Scholarly & Professional E-Books Outgrow More Fashionable Trade Cousins

Scholarly & Professional E-BooksMention the market for e-books and most folks flash to a vision of fashion-forward urbanites wielding the latest reading device or tablet while sipping a latte in the park.

Newspapers, magazines and bloggers love to discuss consumer e-books—it’s sexier, more connected to leisure, art, culture and how people read these days—but it is not the heart and soul of the e-book market.

No, for that market you would need to conjure an entirely different image. Envision a scholarly researcher toiling away in a lab, or in a library, looking for the missing link to their next big discovery, or an IT professional pouring through a technical manual to solve a networking problem for XYZ corp. How about a doctor using an app on his phone to reference a medical text in his exam room with the patient right there?

This is the market for scholarly and professional e-books. This market is both larger and very different from trade in its distribution channels. For example, most e-book content in law is delivered through Westlaw and LexisNexis, subscription services generally categorized as databases. In the other core scholarly and professional publishing segments, e-book subject collections numbering in the tens of thousands of titles—such as specialist services in engineering, IT, business or medicine—are far more important than well publicized e-readers.

Scholarly & Professional Posts Strongest Growth in E-Books

Approximately 70% of the global e-book market is scholarly and professional e-books. Trade books make up an estimated 10%, and the rest of the e-book market is K-12 and higher education. Though it tends to attract much more media coverage and discussion, the trade market does not drive the use of e-books.

In fact, some of the hype that surrounded trade e-books just a few years ago is now being replaced by anxiety as e-books-to-consumer sales have leveled off. Statistics from the Association of American Publishers (AAP) showed e-books categorized as Books for Adults grew sales by only 1% in 2014.

Furthering trade publishers’ agita is news that an initial rush in the rate of adoption and usage in the aftermath Amazon’s Kindle launch in 2007, has predictably come back to earth. Forrester Research projects e-reader sales will fall to as low as 7 million units in the U.S. by the end of 2017, compared to a high of 25 million units in 2012. Ouch!

Dedicated e-readers are important to trade book publishers because their owners are committed readers who buy a lot of books. It’s anticipated that slower device sales will translate to fewer customers who will buy e-books in bulk.

By contrast, Simba Information’s latest report—Scholarly & Professional E-Book Publishing 2015-2019—found that total scholarly and professional e-book sales increased 7.7% to $2.86 billion in 2014.

This was achieved in an environment where academic libraries have faced budget pressure, which has hit books particularly hard after decades of losing budget battles to journals and databases. Law school enrollments are also declining in the large, rich American market.

Globally, scholarly and professional e-book markets have been growing at double digit rates for years, and Simba forecasts professional e-books will grow at a compound annual rate of 6.4% from 2015 to 2019.

Advantages of E-Books

By converting to e-books, particularly as parts of large subject collections and databases, book content has finally been able to offer some of the advantages of e-journals. E-books are able to offer cross-title discovery, distributed multiple access, usage statistics, enhancements and new features. E-books save cost in storage archiving over print and can be sold in large multi-year contracts rather than one book at a time.

And then there is the need for mobility. All leading e-book publishers have mobile applications, whatever the market. Most offer digital content across a variety of devices. According to Simba’s report Global Medical Publishing 2015-2019, health care information markets stand to benefit greatly from these investments in mobile technology. New tablets and smart phones are the perfect size for doctors. The combination of clinical decision support (CDS) tools and electronic health records (EHRs) is particularly important in a hospital setting. Mobility allows doctors to tap into the enormous resources that clinical decision support can provide even while staying in front and remaining engaged with their patients.

Digital Age Poses New Challenges & Opportunities

Despite the near-term forecast of steady growth, scholarly and professional e-book publishers face new problems in a digital environment. How to control the dangers of unbridled piracy without alienating customers? But, they also have new opportunities for making money. No longer are books constrained by a single price and a one-off handover of ownership. Publishers and intermediaries can now offer pay-per-view access, patron-driven acquisition, and they can put limits on lending, printing and distribution. Taking lessons from the digitization of journals, e-books are sold on multiple platforms, by chapters and as large collections. They are sold individually on phones or tablets and as part of multi-year subscription access deals across an entire campus or library consortium.

The market for scholarly and professional e-books is still developing and many different factors will come into play in the next several years, including:

  • Economic resources in the corporate and university sectors: will the budgets be there for these customers to continue to acquire scientific, technical, and medical (STM) as well as legal, tax, and regulatory (LTR) information.
  • The historical emphasis on “publish or perish” in universities and the need to publish more research in peer reviewed publications.
  • The demand for Internet-based information services.
  • Increases in the number of professionals who need digital access to content, including lawyers, hedge fund managers, private equity firms, investment bankers, and government employees.
  • The emergence of new computers and devices and the eventual price reductions associated with technological advancement and adoption.
  • Growth in the number of faculty members and graduate students who want and need professional content.

The emergence of open access publishing in the academic journal market is also poised to cross into e-books since the library budget crisis is a primary force behind the movement. Books have been losing share of library budgets for decades, and e-books have now reached critical mass with nearly $2.9 billion in professional sales.

The Directory of Open Access Books lists 2,751 “academic peer reviewed books” from 83 publishers. Major publishers have only dabbled in OA books, and most of the titles are in the social sciences and humanities.

With funding for research in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) in a decades-long decline, SSH proponents are looking for new ideas. While open access journals have been the new idea in STM publishing, books are the strongest media in the humanities and social sciences, so it is not surprising that the open access idea has found an outlet in social science and humanities e-books.

Of course, none of this will make scholarly and professional e-books more fashionable or change the general public’s fascination with trade e-books and e-readers. No, it’s OK though—some markets just look good in a tee-shirt and jeans.

UPDATE: For the latest information on the scholarly & professional e-book market, please see our most recent blog post "Professional E-Book Market Projected to Decline in 2020."

About the author: Dan Strempel is a Senior Analyst at Simba Information, where he has authored more than 25 studies over the past 13 years. His research has been cited in numerous publications including CNBC, Newsweek, Publishing Executive, The Association of American Publishers, and The Society for Scholarly Publishing. You can follow Dan on Twitter, where he shares industry news and analysis.

Topics: Public Sector Education Media Simba Information