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Riding the e-collections wave

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Rolf Janke of SAGE Reference reports back on some of the e-book and e-reference discussions at the London Book Fair

The revolution towards widespread e-book publishing has become a reality and many academic publishers now provide e-books and e-reference collections.

With that in mind, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) held its second session on the future of the e-book collection at the 2008 London Book Fair. I was invited to speak at this on behalf of SAGE, alongside Mark Carden, MyiLibrary’s senior vice president and general manager for EMEA and David Nicholas, director of the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London (UCL).

SAGE launched its SAGE eReference collection at the start of 2007. We were neither the first – nor likely to be the last – publisher to enter this market. We decided to go into e-reference publishing because we already had the scholarly content in print, and because consultations with our customers and the trade suggested that users wanted content in a digital format. By the end of the year we will have more than 80 encyclopedias on our eReference platform so it is growing rapidly in what many perceive to be an extremely crowded marketplace.

There’s a lot of competition out there amongst reference publishers. This is heightened by the changing habits of ‘Gen Y’ users: students and researchers aren’t going to the library anymore, and don’t know what e-resources their libraries are supplying. They have Google and Wikipedia, and they go there first.

We cannot ignore these environmental factors. They pose a real problem for the publisher: how do we get our content out to the users? And with so much content available on the internet, how can publishers help librarians to enable their students and researchers to discover the content that they have just bought?

Supporting librarians

The role of publishers is now much more about supporting librarians to improve the discoverability of our content. Statistics show that e-books are being used. Research in 2007 by Ed Walton, acting dean of University Libraries at Southwest Baptist University, USA, showed that 25 per cent of students are conducting research directly from e-books.

Yet, as UCL’s David Nicholas went on to say at the conference, there is an incredible dumbing down of information-seeking behaviour. The whole digital supply chain needs to be engaged in assessing how users make use of these resources, and how it supports their academic needs. This makes the role of the librarian more important than ever. As Nicholas added, ‘the consumer is now king’, so it is up to publishers together with librarians to ensure that the e-collections being provided are working effectively. It is even more important to engage faculties to actively support their students in using e-resources.

However, finding the perfect model for librarians and users is far from an easy task. Reference librarians want their content on one platform and are having trouble managing several platforms at once. So can publishers and aggregators come together to provide the ‘model’ platform? Unfortunately, as Mark Cardan of MyiLibrary pointed out, each librarian will prefer a different platform. Which is the best one depends on the customer.

The same issues arise looking at business models for e-collections. There are as many models as there are collections – and customers vary widely on how they would want content sold to them. Reference is being sold as a collection, in bundles, as databases or single volumes, for full purchase or for subscription.

In the traditional book world there were only sales, not subscriptions, and there is some resistance to the subscription model among reference librarians. They want to spend their money once, and then know that they have that content. Publishers and providers need to be flexible to suit individual market needs.

Publishers also need to consider third-party licensing and aggregators, and how they may aid librarians in simplifying access. There are lots of pros and cons for publishers. They may lose their profile, and may find themselves in competition with aggregators. Conversely, the aggregators may be able to penetrate markets that the publisher cannot. Are they better for libraries by enabling users to search across publisher collections? At SAGE, we strike a balance by working with aggregators such as MyiLibrary, Ebrary, Ebooks Corporation and Dawsons but also providing our own platform.

We are looking to forge partnerships with further vendors. In the short term I don’t see publishers beginning to collaborate on aligning their platforms, or coming together on a single platform, but it’s not something to rule out.

Having an electronic collection has opened up a myriad of new opportunities for us internationally. With print you can sell throughout the world, but there are limitations: pricing, space issues, distribution, licensing and selling restrictions. With e-reference, there are fewer barriers for the librarian or the end user. They see seamless distribution access.

The models aren’t perfect: they are going to evolve, and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong approach at this stage. Ultimately the time has to be right – being a Californian I like to see it as ‘riding on the crest of a wave’. You can’t be early or late: publishers need to stay on top of the wave.