From provider to partner: subscription agent roles evolve

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Sian Harris asks four subscription agents about how libraries purchase content and the implications of this for the agent's role

The move from print to electronic journals had a dramatic impact on the creators, disseminators and users of this information. But it also affects another group: the intermediaries – subscription agents in particular.

‘Agents used to be order takers and care takers but we are not seeing annual calendars for renewal anymore. People purchase all through the year and in a different way,’ observed Zahra Touil, chief operations officer at LM Information Delivery. ‘As an agent our role has shifted heavily.’

‘When online came along it changed the nature and role of the agents,’ agreed Paul Harwood, general manager of EBSCO in the UK. ‘Online brought consolidation of content and the many-to-many landscape changed dramatically quite quickly. This presented a big challenge to subscription agents.’

He noted that the market has seen consolidation in subscription agents with really only three global traditional subscription agents remaining. ‘A lot of traditional roles were called into question. Libraries took the opportunity of online to change their own role, to negotiate price and terms of use with publishers. Tendering came into journal supply. The traditional service of supplying journals became a commodity. This made things very competitive and drove the handling charges to almost nothing. There is also the challenge of customers going directly to publishers,’ he continued. ‘Agents have had to get used to a smaller share.’

Big deals and consortia

He went on to explain that there are some deals now that have no agent involvement. ‘There are a certain number of deals that agents are locked out of, for example the NESLi2 deals in the UK,’ he said.

So-called “big deals” where subscriptions to packages of journals are sold together, although sometimes grumbled about, have also remained a big part of library purchases in the online world. As Harwood noted, ‘when libraries have been able to negotiate with the content of big deals they have often found that it is not worth it. The big deal just about suits both parties.’

But, of course, not all publishers offer their journals and other content as big deals – anymore than every library purchases content as part of a consortium – and this is where agents see their role as important.

Touil of LM noted: ‘For all agents these are a lot of deals that used to be with subscription agents but we have also seen customers who big deals didn’t work so well for coming to us. It’s given us the possibility to reevaluate ourselves.’

Finbar Galligan, marketing specialist for online and content at Swets, agreed: ‘Big deals have meant that libraries will go directly to big publishers but the smaller publishers value intermediaries. If you have, for example, five journals you might struggle to get exposure on your own.’


Another trend that has happened more recently than the rise of online journals is the emergence of e-books. These present a more complicated purchasing picture than e-journals and opportunities for agents to help navigate the market.

‘We try to harvest as many licensing and purchasing options as possible,’ said Galligan. ‘There is a huge buzz about patron-driven acquisition (PDA) [a range of approaches that essentially mean that libraries purchase e-books based on patron requests or usage]. We partner with big suppliers like MyiLibrary and ebrary to offer their PDA to our customers and we have seen more and more PDA, especially in the last year.’

However, he said that this is usually a percentage of the library budget. ‘I don’t know of a library that’s gone 100 per cent to PDA,’ he said. He added that libraries face a challenge in communicating about PDA: whether to make a bit splash in marketing it and potentially use up the budget very quickly or whether to let it sit in the background and only be triggered when a patron requests a title that the library does not already have access to.

‘The diversity of the book market is going to means lots of models and routes,’ said Harwood. ‘There is a whole discussion about open-access models now but there are still challenges to get books online. EBSCO acquired NetLibrary a few years ago and we see ourselves as an e-book aggregator, although it’s only been in the last 18 months or so that we’ve really developed that side of our business.’

He observed that ‘books are different animals to journals and there is huge pressure on academic libraries to increase spending on them.’ He described how library customers in the UK say that their library strategy is driven by the national student survey – and that is primarily about getting access to core text books. ‘They are trying to raise this with management against a background of decades of cuts,’ he noted.

The size of budgets is, of course, always a sore topic with libraries but the move to online has also changed the nature of budgets.

Touil described a complicated picture of library budgets: ‘The old way was to have budgets for books and for journals – with e-media budgets for buying different formats – but with new ways e-books should be part of book budgets. It’s more about the purpose that content serves.’
However, this is not always straightforward. ‘You can easily have a database that somebody classifies as an e-book. It is a grey area, although end users don’t really care as long as it’s accessible and fits their purpose.’

And she cautioned on the notion that moves to online bring cost savings in library labour. ‘There is an aspiration of giving access to everything and people assume it will cost less in terms of work. Shelves are removed but there’s a whole new set of things to take care of and e-content often requires three times as much work. People who sit on the budgets often don’t realise this.’

The role of print

The situation is further complicated because there is still a role for print. Robin Dyer, global marketing director at Swets, says medium and small publishers are still dominated by print, with only 20 per cent of their revenue coming from electronic sales and 80 per cent still coming from print. The shift is very much the other way in the larger publishers though, he said.

Touil agreed: ‘There’s not perhaps as much e-content published as libraries want, especially as you move away from scientific content, so there is still a need for print. In some areas it is also still hard for libraries to adjust their users to an online format because their researchers are used to having print subscriptions and still want them.’

She also noted the role that Europe’s value-added tax (VAT) on electronic resources plays in this discussion. ‘This scares consumers because the price increases immediately. When libraries buy content, VAT puts a big restraint on budgets that have already been diminished,’ she said.

She sees part of the agent’s role as helping in this area: ‘As intermediates we are not just servicing customers but also publishers.’ LM recently began a project to help small publishers, where small publishers send LM the publication files that they send to their printers and LM uses these to create electronic versions for customers.

‘It is not sophisticated but it is a new market for these publishers,’ she explained. ‘There’s a major focus on big publishers, but there needs to be a good way to service the rest.’

Serving libraries

A role that subscription agents have moved particularly heavily into is serving libraries. ‘Our role as agents is about spotting trends for customers,’ Touil said. ‘We’re like a consultancy role. The only threat to subscription agents is if we stay put. We need to evolve all the time. If we cling onto the past then we will not be needed anymore.’

Harwood observed: ‘Library budgets are under pressure, not just in terms of content but also in terms of head count. I like to think of us as the outsource arm of the library. We need to provide a range of interlocking tools that libraries can outsource and need to package. We’ve not been sufficiently good at showing that we can provide services that give value and warrant charges.’

In practice, this means a broadening of the services on offer. ‘As an agent we are bringing together a range of other services now: processing subscriptions, aggregating e-book content, library management tools and analysis,’ he said.

And at the time of going to press EBSCO had just announced another string to its bow: the purchase of altmetrics start-up Plum Analytics.

There is a lot of excitement about any kind of insight from analytics, as Swets discovered when it began a partnership with reference management company Mendeley. ‘The partnership has been quite a success for us,’ said Dyer of Swets.

‘As a general trend, we are trying to move away from being a traditional agent to being a more integrated part of the library workflow.’
So what does all this make the agent’s role today and in the future? Consultants for libraries, said Touil. The outsource arm of the library, according to Harwood. An integrated part of the library workflow, said Dyer. However, they define it, their message to libraries is loud and clear: subscription agents want to be there to help you.

Language support

Sweden-based Zahra Touil of LM Information Delivery is particularly conscious of the demands of libraries for content in local languages. She noted that with e-books and other electronic resources there has been a trend to publish in English in order to reach a wider market.

‘It’s very English-dominant today. It’s not bad, but we would like the publishing world to remain as diverse as it has been. Librarians ask for local languages, but it’s slow on the publisher side because there has not been a good model for this,’ she observed.

She noted that libraries with predominantly electronic collections often still need to opt for print books in order to provide their users with local-language resources. ‘Sometimes they have to drop certain subscriptions to get local language materials,’ she said. ‘In the scientific world English is dominant but it’s also really important to keep local languages for heritage.’


 APC management

With experience in handling many-to-many transactions between research institutions and publishers, subscription agents see themselves as well-placed for an emerging need: managing many gold open access (OA) article processing charges (APCs).

In the summer Swets launched a service to do this. ‘OA APC is an extra support service that we can offer,’ said Finbar Galligan of Swets. ‘Traditionally we are good at managing lots of small financial transactions. The response in the UK [which took an early line on this with the emphasis on gold in its OA mandate] has been interesting and we are exploring other options.’

EBSCO is also developing a product in this area, says Harwood. ‘We have had requests to get involved in processing APCs and are developing a product that we hope to pilot in the next few months.’

However, he cautioned that there are challenges in predicting the direction that OA will take: ‘I’m based in the UK so my perspective is shaped by the Finch report but when I meet colleagues in the USA to develop products they have a different approach. When you are a global business developing a product you have to think where things are going worldwide.’
Regardless of the exact direction, though, he believes that ‘this should be an area that traditional agents should be in.’