A cautionary tale for academic publishers: how not to provide books to academics

I was recently emailed about a new textbook for publishing students, The Publishing Business by Kelvin Smith. From the publisher’s website it looks like an interesting book – covering more about ebooks than many of the current offerings, and also offering a strong visual element. However, getting  hold of a copy to consider it for adoption proved a bigger challenge than I expected – and is a cautionary tale for other academic publishers.

Like most of their competitors, AVA Academia provide free ‘desk inspection copies’ of their books so lecturers like me can assess whether they are appropriate for their courses. Grabbed by the persuasive blurb and engaging double-page spread pics on AVA’s site, I clicked on the ‘Request a desk inspection copy’ link to share my details.

At this stage, most publishers ask you to fill in your name and address, the institution you are based at, the course you teach at and so on. Some also ask you to register with the website so you can manage inspection copy requests in the future; either task is relatively brief and can be completed from any computer. AVA ask you to access your inspection copy through VitalSource, an ebook delivery platform used by many higher education publishers.

In general, I think VitalSource is a good thing. If you’re a publisher, VitalSource provides a tried and tested distribution platform for ebooks so you don’t have to build your own. If you’re a student or an academic and want to read electronic versions of textbooks, you can gain access to publications from a wide range of publishers, and manage them all on a single bookshelf – a bit like iTunes for textbooks.

The flexibility to access your purchases on multiple devices and the ability to highlight, comment on and share stuff you’re reading (as demonstrated in VitalSource’s promo below) may also be appealing to many people. In fact these features prompted The Textbook Guru to describe VitalSource recently as “an impressive platform capable of serving many sides of the textbook market”.

All well and good if you want to read ebooks, and if you’re willing to sign up to a service. I just wanted to have a detailed look at a book to see if it was going to be useful for my 50 or so students (note to publisher, that’s quite a few potential sales…). To do that I had to:

1. Wait to receive an email from the publisher, with details of how to access my book, including a unique redemption code.

2. Click on a link that sent me to VitalSource’s support pages, where I was asked to download VitalSource Bookshelf. Here are the instructions that appear on that page:

3. Click on the Download VitalSource Bookshelf section of the page.

4. Wait for the .exe file to download.

5. Run the .exe file.

6. Choose my preferred language. This sparked some mild irritation, since I was only allowed to select English (United States), not any other form of the English language.

7. Agree to a lengthy licence agreement.

8. Run the install wizard (with the on-screen response ‘this may take several minutes’).

9. Launch the newly installed VitalSource Bookshelf application.

10. Accept another lengthy licence agreement.

11. Respond to a pop-up informing me there was a newer version than the one I had just downloaded. Of course, saying yes to downloading a newer version sent me into a bit of a download loop…

12. Wait for the .exe file of the newer version to download.

13. Run the new .exe file.

14. Agree to a pop-up that asked me to let the file make changes to my PC.

15. Choose my preferred language again. Get irked when I only had the option to select English (United States) again.

16. Agree to a lengthy licence agreement again.

17. Run the install wizard (with the on-screen response ‘this may take several minutes’). This deleted many of the files I had just installed, before copying new ones on to my PC.

18. Launch the newly updated version of the VitalSource Bookshelf application.

19. Accept another lengthy licence agreement.

20. Register for an account with VitalSource. Here are the instructions provided for that stage:

21. Enter the redemption code provided by AVA in their email.

22. Untick the boxes agreeing to receive email updates.

23. Wait for my bookshelf to load.

24. Click on the The Publishing Business link in order to download my ‘desk inspection copy’. Call me pedantic but the copy of this book I now have isn’t exactly sitting on my desk

25. Make sure I find time in the next 28 days (at which point my access will be revoked) to see if I want to adopt it, despite the fact that we won’t be finalising our courses for next year for another few months.

Have I looked at the book since I finally got hold of it (metaphorically speaking, that is)? No, not really. Assessing a book for adoption isn’t the same as reading it from cover to cover. You want to flick through, look up certain terms, compare how it covers individual topics with the descriptions in other competitive books, assess the quality of the illustrations and so on. For me, that’s all done more easily with a hard copy.

And, for me, a 28 time day limit isn’t enough. Not only will I need to be able to access the book later in this academic year (when I’m designing next year’s course), I’ll also need access throughout the course itself – since I will want to direct students to specific sections. And as none of my colleagues have VitalSource installed, if I want to discuss the title with them (we often recommend books across several modules, since students are more likely to buy them that way), we have to be in the same place at the same time, which is a rare occurrence… Since I originally accessed the book at home, it would also mean I’d need to install VitalSource on my university computer (something that might not go down well with our IT team).

Of course, sending out free copies of physical books costs publishers money. As an experienced textbook publisher myself, I’ve met plenty of ‘book collector’ academics who are simply after free books for themselves. But, unlike the tone of Reference Tree’s take on inspection copies,  publishers shouldn’t be thinking about the costs and challenges to their own organisations when they set up their inspection copy policies – they should be thinking about their customers.

As Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman report in Harvard Business Review, the single biggest factor in whether customers “follow through on an intended purchase, buy the product repeatedly, and recommend it to others” is the ease with which they can find out about a product and weigh up their purchase decision. I don’t think most people would describe working through two dozen separate steps to get hold of an ebook for a limited amount of time as an easy approach. In Spenner and Freeman’s language, then, it’s probably fair to say that I’m unlikely to become a ‘sticky’ customer for AVA; in the shorter term they have almost certainly lost out on the possibility of becoming a recommended purchase for 50 students.


5 responses to “A cautionary tale for academic publishers: how not to provide books to academics

  1. Thank you for mentioning us in the above article.

    One of the challenges we set ourselves when setting up the service was to make the process or requesting, approving and then commenting on inspection access to books as frictionless as possible. As we look for more ways to do this we focus on upon being, and supporting Publishers in being, responsive to Lecturers.

    You have the Publisher’s details to request more time to assess the book, and for those where the book is to be adopted most of the Publishers we work with provide perpetual access to the title on Reference Tree so you can use it as much as you need in the run up, and throughout the course.

    I would gratefully receive any feedback you have if you find a textbook within our inspection service that might be of interest.

    Thank you

  2. Amil, many thanks for commenting on the post. I haven’t personally used Reference Tree, but am pleased to hear you consider lecturer needs and are aiming for a ‘frictionless’ transaction. Hopefully I can experience that for myself at some point!

  3. The full text for this is available through Kingston’s library. Pretty frictionless if you need/want to use it in the future, in spite of students’ access to VitalSource. I have found the text pretty helpful in my studies so far.

  4. I only just saw this and am obviously sorry to read of these problems. I do hope someone from the publisher has been in touch to sort it out. Kelvin Smith

    • Kelvin, many thanks for the message. I’d love a physical inspection copy of your book, if there’s any way you can wangle that…

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