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Agents help digital processes run smoothly

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The rise in use of electronic research information has brought many changes. Siân Harris asked Swets and EBSCO about what the digital age means to subscription agents

Every year libraries obtain content from hundreds of publishers, and publishers sell material to thousands of libraries around the world. To aggregate and simplify this process many libraries and publishers rely on trusted intermediaries – subscription agents – to manage all these transactions.

‘Automating for libraries has always been our role and this has never been more essential,’ commented Kittie Henderson, director of the academic and law divisions of EBSCO. ‘Streamlining is more in the spotlight now than it was.’ She added that the role of information intermediary also includes optimising the service experience and empowering librarians.

All this has been the role of subscription agents for many years, but the actual content that agents deal with has changed over recent decades. ‘Seventy per cent of our business had an electronic component in 2010, with 75 per cent of that being electronic only. Electronic requires a great deal more support than print,’ said Henderson. ‘With print, it either comes or it doesn’t. With electronic, people want to know what they have access to, what they can and cannot do with it, and whether they can keep legacy content if they cancel their subscription. We maintain a lot of that information for customers.’

The role of print

However, not all of the information purchased today is in an electronic format. ‘We’ve seen our primary role as being intermediaries to electronic subscriptions for many years now. However, some content remains in print format only. We see our role as assisting libraries in building their collections in all formats,’ she continued. ‘There was a discussion at the recent American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter meeting about the critical role of resources that are only available in print, especially in some parts of the world, and how we can’t ignore this long tail of content.’

‘Libraries see EBSCO as a comprehensive place to buy all their resources. There are a lot of situations where the content they want to buy is only in print,’ agreed Sid McNeal, vice president and general manager of EBSCO. ‘Also, because EBSCO is a global company, about 48 per cent of our business is outside the USA. As you move to eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia there is often a desire to keep print, either for legacy reasons or because of technical issues.’

There are other drivers in some cases for maintaining print subscriptions too. One of these is the publishing business model of deeply-discounted print (DDP) sales. And some of the preservation initiatives where print copies are kept in shared repositories are based on customers keeping DDP subscriptions, according to Kittie Henderson.

Sid McNeal, EBSCO

This could be changing though: ‘Some publishers are making more of an effort to eliminate print. Some are forcing libraries to buy two individual subscriptions and some are also discontinuing DDP, so libraries are looking at paying twice as much if they want both print and electronic – although this is not the majority of publishers at the moment,’ commented Henderson.

Electronic ordering

The trend towards being electronic does not only affect the content. Over recent years more and more of the processes of libraries and publishers have also become electronic, through a range of service products, and this affects the way that they work with subscription agents.

‘A lot of our customer base now wants to work on the web through products like EBSCONET, and only contact us if they need help. This is because of changes in work patterns, expectations and in the staff themselves. Now, doing things in the web environment is the norm,’ said Henderson. ‘We try to match our services to customers’ needs and offer a wide range of options. We still have customers who like to talk on the phone. In something as complex as large STM transactions the web is great, but business is still about people talking to each other.’

‘Our goal isn’t to automate the whole process but we are noticing many customers doing more themselves. Ninety per cent of our academic customers have signed up to EBSCONET,’ agreed Sid McNeal.

The move towards electronic information and processes is also enabling agents to rethink their roles within the industry. As David Main, CEO of Swets, explained, ‘Subscription agents can aggregate and provide efficiencies to libraries and publishers. Their role was historically built around buying and selling content but are there other places for aggregated services?’

Aggregation

Main identified several different ways that intermediaries are and can be involved in other services. ‘When you are in the middle of the value chain you can integrate with other parts,’ he noted. For example, there are opportunities for hosting content or delivering services based on software and systems, such as library systems.

‘Also, if you specialise in something like running the admin within a library you could do this in other libraries and come up with shared services. Wherever there’s a shared service there is a potential role for an agent,’ he said. ‘In the future agents are going to have to broaden their range of aggregated services, by taking away some of what libraries do in house or helping small- and medium-sized publishers to compete more effectively in the market,’ he continued.

‘We are not trying to own content. We believe we need to be a neutral player in the middle and focus on information services.’ But the position of neutral player itself opens up opportunities for new services: ‘Because we sit in-between, we can provide additional services and gather information that you couldn’t otherwise do,’ he explained. ‘We can, for example, see where publishers are gaining or losing business. There is pressure on publishers to figure out how to grow. They want to know how to spend their time and effort and discoverability helps with this.’

Similarly, agents can guide libraries about what sort of content similar libraries are buying in particular subject areas. ‘We have a lot of information focused on helping our customers to improve their decision making,’ said Main.

Kittie Henderson, EBSCO

This type of information is particularly important for libraries today as they face budget constraints and are being increasingly required to justify their spending decisions. ‘More and more people will need usage statistics. In the past libraries haven’t been given enough information but, with digital resources, you can measure content and how it’s used and use this in decision-making,’ he continued. ‘Agents don’t have all the answers but we probably know more market information than most people.’

EBSCO has observed a similar requirement for more insight into how content is purchased and used. ‘Analysis is needed more than ever when budgets are smaller. We will soon be offering a usage consolidation module, which will be helpful in evaluating the most useful resources for their libraries,’ said Kittie Henderson of EBSCO.

Looking to the future

Having such a window on the industry gives agents a unique perspective on some of the trends and challenges (see box for the economic effects on long-term contracts).

One of these is the changing role of big deals. ‘It is no longer sustainable for many libraries to simply purchase all offered content available via buying groups, much of which incurs automatic yearly increases in cost,’ commented Henderson. She added that now that budgets are flat or narrowing the big deal is often no longer feasible for many libraries.

Henderson gave the example of one of the university librarians speaking at the ALA Midwinter meeting who said that 25 per cent of their acquisition budget is tied up in two publisher packages. ‘With budget cuts they project this percentage will grow to 29 per cent next year,’ she said.

‘There are still many libraries out there putting a lot of their resources into a couple of publishers, but they are at the point of reevaluating,’ added Sid McNeal.

Swets’ David Main sees new opportunities for intermediaries, as libraries reevaluate how they purchase content. ‘Libraries want to have more freedom to choose and use different buying models to acquire content. There is more and more talk about patron-driven buying and how they do it and manage budgets,’ he observed. ‘If you look at the music industry, people don’t buy albums now; they buy singles. The future in our industry could potentially be about the individual content. Publishers will have to be willing to sell content on an article or chapter level. At the moment they have moved in the other direction of selling collections. That’s an easier sell because, without usage data, such big deals appear to be more economical.’

As things change, he still sees a strong role for subscription agents. ‘As the range of content increases there are more opportunities for intermediaries,’ he said. ‘Libraries see the need for us if we can help them to be more efficient and effective.’

EBSCO agrees: ‘As the range of available content increases, and the means, methods and formats to access and digest that content expands, it is likely that the number of individual access and purchase transactions for handling that content will actually increase. As this happens, new challenges and levels of complexity are introduced into the role of the librarian that didn’t exist before,’ said Sid McNeal. ‘In the past we have seen a trend of publishers and libraries trying to negotiate contracts themselves but in recent years we have seen them return to agents like EBSCO when they realise how many contracts they need to deal with.’

Negotiating contracts in difficult times

Being responsible for so many transactions gives subscription agents a unique perspective on what libraries and publishers are doing around the world, in particular with the difficult economic situation.

‘Publishers, both commercial and not-for-profit, are all facing challenges,’ said Kittie Henderson of EBSCO. She observed that some commercial publishers are still sustaining healthy profits but others are not finding it so good. ‘We’ve seen that many larger publishers still have growth but some of the small and medium publishers are seeing decline.’

She went on to explain: ‘They’ve found they’ve got a foot in both camps, doing loads of innovation with electronic but still maintaining print so their cost structures are much more expensive. They are not so much trying to pump up profits as to sustain their businesses.’

Another reason for the economic pressures on publishers, of course, is that libraries, which are publishers’ customers, are also suffering. ‘There is as awareness of this on both sides and a willingness to have open and honest communication,’ commented Henderson.

This willingness to talk has lead to some renegotiations of contracts, which EBSCO has seen with customers that use the EBSCO E-Package Renewal product. As Sid McNeal, vice president and general manager of publisher affairs and EBSCO International, commented, ‘You would assume that three years into a five-year subscription agreement the libraries would just activate this package without any discussions but we’ve had experience of libraries in real renegotiations of contracts.’