Evidence provides more options for e-book acquisition

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Carolyn Alderson of Jisc Collections looks at some approaches to acquiring e-books

Over the past decade libraries’ e-book collections have been growing fast. However the debate about how to get the best value from e-book library budgets rages as much now as it did at the turn of the millennium.

A 2001 Jisc study by Hazel Woodward and Louise Edwards described the issues that the UK’s colleges and universities should think about when developing their e-books strategy. The issues they highlighted haven’t really changed since. They include securing value from aggregators; availability of content; digitisation; use of mobile devices; preservation; e-textbooks; direct to student sales; access versus purchase; and quality standards, to name just a few.

The demand for e-books comes from many sides. Readers like them to be available (even though they may prefer to read large chunks of text in printed books) because they can be accessed remotely and at any time of the day or night. Publishers are looking to e-books to open up new business opportunities. If publishers can open up their legacy content as well as publish new e-books, they can start to generate additional revenue streams from the assets they already hold. Meanwhile, e-books promise to help libraries provide the content their readers want, at a price they can afford to pay.

The early business model was very straightforward - collections of e-books were packaged as a dataset which meant that “must have” content was easily accessible. Key resources such as Oxford Reference Online, Literature Online, EEBO, The Shakespeare Collection and Grove Music Online work well in this format.  But once the budget has been spent on core collections it becomes a real struggle for libraries to prioritise e-book acquisition decisions.

More sophisticated business models are being reviewed and tested by libraries, publishers and aggregators to see what works best. For several years, aggregators have been running with patron-driven acquisition (PDA) models and many libraries also like this approach because it means that they only have to buy books when it is clear that researchers want them. This means they can keep a handle on their budget and retain control of the way their collection develops. A PDA model also has the benefit of limiting the number of platforms used and it helps to keep ordering processes straightforward. But other models are being tested too.

Evidence-based acquisition

The EBASS25 pilot, led by Royal Holloway in the UK, explored both the PDA and evidence based acquisition (EBA) models. The idea behind EBA is that libraries pay an up-front fee for a particular collection that interests them. The content is then made available and usage recorded via COUNTER statistics. After six months or a year the consortium then buys books, based on use, up to the value of the up-front fee. Behind the basic business model there is a whole raft of considerations relating to content availability, discoverability, access and ownership.

Some leading publishers, including Elsevier, CUP and SAGE, have taken steps to see how EBA could work. For publishers it’s appealing because they get a chunk of money upfront, which helps with sales forecasting and cash flow and could also help them to make their pricing keener. In addition, the content is accessed via the publisher’s own platform so they retain a degree of control and can easily monitor usage data.

For libraries, the EBA model holds promise because it relies on using the publisher’s own platforms, which are often DRM-free, rather than the more limited rights that may be offered by aggregators.

However, progress is quite slow in the early stages because we first need to identify interested libraries and then start talks with publishers to see what they can offer and agree how the pricing should be pitched.

There are so many unknowns and variables, but interesting things are happening now. For instance Jisc Collections has just reached an agreement with Alexander Street Press, offering its streamed video content via a really interesting EBA model. The Scottish Higher Education Digital Library (SHEDL) has pioneered EBA and has much to teach the sector about its potential, for other closed consortia that want to do something similar.

SHEDL’s experience shows that libraries and purchasing groups find that EBA offers an affordable and reliable way to start building e-collections that clearly reflect the needs of their users. The books that get used (and therefore purchased) are likely to map very closely to course requirements, so it’s extremely practical. And for library users it opens up the prospect of a very rich vein of content being available to explore during the course of the contract.

The M25 Group, which led the EBASS25 pilot, is still looking into ways to maximise the benefits for consortia and how to sort out the pricing issues. It’s worth keeping an eye on this group's progress and on SHEDL, which is also very much involved in developing these models.

When it comes to e-textbooks, a few publishers dominate the market and their business models rely on volume sales of books to students so it is difficult to shift the model to one where the institution and library can cater for researchers and students. If libraries can find good quality alternative texts that support their courses, from publishers that don’t have the historical student revenue to consider, e-textbooks provide a real window of opportunity for them.

Carolyn Alderson is acting head of licensing at Jisc Collections