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E-books, eBooks, freebooks: Will online replace traditional books?

Roger Atkinson

Depending on your perspective, electronic books have been developing for many years, or are a very recent innovation. To illustrate the longer term perspective, Project Gutenberg [1] is a well known example of an electronic book developer, originating in 1971 [2], although development was very slow until the 1990s. To represent the 'recent innovation' perspective, a plethora of references could be cited (Table 1 is a very small sample), reflecting a great diversification in the concept of an electronic book and the practices of electronic publishing. What I seek to do in this brief column is outline key features of this 'post-Gutenberg' diversification, with particular reference to text books for undergraduates, and to the descriptors traditional, online and free (especially the last two, which just happen to be my favourites).

To begin with, we are all familiar with traditional textbooks as used very widely in undergraduate teaching and learning. We are familiar with a text book's physical presentation in hard cover and soft cover versions printed on paper, its logical structuring into chapters and sections designed for learning, navigating through it using tables of contents, index, chapter summaries, etc, and how to integrate it into a unit of study. We have some experience with selection of text books and the marketing and other processes that deliver text book purchases to students, usually via the university's bookshop and very often sourced from a multinational corporate publisher. However, whilst many lecturers may be alert and sympathetic to students' complaints about the cost of textbooks, it's probable that relatively few have experience with the new growth direction which has the potential to reshape the picture concerning cost to students. This is electronic books, or e-books, or ebooks, or online books. To digress briefly, whilst online is my preference, the order of popularity, according to the number of Google "Results" [3], is ebooks most popular, e-books upper intermediate, electronic books lower intermediate, online books less popular, and "open textbooks" [4] little used. Whichever one of these terms you prefer, it is important to remember that enduring academic aspects such as logical structuring and how to integrate into a unit of study are to a large extent the same, irrespective of whether the book is traditional or online.

The descriptors online and free are also quite familiar, though perhaps more so in the context of reading related to research projects or to references for teaching and learning purposes, than for textbooks prescribed for a unit of study. Certainly we are all familiar with research articles published in open access journals and conference proceedings, particularly in the context of publishing by professional societies such as ascilite (AJET [5] and all Proceedings [6] free online) and HERDSA (only Proceedings [7] free online). Free online references are widely used in teaching, and such use is likely to expand under a range of stimuli such as the development of learning object repositories, for example MERLOT [8], Connexions [9] and OER Commons [10]. Indeed, one could argue that the traditional textbook is becoming the last bastion of the dominance of academic publishing by large scale multinational publishers such as the Wiley group [11], Taylor & Francis Group [12], and Reed Elsevier [13]. It is a bastion under attack, for example as illustrated by a New York Times editorial, "That book costs how much?" [14], media articles such as "Online 'open textbooks' save students cash" [15] and "Don't buy that textbook, download it free" [16], and campaigns such as Make Textbooks Affordable [17]. The attack strategies are based upon familiar ICT fundamentals, marginal costs approaching zero for three "... key factors: cost of information storage, cost of digital network transport, and the cost and efficiency of search processes that enable readers to find the content they are seeking." [18] It is rather difficult to give away free books in print format, but online books for free is becoming increasingly feasible and competitive.

Apart from the money question, online and free have another special significance. Complaints about being "forced to read on screen", or about having to use one's own ink and paper if needing a printed copy, are much less likely to occur if "the price is right!!" (Table 1). Another perspective was highlighted in a recent AJET Editorial marking the retirement of its printed version:

Another increasingly important factor is that with a whole new suite of environmental and conservation concerns now gripping the world, many people feel that the print medium should be used more sparingly, as illustrated by the common occurrence of email signature file messages such as "Please consider the environment before printing this message" or similar. [19]
However, enthusiasm for online books, especially free online, has to be tempered by two considerations. Firstly, as the study by Austin, Heffernan and David (2008) [20] has shown, Australian academics are not markedly enthusiastic about open access publishing of their research. Attitudes towards prescribing online commercial textbooks or online free textbooks are likely to be more conservative, although that is a hypothesis to be tested rather than an evidence based finding. Secondly, the major commercial publishers will fight hard to maintain their dominance and protect their income streams, with innovative use of ICTs, discounting, and possibly innovative licensing practices analogous to those now in widespread use for academic journals. Major commercial publishers conduct research into online book delivery (see [21] and [22], for example) and no doubt their counter attacks are well-informed.

Table 1 presents an initial attempt at a "taxonomy of online textbook business models", based on a discrete spectrum ranging from wholly free online to fully commercial. It is intended to show that there is considerable diversity, and that the dividing line between the free categories and the commercial categories may be blurred by innovative licencing and discounting (model 4). In particular, fears about rampant piracy as occurred in the recorded music industry may be addressed by techniques which deliver licenced textbook access to an institutional LMS (Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle, etc) for reading by a defined class of students, who do not pay individually (model 5), instead benefiting from an institutionally negotiated (and paid) "mates rate". Put in another way, major commercial publisher offers may tend towards this kind: "If you site licence online textbook X, and facilitate our anti-piracy measures, and assist our marketing by bulk buying, we will offer a big discount and give up on sales to individual readers". From the institutional perspective, if there is no discounting, then turn to model 2.

Table 1: Towards a taxonomy of online textbook business models

Business modelIllustrative sitesIllustrative quotations
1. Wholly free online - out of copyrightUniversity of Adelaide Library.
What is the purpose of this site?
The purpose of this site is: to provide access to the "classic" works of civilisation; to promote reading of the same; and for the editor to have fun. [RA: How can you not be beguiled by this win-win, fun scenario? I love it!]
Project Gutenberg Australia free ebooks ebook etext etexts
These free ebooks or etexts may be read on a computer using a simple text editor or viewer. The books are in the 'public domain' in Australia and all have been prepared by volunteers. [RA: Pioneers to be honoured]
2. Wholly free online - copyrighted but purchasing not required
[Typically, no special hardware or software required]
Athabasca University Press.
... released the 2nd edition of the edited book - Theory and Practice of Online Learning. This book is published in paper and available for free online... The first edition was downloaded in its entirety over 80,000 times... the price is right!! (IT Forum posting by Terry Anderson, 5 Jun 2008) [RA: Good onya Terry, self promotion is forgiven!]
ANU E Press.
Why should I submit to a new epress instead of an existing print publisher?
... all ANU E Press titles combine quality peer review with reasonably fast production times. ... currently no charge for downloading our titles, you are participating in a global process of 'public good'. [RA: Why the ambivalence implied by the qualifier, 'currently', when onto a 'public good' thing?]
MIT OpenCourseWare.
In the year 2000, a faculty committee first proposed this bold and innovative idea, and since then, the vast majority of our faculty - over 90% - have voluntarily contributed their teaching materials for free and open publishing on OCW. [RA: Not exactly fitting into the 'textbook' mould, but eminently worthy, a 'must represent' category]
MERLOT. Open Textbooks Project.
... goal ... is to increase the number of faculty who incorporate open learning materials into their courses in place of commercial books [RA: MERLOT is not a publisher, it provides directories of free online materials, one category being "Open textbooks"]
3. Mixed free online and for purchaseNational Academies Press.
Read more than 4,000 books online FREE! More than 1900 PDFs now available for sale [RA: Mainly specialised scientific, technical, medical]
4. Fully commercial, potential suggested for purchase by site licence (i.e. institution may buy access for students)Oxford University Press.
Oxford Scholarship Online is a vast and rapidly expanding cross-searchable library which now offers quick and easy access to the full text of 2,257 Oxford books. ... available by annual subscription or purchase to libraries and institutions.
Innovative e-Learning starts with superior content. Blackboard Course Cartridges® ... With over 25 publishers, 40 imprints, 60 disciplines, thousands of titles and countless possibilities, ... [RA: How can you ® the common words 'course' and 'cartridge'?]
5. Fully commercial, for individual purchase only
[Some publishers require ebook readers to obtain special hardware or software, or both]
John Wiley & Sons, Inc. http://www.wiley.com/
WileyPLUS combines the complete, dynamic online text with all of the teaching & learning resources you need, in one easy-to-use system. You assign WileyPLUS, but students decide how to buy it: they can buy the new, printed text packaged with a WileyPLUS registration code at no additional cost - or choose digital delivery of WileyPLUS, use the online text and integrated read, study, & practice tools, and save up to 60%* off the cost of the new book. [RA: I have not tested]
Taylor & Francis eBookstore - ePrint and eCopy FAQs http://www.ebookstore.tandf
What is eCopy?
To prevent copyright infringements and ensure legitimate usage of authentic content, copying text or any other means of data transfer is not currently endorsed. The eCopy service overcomes this issue. eCopy is a cost-effective text reproduction service that allows the Ctrl C and Ctrl V operations for copying and pasting text. [RA: Not tested]

To return to my beginning, "Will online replace traditional books?", the simple answer is "yes", but that's not enough. We must look to a more precise, though more complex, formulation of the question. Under the influence of online (and its underlying technologies), traditional business models for textbooks will be replaced by new models, somewhere in the tentative spectrum in Table 1. Exactly where, I hesitate to predict. It's dependent upon the aggregated outcomes from decisions by a large number of individual lecturers, "What textbook(s) shall I prescribe for next year's presentations of the units I teach?" Without hesitation, I predict (or urge, nag, cajole, plead, etc) that the most scholarly positioning will be towards upward movement in the Table 1 spectrum. Never forget that the undergraduate textbook market is populated by relatively weak buyers (who do what their lecturer says) and powerful, sophisticated sellers (adept at drawing lecturers' attention to their wares). It is an imperfect market and given our recent, dramatic exposure to a quintessential example of imperfect markets, the subprime mortgage market, there is no excuse for failing to detect this, especially when the technological signals are so clear.

One more prediction. The role and integration of the prescribed textbook in tertiary teaching and learning is a "growth topic" (for AJET and ascilite examples, see [23] and [24]). If you spot an online textbook research opportunity within your teaching activities, grab it. One way to develop an opportunity is to be an active proponent for upward movement in the Table 1 spectrum.


  1. Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/ and Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/
  2. Lebert, M. (2008). An essay on the history of Project Gutenberg (1971-2008). http://www.pg-news.org/20080524/pg-1971-2008-lebert-en/
  3. Google. http://www.google.com.au/ [11 Oct 2008; exact phrase searches]
  4. Connexions. What are open textbooks? http://cnx.org/content/m15226/latest/
  5. AJET (Australasian Journal of Educational Technology). http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/
  6. ascilite Conferences. http://www.ascilite.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=19&Itemid=35
  7. HERDSA Conferences. http://www.herdsa.org.au/index.php?page_id=162
  8. MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching). http://www.merlot.org/
  9. Connexions. http://cnx.org/
  10. OER Commons (Open Educational Resources). http://www.oercommons.org/
  11. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. http://www.wiley.com/
  12. Taylor & Francis Group. http://www.taylorandfrancisgroup.com/
  13. Reed Elsevier. http://www.reed-elsevier.com/
  14. New York Times (2008). That book costs how much? Editorial, 25 April. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/25/opinion/25fri4.html?ex=1366862400&en=845444868bcf03e9&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink
  15. USA TODAY (2008). Online 'open textbooks' save students cash. USA TODAY, 9 July. http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-07-09-open-textbooks_N.htm
  16. New York Times (2008). Don't buy that textbook, download it free. 14 September. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/15/technology/15link.html?_r=1&ei=5070&emc=eta1&oref=slogin
  17. Make Textbooks Affordable. http://www.maketextbooksaffordable.org/
  18. Atkinson, R. (2004). Technology interactions: Scholarly publishing. HERDSA News, 26(3), 19-21. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/26-3.html
  19. AJET Editorial 24(1). The decision to retire AJET's printed version. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet24/editorial24-1.html
  20. Austin, A. C., Heffernan, M. E. & David, N. (2008). Academic authorship, publishing agreements and open access: Survey results. Brisbane: The OAK Law Project, Queensland University of Technology. http://eprints.qut.edu.au/archive/00013623/01/13623_3.pdf
  21. Springer (2007). eBooks - The End User Perspective. Springer Science+Business Media http://www.springer.com/cda/content/document/cda_downloaddocument/
  22. Elsevier ScienceDirect (2008). The role of online books in supporting academic researcher productivity. Elsevier ScienceDirect. http://info.sciencedirect.com/content/books/docs/
  23. Schoch, H. P., Teoh, H. Y. & Kropman, M.(2006). Adopting an electronic text book for a postgraduate accounting course: An experiential study. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 22(2), 166-188. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet22/schoch.html
  24. Lam, P., Lam, S. L., Lam, J. & McNaught, C. (2008). Usability and usefulness of eBooks on PPCs: How students' opinions vary over time. In Hello! Where are you in the landscape of educational technology? Proceedings ascilite Melbourne 2008. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/melbourne08/procs/lam.pdf

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University's Teaching and Learning Centre in June 2001. His current activities include publishing AJET and honorary work on TL Forum, ascilite Melbourne 2008 and other academic conference support and publishing activities.
Website (including this article in html format): http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/
Contact: rjatkinson@bigpond.com

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2008). E-books, eBooks, freebooks: Will online replace traditional books? HERDSA News, 30(3). http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/30-3.html

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