excellent books that are free to students willing to use them electronically-only, and low-cost to those who prefer print.

I was struck some time past by geneticist Rosemary Redfield’s plaint about obsolete instructional approaches in her field’s introductory textbooks. “Textbook publishers are very conservative,” says Redfield, “and even books with an ostensibly molecular focus usually leave the canon intact. Online resources may be able to fill the gap, but finding and modifying them will still be a lot of work.”

Won’t it be easier for Redfield to update genetics training if that work is subsidized up-front such that it becomes available, free or at low cost, for every introductory-genetics student at every college and university everywhere? Can’t libraries help make that happen? Can’t we at least ensure that Redfield isn’t locked into an obsolete canon by a textbook Big Deal?

Note: This post is copyright 2012 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”