The growth of trade e-book sales has been a hot topic at this year's London Book Fair, but it has also been acknowledged on the show floor that the education and academic markets for e-books are much further developed. In findings that portend even more growth for digital publishing, a packed end-of-the-day panel on Monday featuring participants and administrators from Britain’s Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) discussed the results of a recently concluded "observatory" project in which JISC provided free access for two years to 36 core e-textbooks in science, technology and medicine to all U.K. university students, in order to study usage patterns.

The full report will be released in June. The initial findings "shattered some myths" about e-books, said Hazel Woodward, university librarian and press director at Cranford (U.K.) University. "We hope the study will help put some dynamism into the marketplace."

Among the most important findings for publishers is that having access to the e-texts had "no impact" on print sales. While the e-texts were "heavily used," figures showed that print sales, anaylzed using Nielsen statistics, and coupled with a formula for natural attrition of print sales, remained steady. In addition, Woodward said the study laid to rest the myth of a so-called "Google" generation, as use of the e-textbooks was strong across all age groups. As for how students used the e-books, specifically, whether they read online, the jury is still out, Woodward noted. The average session was about 13 minutes and involved eight pages, but users generally dipped in and out of the e-texts, rather than read them for extended periods.

Caren Milloy, director of e-books for JISC, said the two-year effort was largest e-book study ever conducted. It garnered some 48,000 survey responses, as well as analysis of raw server logs at 127 U.K. participating universities, all bolstered by focus groups. The e-textbooks were faciliated by Ingram Digital Group's MyiLibrary unit, and included content from Pearson Education, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier Science, Palgrave Macmillan, Cambridge University Press and Thomas Telford.

The study also illuminated some tough e-book challenges. Among them are discoverability issues, particularly the need for publishers to provide good MARC records for their e-books. The books were accessed almost entirely from library catalogs, and suggested that libraries had a strong role to play in the provision of e-books and textbooks for students. The study also raised key issues surrounding Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions, which users and administrators found troublesome, inefficient and were "absolutely hated."

The information generated by the project will now be shared with participating publishers and the academic world in an effort to help the market develop, especially in regard to perhaps the biggest issue with e-books, and e-textbooks: pricing and licensing issues.

JISC's Liam Earney noted that users are "deeply unhappy" with the current models for buying e-books, and urged publishers to see e-books as a "new market to exploit and grow," rather than a threat to their existing business. The study's results, he said, revealed a close correlation between print use and electronic use. "This is still a mixed economy," he stressed, "and we need a business model that recognizes this."

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