Getting to E: The State of the School Ebook Market

School libraries are moving toward ebook adoption; the question is how fast.
Illustration by Ken Orvidas.

Illustration by Ken Orvidas.

By fits and starts, school libraries are moving toward ebook adoption; the question is how fast. While publishers and distributors are evolving their offerings to appeal to students and educators, the transition to ebooks has its challenges, ranging from inadequate technology to some students’ preference for print books.

Still, the movement is definitively toward e, as an anticipated $30-million deal for e-materials between Amazon and the New York City Department of Education shows. OverDrive, a leading distributor of ebooks to schools and libraries, saw its highest-ever single day of checkouts—more than 500,000 ebooks—in June, according to David Burleigh, the company’s director of marketing. Nationally, school librarians report that the mean portion of their materials budgets spent on ebooks is 7.2 percent; five years from now, it will be 12.4 percent, according to respondents to SLJ’s School Library Ebook Survey.

The school ebooks landscape in some ways parallels the national picture of children’s engagement with ebooks. While the content is there, technology to use it may still be catching up, and managing collections can be complicated. President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, announced two years ago, aims to better support teaching and learning by improving Internet connectivity and educational tech in schools and libraries. Currently, only 63 percent of school librarians feel that their schools have adequate bandwidth, down from 82 percent two years ago, according to SLJ’s 2015 Tech Survey. When Obama announced his ConnectED Library Challenge in April 2015, he described a donation by publishers of $250 million in free ebooks for low-income students, with a commitment from libraries and nonprofits to create an app to deliver the content. This access will be critical to the program’s success.

The school picture

Many school librarians, including ebook advocates, still find it easier to put a print book in kids’ hands. Hanna Howe became a librarian six years ago, entering the profession around the time that ebooks were making their way into school libraries. “Students just weren’t going for them,” says Howe, the librarian at the Solebury School, located in New Hope, PA.

Howe’s small independent school didn’t have many e-readers to begin with, she says, and she found that licensing ebooks proved far more complicated than simply buying paper ones. Student preference was also an issue. “If a student wanted a book and it was checked out, I’d offer to get it on a Nook right then,” Howe says. “Almost every time, students would say, ‘I’ll just wait.’”

Roger Rosen, CEO of Rosen Publishing, which has an array of digital offerings, says that his company delivers content in whatever format will best reach students. “It’s a question of personal preference, and, from our point of view, we’re providing material in any way our constituency wants,” he says.

While school library spending on ebooks is increasing, the number of student checkouts has leveled off recently, according to SLJ’s survey, with 51 percent of respondents reporting that they expect usage to stay the same this year compared to last year. Sixty-one percent say that limited access to e-reading devices, at home or at school, hindered students and faculty from reading ebooks; over half—58 percent—report that users prefer print books.

“This generation is so tuned in with their phones and iPads all the time, and it’s interesting that we’re clinging to books, almost as a last resort,” says Lauren Wallach, a 15-year-old sophomore at Bainbridge (WA) High School. “It doesn’t feel like you’re reading a real book. People read because you want to escape from technology and the world around you, and you can’t do that with an ebook.”

Carolyn Foote, a librarian at Westlake High School in Austin, TX, says her students express a strong preference for print books, especially for pleasure reading. Foote says that most students who check out an ebook from her library don’t check out another, perhaps because the system—locate a book, create an account, load the title onto an e-reader, keep that e-reader charged, finish a book before it expires—is more complicated than picking a book off the shelf and taking it home.


Better ebook browsing

Publishers and distributors are taking the long view. “The ebook trend has been so up and down that I wouldn’t be surprised if it just skyrockets once again,” says Mesa Heise, director of digital services for Mackin Educational Resources.

Junior Library Guild (JLG), which provides collection development services to school and public libraries, launched an ebook version of its service last year. “Paper books are going to exist in substantial numbers in school libraries for a very long time,” says Andrew Thorne, VP, marketing, for Media Source, Inc., which owns JLG. (SLJ is also a Media Source, Inc. company.) “E has a place and a role alongside print books; the key will be figuring out how to give librarians and students a choice whether they want to read a particular book in print or as an ebook.”

“Digital is sort of a clunky transition for publishers and, I’d say, for media specialists and even patrons,” adds Monte Kuehl, national sales director at ABDO Publishing. “Plenty of people are reading on a device, but schools aren’t really in that space yet,” largely because of purchasing difficulties or technology access challenges.

“Most kids don’t come into the library and say, ‘I can’t wait to dig into the catalog today,’” Kuehl notes. “That’s not the fun, exciting place where kids want to go to find the content.”

Publishers have been working to make finding an ebook more like finding any other book. That includes providing schools with print versions of the ebooks they’ve purchased and digital QR codes that can help link the two. “It’s another access point,” Kuehl says. “It doesn’t matter how good your collection is if no one can access it.”

Epic!, a children’s ebook subscription service founded in 2013, takes a personalized approach. “Our service is a bit like Netflix in that we have a sophisticated algorithm that learns about each child’s reading abilities and preferences and then makes suggestions for what to read next,” says Epic! cofounder Kevin Donahue.

Moving toward agnosticism

Another complicating issue for librarians is that ebooks are available on a variety of platforms, including closed, publisher-specific ones requiring a particular device or app. Checking out one ebook may require a wholly different process than checking out another.

An industry largely moving toward a mind-set of platform agnosticism may change that, making it easier for schools to integrate ebooks. An ebook published in an open format could be accessed from any device, rather than one requiring proprietary software. This would be particularly helpful at schools with BYOD policies or ones without the financial resources to stock up on the latest e-readers or tablets.

“A good book is a good book is a good book, regardless of format,” says Amy Cox, library marketing director at Capstone Publishers. “Things that are popular in print tend to be popular in ebook. The format is not appealing enough to make a kid read a bad book, so it all has to start with the content.”

1509-ebooks-chart2Divergent pricing and policies

Managing ebook collections is challenging for school librarians because of the complicated and varied systems of acquisition. There’s no one way to acquire ebooks; some are available for unlimited use, others expire after a set number of downloads, and others are purchased for a set amount of time. Books expire at different times, with little uniformity or logic, from some librarians’ point of view.

“This is going to become a growing and perplexing part of acquisitions: managing these leased titles and trying to figure out what we need to renew and what we don’t need to renew,” says Michelle Luhtala, library department chair at New Canaan (CT) High School.

Many librarians are considering scaling back—perhaps purchasing from just one publisher or only getting books of a single license type, either because of cost concerns or to simplify the process. But that can limit the quality and quantity of ebooks available to students.
“I would like to see publishers come on board with some sort of fairer and consistent pricing,” says Foote. “The pricing makes it almost unsustainable to have the sort of collection that a physical library might have.” Foote and others find themselves considering the merits of a collection that might simply evaporate as licenses expire.

Nader Qaimari, senior vice president of content services and solutions at Follett School Solutions, the school library arm of the publishing giant Follett, explains a rationale for pricing. With the advent of ebooks, “publishers were so worried about the cannibalization of their print business,” says Qaimari. That led publishers to be “far too conservative” in the ways they reached schools. “We know that a lot of these business models don’t make sense, and then we’re pushing them to schools.”

Schools don’t replace all their print copies of a book like To Kill a Mockingbird every few years, yet that’s what an ebook license would require. Qaimari says that Follett plans to use its own data to help publishers develop business models that would work better for schools. “We can provide some real factual insight to show them how often schools actually replace print copies, how often they’re damaged,” Qaimari says. “Because we know: they’re buying them from us.”

Regarding textbooks, 61 percent of respondents to SLJ’s survey say that their schools had no plans to purchase digital textbooks, while 25 percent say that some books are purchased digitally. Only one percent report that all new textbooks are purchased digitally. However, buying e-reference materials over print is a no-brainer for Luhtala. “I’m not going to buy a new $2,200 encyclopedia for the science department,” she says. “That’s going to be a battle, but no, I’m not going to do it. It’s unconscionable. I’d rather spend the money on a database, even if I’m going to do it annually, so I can have the most up-to-date reference work.”

1509-ebooks-chart3Reimagining ebooks

Follett also wants to change the nature of ebooks, something smaller publishers have also begun exploring through interactive products that often feel more like apps than traditional books. “We really have to reimagine what an ebook can be,” Qaimari says.

“Part of the reason I think people are starting to see a plateau of usage is the experience isn’t what students are expecting of this,” he adds. Just replicating the print experience in an electronic format isn’t enough to win over today’s students. “What kids expect from digital today is very different from what they have in print,” he says.

This fall, Follett will debut a new line of ebooks that feel more like apps, with authors and illustrators working with developers and designers to create new kinds of content. An electronic unit on glaciers on the company’s Lightbox platform, for example, comes with quizzes, videos, read-aloud support, maps, and more, with students able to access the content over the Internet.

Nicole Rakozy, product manager for the Gale Virtual Reference Library from Cengage Learning, says that type of evolution is vital because today’s users expect more from online resources. “We’ve seen that there’s a stark change between users five years ago and now,” Rakozy says. “The web has conditioned us to expect information in bite-size chunks.”

Users also seek out information differently now: rather than search a database or catalog, many students go straight to Google. Cengage is doing more to make its reference material searchable through tools like Google Scholar rather than just through library resources. “No one wants library content to be locked away,” Rakozy says. “We can’t sit there in the library—we need to get the information in front of students where they’re already looking for information.”

A more streamlined future

OverDrive is seeing momentum toward a single, central place for students to access all kinds of electronic content from any device, according to Burleigh. “Districts are continuing to push publishers and technology providers to create a seamless experience to increase usage of all types of content, both curriculum and library, and platforms invested in,” Burleigh says. “The winner is going to be the one that has all of the content, ease of use, device compatibility, and expert support in going digital.”

That change will need to come from publishers, says Amandeep Kochar, executive vice president of software products and services at the distributor Baker & Taylor. “They’re going to be the ones to push that,” Kochar says. “They were very gun-shy with the whole idea of ebooks not that long ago, especially into the education market.”

Ken Breen, EBSCO Information Services vice president of product management, who oversees ebooks, says that the company currently supports seven different rights models “that we have determined best meet our customer needs.” He adds, “Publishers opt in to the models that are consistent with the rights they have and their business goals.”

There is also the Amazon impact. Though the retail giant had previously proved difficult for schools to work with—it wouldn’t accept purchase orders as payment, for example—its new Whispercast platform, a free component of Kindle Education, is now in use at 130 of the 250 largest U.S. school districts. That could prompt more schools district to follow New York City in striking deals with Amazon.

Debate over ebooks vs. print aside, there’s the more pressing issue of just getting students to read. “I think all the hand-wringing over print and digital isn’t our biggest challenge anymore,” says Adam Lerner, CEO of Lerner Publishing Group. “It’s books over every other media and getting kids to read books. It doesn’t really matter to most publishers whether they’re reading an ebook or a print book.”

 Matt Collette is an education journalist and radio producer in New York City.

For more statistics from SLJ’s School Library Ebook Survey, go to

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