In the spring of 2011, the Society of Biblical Literature put some questions to its 8,700 members: were they using e-books? if so, how were they using them? which devices did they use personally, in their scholarly research, and in the classroom?
The organization received more than 1,500 responses, which John Kutsko, the SBL’s executive director, says is “probably twice as much as [any of our] other surveys.” He was encouraged by the response rate, which meant that SBL “could reasonably rely on that data.”
But Kutsko also noted that the higher proportionate response was likely because SBL members “have a dog in the race” of e-books’ success. “Monograph publishing is very important,” he says. “Tenure and promotion depend upon publishing, and I think members have seen a decrease in the [print] opportunities out there. A lot of trade publishers are curtailing their monographs.”
Responses to the survey showed SBL scholars opening up to e-books. While 52.6% said they had not purchased an e-book in the past year, a quarter (24.5%) had bought between one and five, and nearly another quarter (22.9%) had purchased more than five.
Convenience is king. Respondents rated the portability of e-readers, which load multiple tomes on a single device, as a primary reason for liking them. This is particularly true when research involves travel to remote locations where print books might not be readily available.
However, Kutsko cautioned, the survey results indicated that for their research, scholars are still more likely to carry such digital books as PDFs on their laptops, not on e-reading devices. “A sizable percentage of our members own Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. But they were used primarily for recreational reading as well as the more academic trade publishing house books,” Kutsko says. “When it came down to research, they wanted to do it on their computer where they could type and write and save.”
Among scholars who do use e-reading devices, the Kindle (63.4%) outsells the iPad (38.3%) by two to one and the Nook (just 8.6%) by nearly eight to one. Among the advantages of e-books, scholars indicated that their generally lower price was an attractive factor, as well as their ease of searchability.
Kutsko noted that searchability is important not only when conducting one’s own research but also in garnering citations of one’s work in the research of others. “There’s at least some indication—not in the Ph.D. student profile, but certainly in undergrad profiles—that if the book isn’t available digitally, and students can’t search [electronically] for it, a book will get cited less,” he says. “Students today are less likely to physically go to the library and schlep a book from the shelf.” Scholars are realizing that it’s important their work appear in digital formats because it will be cited far more often if it is—and such citations may increase chances for tenure and promotion. Frequent citations are “an indicator that you’re part of a larger scholarly conversation, with a better chance for advancement.”
Overall, Kutsko says, the findings showed that an increasing number of scholars want their work available in both print and digital. “It’s still very important to them to have a physical book,” he says. In the survey, only 14.1% of respondents ranked it “essential” that their work be published in e-book format, compared to 73.6% who regarded a print version as essential. However, nearly half—45.6%—said it was “very important” that their work be published digitally. “They felt that was a sign of their being engaged in the trends of the academy,” says Kutsko.
SBL is not just an organization but also an academic press, with 22 active series and a list of about 35 books a year, so it has a vested interest in taking respondents’ preferences seriously. If customers want SBL’s books in e-book format, it will have to provide that. Shortly after the survey, SBL signed with BiblioVault, a digital distributor that is part of Chicago Distribution Services. Since the survey also confirmed that members wanted scholarly monographs primarily in PDF versions to read on their computers, the more heavily academic of SBL’s offerings will be in that format, and SBL is in the process of digitizing its entire backlist to PDF.
But SBL has also started converting some of its more accessible titles into flowable texts that are appropriate for the Kindle or EPub devices. “We want to be selective and cherry-pick our books that have a wider use in the classroom or even among the wider public,” says Kutsko. Some of those titles will include Oded Barowski’s Daily Life in Biblical Times and Billie Jean Collins’s The Hittites and Their World; Kutsko says the latter has gotten strong course adoption.
Mindful of the rapid changes in the e-book world and in reading habits, SBL plans a follow-up longitudinal study in two years. By then it will also be able to tell “whether our changes and strategies have been effective,” Kutsko says. In a publishing landscape in which change seems the only constant, up-to-the-minute information is vital.