Debate over the pros and cons of implementing e-books into schools continues to be robust in publishing and educational circles. But most observers agree that e-books are here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future, which is the best anyone can predict in an era of technological advances. As a new academic year kicks off and more students than ever have access to e-books, we take a look at where the educational e-book market stands today and how those titles are being purchased and used by schools.

The precise size of the educational e-book market is difficult to quantify because of the various ways e-books are packaged for sale to schools. According to the Association of American Publishers elhi report for 2014, publisher revenue for the pre-K–12 categories that contain e-books (bundles, standalone software, and platforms) breaks down into the following: bundles account for $1.2 billion, and standalone software and platforms account for $382 million, for a combined total of roughly $1.6 billion.

Not surprisingly, the significant revenue from, and growth potential of, the educational use of e-books means that more companies monitor the scope and the trends of this market segment, as the publishers, distributors, and consumers of these products work to find the best ways to work together. A January 2015 survey of 475 educators nationwide, conducted by LightSail Education (a tablet-based literacy platform that partners with Baker & Taylor), revealed that 94% of respondents expect that the share of books read as e-books in their schools/districts over the next two years will increase, and 52% of school/district leaders said they want their students to be reading digital books.

Putting such expectations more concretely, 66% of schools across the country currently offer e-books, according to the 2014 School Library Journal “Survey of E-book Usage in Schools.” That’s a 10% increase over the previous year’s results from the same survey. Participants noted that demand for e-books and circulation of e-books in school libraries rose a bit in 2014–2015.

The portion of children who have read at least one e-book has increased steadily over the past five years, according to Scholastic’s 2015 “Kids and Family Reading Report.” In 2010, 35% of kids had read at least one e-book, and in 2014 that number was up to 61%. Most kids who read e-books do so at home, but the percentage of children who read e-books at school has jumped from 12% in 2012 to 21% in 2014.

Follett, which provides e-book content to 65,000 K–12 schools in the U.S., has seen increasing demand from its customers as well. Nader Qaimari, senior v-p of content solutions and services in the K–12 division, gives the numbers further context. “Our platform has been around for 10 years,” he says. “In the initial years, there was tremendous growth in our e-book business. There is still growth—double digits every year—but not as much as in those early days.”

Jennifer Allen, president of the Educational Book and Media Association and e-books acquisition manager at the Booksource (which focuses exclusively on supplying titles and collections for the classroom), has seen slight growth in the e-book business over the past few years. “I think in the classroom, teachers are still trying to figure out how to best use e-books,” she says. “There is much more e-book interest in the library part of the school. Librarians typically have more direct control over their money, while the classroom teacher often has to go through a reading coordinator or a curriculum specialist, or another adviser for purchases. In that case, the decision maker is further away from the person who actually uses the e-books.”

However, Allen points out that the teachers she works with are very tech-savvy, using various tools. “Classroom teachers are using lots of digital content even if they haven’t moved into e-books yet,” she says. “Growth for e-books has been small in the classroom, but I think it will change in a few years. We do customer surveys and most of them tell us that they will buy e-books in the future.”

At Arbordale Publishing, public relations coordinator Heather Williams says that when it comes to growth in the company’s e-book business, “we tend to go through spurts.” Arbordale sells subscriptions to its interactive e-book catalogue in one-year increments or as a lifetime plan, and it also offers its titles through a variety of other distributors. That breakdown can sometimes prove a challenge. “We’ve seen some shrinking of our direct sales when schools that used to buy from us are wanting to implement a single system for their district,” Williams says. “When this happens, people who have bought a lifetime license from us have to re-buy those titles from the new distributor.”

E-book and digital sales are on the upswing at Capstone. “Approximately 40% of our business is digital, and that’s rapidly growing,” says chief content officer Ashley Andersen Zantop. “There’s no question that demand [for e-books] is increasing,” she adds. Capstone e-books are available through the publisher’s own platform, via its MyON literacy program, which also includes titles from other publishers, and through other e-book distributors.

Calculating Costs

The industry’s research shows that many schools are already purchasing e-books and that many others aspire to do so. But how does a school or school district decide to enter the e-book marketplace, and what are the barriers or challenges that keep it from being able to make that move? In recent years, school budgets have been notoriously tight, and, these days, as one educator put it, “school library money is just drying up.”

Schools that want to purchase e-books must assess the cost of the e-books and also the cost of purchasing devices on which to read the e-books, as well as ensuring the proper tech setups (adequate Wi-Fi access, Internet filters, bandwidth, and storage) to allow access to the books on site. Schools that can afford it must decide which devices to buy and how many. Schools that have a BYOD (bring your own device) plan need to be certain that the digital content they purchase will work smoothly on a variety of devices without hiccups. Most schools’ e-book collections are accessible remotely as well, but requires that students have Internet access.

The digital divide, as it affects students’ access to e-books in school and at home, is of such concern that earlier this year President Obama announced the Open E-books Initiative to help address the issue (see sidebar, p. 30).

In some instances—largely in the frenzied early days of e-book and tech adoption—schools found themselves hitting the ground running in terms of e-book decision-making when they obtained (by gift or purchase) devices for their schools before they had developed an e-book or tech strategy. Some vendors noted that in cases like that, they have sometimes fielded such requests as “Our school just received laptops/tablets/e-readers; what do we do now?”

The increased need for IT expertise in schools and school districts has created a multifaceted shift. School/district staff IT specialists are playing a bigger role, educators and e-book vendors are gaining more knowledge of the field, and local tech companies are winning new business.

“Districts and school IT people are now more informed,” says Williams at Arbordale. “We see very different questions being asked, and that’s a big change from a year or two ago. Tech specialists are really getting involved with purchases now, when teachers, librarians, and reading specialists used to drive it. And now I know a lot more about tablets!” Andersen Zantop at Capstone concurs. “Educators are getting more sophisticated about asking for what they need to fit their situation,” she says. “They’re not just responding to pressure to get digital content—it has to be a good fit.”

Two years ago, staff from Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska crafted a technology plan that helped them successfully implement e-books and devices into their 56 K–12 schools. Earlier this year, the Lincoln Board of Education presented a revised 10-year $50 million proposal that will provide devices to all students in grades three through 12 by 2017–2018. “The plan was very thoughtful,” says Mary Reiman, director of library media services for Lincoln Public Schools. “We are fortunate to have a superintendent and board that are supportive and visionary.” She notes that all of the divisions of LPS worked well together to figure out the details for how the district would fund and support the devices and the plan, including how they would train staff.

According to Reiman, the LPS tech strategy includes a methodic rollout. “Last year was our pilot year,” she says. “We gave devices to students in one middle school and one elementary school.” She says the trial provided valuable information for moving forward. “We learned that we need a device that is easy for students to use and decided to go with Chromebooks, because they are more manageable than laptops or tablets, and students can still use and access everything they need.” This year every sixth grader in LPS will get a Chromebook. Next year, third through fifth graders, seventh graders, and students at two high schools will get Chromebooks, and in the 2017–2018 school year, eighth graders and the remaining high schools will get Chromebooks. Reiman says that as part of the overall plan, kindergarten through second grade students will have iPads in the classroom to be used as learning stations. “Lots of other smaller districts in the state of Nebraska are ahead of us in adopting a one-to-one plan,” she says. “But we have 35,000 students, and we didn’t want to fail. You don’t want your first year to be full of issues.”

Once a school or school district has made the decision to purchase e-books for students, an e-book vendor must be chosen. Making that selection can be a head-spinning ordeal. While public libraries have largely settled on one dominant vendor (OverDrive), the educational market remains splintered, and schools need to assess the pricing models and services offered by a wide variety of companies, both publishers and distributors. And distributors must abide by any restrictions placed on e-book purchases by publishers. Schools will find an array of business models for purchasing and licensing e-books, including subscription (e.g., Storia from Scholastic, and Epic!), perpetual access, term license, license with a set number of circulations (publishers including HarperCollins), concurrent use, bundled within another digital product, and pay per use (e.g., Brain Hive’s $1 per circ/check-out). There may be additional parameters within these models as well, including whether titles have unlimited simultaneous access or must be used by one student at a time.

“The offer that is most attractive to schools, the most popular and most cost-effective, is the unlimited perpetual access model, which provides one copy of a title for the school that they can access in perpetuity,” says Qaimari at Follett. “But the decision [of which products to purchase] is not always driven by financials,” he stresses. “The maintenance of a system or platform is key. Teachers and librarians need to keep track of the materials and need to know when a title will expire and when it becomes available to another student. We can help them with that.”

Allen of Booksource observes, “Of course, the perpetual model is the most financially appealing to teachers because they pay once and use the e-book forever, like they use a print book. But we realize that’s just not sustainable for a publisher.”

As educators become more familiar with the numerous models, they are discovering which ones work best under different circumstances. “It was important to us to build the base of the e-book collection with one-time/lifetime licenses because if we didn’t find money the next year, we had nothing,” says Ann Fondren, who recently retired from her position as division library coordinator for Spotsylvania County Schools in Virginia. “But librarians are getting the hot titles that are subscription-based now, too.”

In some cases, schools choose an e-book vendor with whom they have already established a customer relationship via the purchase of other products such as print books or software. “We started our e-book division launch with e-books purchased through Follett School Solutions,” Fondren says. “We were already using Destiny Library Manager [a Follett product], but I thought that if it was going to function just as a library catalogue for us, it was an awfully expensive piece of software. Once our students began interacting with the e-books in Destiny, they started using many of the program’s other interactive features as well.” Among the features she most appreciated, she says, was districtwide visibility of the titles for students using the system’s catalogue. “We were able to launch the one-to-one [one copy per user] titles across the division while still retaining the one-to-one checkout rules. By doing this we were able to provide low-reading-level books to our middle and high school students, offering more reading opportunities for our ELL [English-language learners] students, as well as students with special needs. This was important to us.”

Educational consultant and writer Shannon Miller, who worked extensively with e-books when she was district teacher librarian and technology specialist at Van Meter Community School in Van Meter, Iowa, also wanted a system that could integrate many functions and features. “For me, MackinVIA was the perfect choice because I could add our e-books, databases, audiobooks, videos, and other links, such as digital tools, student-created digital work, free resources, and Google Docs, anything that had a link.”

At Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif., teacher librarian Jane Lofton says, “I have e-books from several vendors—Follett, Mackin, Lerner, ABC-CLIO. I started four years ago, trying them out.” But the biggest success she’s had with her students is with the e-books obtained via EBSCO’s databases. “I tried out their E-book High School Collection about two years ago,” she says. “Subscribing to that has been the best decision by far with e-books. Then, a year ago we upgraded to EBSCO’s E-book Academic Collection. I couldn’t begin to put a dent in adding print copies of those books for what I pay for this subscription, and I especially love that all the titles are licenses for multi-user simultaneous use.” She says her students use it extensively for research.

As the Lincoln Public Schools started purchasing content, Reiman says, “Whoever has what we need, that’s who we’ll buy from. We’re working with Mackin, who is our print book vendor, and with OverDrive. The public library uses OverDrive, so many of the kids already know how to download. We also use ABDO, Rourke, and others. I don’t know that any one vendor can have everything.”

Taking a different tack, New York City’s Department of Education is planning to enter into a $30 million, three-year contract (with an option to renew for an additional two years) with Amazon Digital Services to provide a storefront that offers e-books and digital content to the city’s 1,800 public schools and 1.1 million students. Before this, individual schools purchased e-books on their own, which was not a cost-effective approach. Through the deal, Amazon will be the DOE’s distributor for e-textbooks and other vendor-acquired e-content that was not specified, and it will manage all e-content. With featured user tools, teachers can view and track student progress, and students can use a built-in dictionary and write content reviews. A special five-member committee reviewed proposals from 14 different companies. According to a copy of Amazon’s proposal that was posted on Politico New York, the e-tailer came in significantly cheaper than OverDrive, which also submitted a proposal. Representatives from Amazon declined to comment on the deal for this article.

(Note: The Panel for Education Policy was slated to vote on the Amazon contract at its August 26 meeting. In light of complaints voiced by advocates from the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, the meeting was canceled and the contract delayed. DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye released the following statement on the matter: “We are committed to serving all of our students, and we have decided to postpone the vote on this contract in response to concerns raised by advocates in the blind and visually impaired communities. We are working closely with Amazon and community partners to ensure that all school communities—including those serving visually impaired students—will be able to take advantage of the e-book and e-content marketplace when it meets their needs. We look forward to submitting an amended proposal to the Panel for Educational Policy later this fall.”)

Supporting Customers and Products

During the e-book selection process, vendors may work with educators to help them refine their purchasing choices. Qaimari at Follett says that his company’s longevity as distributor—140 years—affords his colleagues great confidence in their approach to this aspect of the business. “We understand schools and where they are on the digital spectrum,” he says. “We are format agnostic—we just try to identify the best content for a particular school. Other companies can’t provide the service like we do, and we’re well-positioned because of that.”

Allen at Booksource similarly notes that the expertise she and her colleagues have developed over the years is valuable to their customers. “We have knowledgeable staff and provide individualized attention, which allows us to get the right books to the right classroom and the right student regardless of format,” she says. “In the end, it’s all about the content, not the shell it comes in.”

Many other e-book vendors take pride in their level of customer service and support for their products, citing staff, webinars, on-site and live online training, tech support, videos, and online and print troubleshooting guides as some of the ways they are being responsive in this area. “We offer honed and sharpened practical instruction on how teachers can achieve success with our products,” says Evan St. Lifer, v-p of digital initiatives at Scholastic. “We have advisory boards of customers we are in touch with, teachers, librarians, coordinators, and principals,” he adds, noting that feedback from the advisory boards is essential. “We ask them how they’re using our products, how we can do better, and what are the new tech demands they’re facing. We want to stay ahead.”

With similar goals, Arbordale launched its Fun E-reader Grant earlier this year. The grant was awarded to 125 schools (three schools per state) that were selected in May 2015. For the next two years, the participating schools receive free access to Arbordale e-books. In return, the schools participate in monthly discussions on different topics related to the e-book program and content. “It helps us talk with teachers and see what they need,” says Williams. “We get feedback on content and they let us know if there are any holes in our curriculum. We get access to that world and we see the challenges teachers have getting digital books into the hands of kids.”

Discoverability Issues

One of the biggest challenges that educators and librarians face when they implement e-books into their schools is making sure that their students, colleagues, administrators, and students’ parents know that the e-books are there.

Consultant Miller offers several tips for spreading the word. “First, make sure they are added to your library catalogue and that you make a big deal about this addition,” she says. “Along with that, it is important to figure out how you are going to organize your e-books and what platform you are going to use.” She suggests that proprietary platforms from e-book vendors often provide features that allow users to easily see everything that’s available to them in one place. Miller widely publicized and held a schoolwide event for students, teachers, and K–12 parents for the rollout of her school’s e-book collection. A representative from MackinVIA came to help, and, Miller adds, “We also invited the librarian and staff from our public library so they too could know about and support our new online resources, especially the e-book collection.”

There are more traditional approaches as well. “Anytime I could talk about the e-books, I would,” Miller says. “Every day, day to day, it was important just to keep reminding our entire school community that we had this rich digital collection as well as the print collection within our library.” She also paired print and digital content whenever possible. “I would make book signs for the shelf that would tie in to an e-book or pull print books into a display entitled ‘Check these out online, too!’ ”

Fondren says her school district had a bit of a learning curve in publicizing e-books. “I think this was the area we could have improved on,” she admits. “We didn’t think about the fact that when our students walked into our libraries, they couldn’t see the e-books, so they didn’t think about them—they aren’t sitting on wooden shelves with the rest of the collection.” She says she always could tell when a librarian shared the e-books with students because the e-book circs in that building would spike.

“We have to be very proactive and deliberate about promoting e-books,” says Fondren. “Adding them to print book displays by putting covers in plastic stands, including them as part of book-related bulletin boards, promoting them on the school and library websites, as well as setting up displays at parent nights are ways to constantly remind students and parents that they are available,” she notes. “One of the best ways to promote e-books with students and teachers is to model their use by incorporating them into content lessons in the library to not only show students how to use them but to give teachers ideas as well.”

Qaimari says that Follett has developed what he described as a “nurturing program” to help librarians and educators with these promotional efforts. “Starting this school year, customers who purchase a Follett e-book will receive a call from a Follett customer service representative with information on how to best set up and use our e-book collections,” he explains. “They also will be given access to our free Resource Center with everything they need to be successful, including e-book lesson plans and email templates schools can use to promote e-books to teachers, parents, administrators, and students.” The Resource Center offers other customer service features like live training. But Qaimari echoes Fondren when he says that some of the best exposure comes from “integration of the content into the curriculum” and touts the company’s free Classroom Connections resource that enables teachers to do such things as assign e-books to students with assessments, built-in notes, and collaboration capabilities.

A Look at Usage Patterns

Most of the educators we spoke with say that they are largely using nonfiction e-books and digital content that aligns with their curriculum, but have also focused on developing a well-rounded collection, as funding permits.

“We used e-books within the library for reading, research, and as a place to pull information out for digital projects being created,” says Miller. “Classroom teachers were using them for the same things.”

Lincoln Public Schools felt strongly about keeping curriculum at the fore of all its e-book decisions. When the Board of Education first approved the technology plan, board member Kathy Danek told the Lincoln Journal Star, “I just want to reassure our community that technology does not drive curriculum. Curriculum will drive the use of technology.”And Reiman adds, “I think we’ll be using our devices with nonfiction to teach curriculum for the first few years.”

Fondren says that in Spotsylvania, “We purchased e-books for a variety of purposes and we incorporated them into our library collections. We wanted titles that would support the curriculum, but we also wanted to provide the books that would get students excited and make them want to try out the e-books. After our initial e-book launch, we added professional titles for our teachers. Professional titles are expensive, and we have always had a hard time keeping up with them.”

Fondren is among those who mentioned that e-books are often most ideal for struggling readers at various stages. “It’s hard for a 16-year-old to check out and carry around a book at a low reading level, but with an e-book nobody knows what you’re reading.” Others noted that the tools included with many e-books, such as highlighting and audio narration, are especially helpful to students with reading difficulties or ELL students.

Lofton does not see the students at her high school doing a lot of e-book reading for pleasure. “Publishers are trying to replicate the print reading experience, but it’s still a little clunky,” she says. “Part of why we haven’t moved faster to fiction and pleasure reading at my school is that the title selection is still weak.” She says that the most popular titles were available only via a one-user-at-a-time option, which doesn’t work well for her.

The P and E Blend

No matter how far along educators are with incorporating digital content into their work, those we spoke with all insist that a blend of print and digital content is the current standard in classrooms and school libraries, and is likely to remain so for a long time. And the reasons for maintaining a blended collection are philosophical as well as financial. The fact that print still has staying power is also very welcome news for publishers.

“[Digital] is growing, but the print business is still very strong,” says Allen of Booksource. “I’ve not seen a changeover from print to e-book sales. Most teachers are using e-books in tandem with print books. I know of only a few classrooms that have no print.” Qaimari has seen similar patterns at Follett. In addition to digital growth, he says, ”We also saw growth in print this year, which was surprising to us.”

As Scholastic sees it, “Print isn’t going away, even with enhanced adoption of e-books,” says St. Lifer. And at LPS, Reiman notes, “We have math and language arts digital textbooks right now, but financially we can’t say that we don’t need print.”

“Sometimes print is the right solution,” says Andersen Zantop at Capstone. “Budgets are what they are. We try to meet whatever the educator’s needs are, from the most robust solution to one that might be very simple. But we have to be ready for both and have the same level of commitment for both. We want to meet educators and students where they are.”

Students have opinions when it comes to print vs. digital as well. In Scholastic’s 2015 “Kids and Family Reading Report,” children expressed strong preferences when comparing book formats. Nearly two-thirds of kids (65%) agreed with the survey statement “I’ll always want to read books printed on paper even though there are e-books available.” That percentage is up from 60% in the 2012 survey. And of the 61% of children who have ever read an e-book, according to the survey, more than half said they prefer to read print books.

Peering into the Future

“I’d like to see e-books that are more user-friendly for mobile devices,” says Lofton, who notes that most of the students in her school, which is located in an affluent district in Southern California, have smartphones.

If she had a wish list for publishers, Fondren says, “I’d like to remind them that we are the last great hope to keep kids reading. I wish publishers would trust us to follow the rules in place and not put too many hurdles in front of us.” She also hopes that publishers would understand that “we want to provide students with as many reading options as possible, and e-books will not stop us from buying print materials.”

And for anyone unsure about whether to go digital, Fondren has some advice: “The e-book world is still a little like the wild wild West. There are rules, but nobody has the same rules. Don’t wait for the dust to settle to jump in, because it’s not going to.”

In the days ahead, “the traditional e-book model may not continue,” Qaimari says. “For publishers it has been all about access and digitizing content. But when it comes to learning, you need to recreate the experience of a book in the classroom, not just provide a facsimile. You need to understand what teachers and students are trying to accomplish to really drive the utility of a book and make better use of content.” He points to Follett’s release this month of its new Lightbox product, which embeds multimedia content like video, Google Maps, audio, slideshows, and web links within the information on a specific topic.

“You have to be looking forward,” says Reiman. “E-books are expanding our librarians’ opportunities for accessing information and for showing students all the ways they can learn and look for the best answer. E-books are changing our school library world.”

Below, more on the subject of today’s educational e-book market.

Digital Resources Beyond the E-book

New Open E-books Initiative Democratizes Access

Publishers Tracking Trends In the Educational Space

Back to School Goals and Advice

Q & A with School Librarian Leslie Preddy