In February 2016, University of Michigan Press was awarded $28,000 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to conduct an evidence-based study of how free ebooks are discovered and used. The study is being conducted over the course of a year, between March 1, 2016 and February 28, 2017. Working with a diverse sample of around 120 free ebooks published by Open Book Publishers (OBP) and University of Michigan Press (UMP) along with Michigan-distributed titles published by Open Humanities Press (OHP) we are engaging in retrospective and prospective analysis using both quantitative and qualitative metrics. Technology pioneer Eric Hellman and his colleagues at the Free Ebook Foundation will lead the research, with support from Rebecca Welzenbach, Charles Watkinson, and Ken Varnum at University of Michigan, Rupert Gatti at Open Book Publishers, and Gary Hall at Open Humanities Press.

In the retrospective analysis, we are examining every available quantitative source of usage data for the sample books that have been available for at least six months and are conducting semi-structured interviews with some key stakeholders to gather data about how the sample books were discovered and are being used. To facilitate prospective analysis, UMP and OBP are implementing a listening/assessment exercise by inserting a link to a web-based usage survey in the front matter of books that they publish starting in April 2016.

Why is this project important? A number of initiatives focused in North America, Europe, and Australia are proposing to convert the system through which scholarly books are currently funded from a consumer- to producer-pays model which will allow free ebook versions to be made available. One driver for this change is the conjecture that releasing an ebook under an open access business model expands its readership compared to “toll-access” or “pay-to-purchase” ebooks. This is a reasonable hypothesis but we actually know very little about how free ebooks are discovered and lack best practices and tools to measure their impact. This is the challenge that the proposed project aims to engage with.

While the “open web” is known to be the most effective information distribution infrastructure ever built, a conventional supply chain relying on intermediaries taking proportions of retail price continues to dominate the book market. Starting from a study of current and prospective users of free ebooks we aim to understand whether the conventional supply chain remains important or whether other mechanisms of discovery are sufficient. We will also interview representatives of supply chain companies (including jobbers, retailers, and aggregators) to understand how they view free ebooks and whether they see a role for their organizations in discovery and delivery.

The outcomes of the study will be (a) a white paper sharing its findings out of which we will develop an article that we will submit for publication by a leading journal such as the Journal of Electronic Publishing. The white paper and article will include recommendations about best practices for ensuring discovery of free ebooks and meaningfully measuring their impact; (b) an open-source web survey application that publishers can use to capture qualitative information about ebooks usage.