Subscribing to a changing world

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The last year has been an eventful one for subscription agents. Sharon Davies reports on the latest trends and developments

Twelve months ago, Research Information reported on the evolving role and trends of subscription agents and how they had been affected by the transition from print to online information.

Fast-forward one year and subscription agents have been thrust into the limelight following the recent news regarding the bankruptcy of Swets. As a result there has been much discussion and debate on the role of the subscription agent, and questions raised about their future.

The Swets effect

So how have last year’s events at Swets impacted on subscription agents?

Allen Powell, president of EBSCO Information Services’ subscription services division, observed: ‘The Swets bankruptcy has made 2014 a very difficult year for libraries and subscriptions services; there are lessons to be learned. An argument could be made that Swets did not keep its financial troubles secret – its annual report, which was posted on its website, painted a dim view of its financial future.

‘While this information was available, did customers know it was there? Did they know they needed to verify the financial strength of their vendors? We believe it is an essential part of any business and certainly the business of subscription management given the amount of money involved and the impact on libraries and their patrons if access is interrupted.’

He continued: ‘At EBSCO, we advocate fiscal transparency and we proactively work with both publishers and customers to provide details regarding our financial strength. We work with top publishers to review our books and speak with our auditors. In order to ensure they are spending their money with a company that is stable, we believe customers should include stronger financial due diligence and stress testing in their RFP (request for proposals) and tender requests so they can be assured that they are working with financially strong agents.’ Powell added: ‘As we said in our email to customers shortly after the announcement of the Swets bankruptcy, awareness of a company’s financial strength is essential.’

Changing Perspectives

Melissanne Scheld, managing director at Publishers Communication Group (PCG), observed: ‘From my perspective, our industry will always need subscription agents; even the largest global publishers with dedicated sales forces still can’t reach every relevant library; and librarians, with ever-increasing demands on their time, cannot juggle the necessary administration of so many publishers.’

She continued: ‘Subscription agents alleviate the pressures on both sides of the equation. But the Swets bankruptcy will undoubtedly impose new expectations on the agent side. Libraries have spent months wondering where their funds have gone and whether access will be maintained for all of their relevant subscriptions. Going forward, I imagine libraries will expect the agents to hold even more details of the purchasing cycle and be more forthcoming in the process.’

Powell of EBSCO observed: ‘At EBSCO, we believe we are providing an excellent service for our subscription customers and we have worked hard to streamline our operations so that we can offer that service at a low cost.’ He added: ‘What the Swets upheaval may help illustrate is the true value of these services and the understanding that there has to be a cost associated with that service. There is work being done and libraries benefit from the work subscription agents do, whether it be the freeing up of resources, the ease of billing or the peace of mind of a one-stop customer service experience.’

Tina Feick, director of sales and marketing for North America at Harrassowitz, continued on this point: ‘Following the recent events at Swets, subscription agents are taking a long look at themselves, which is only natural. Losing a major competitor in an industry is always a concern.

‘However I don’t think we want to assume that there is a problem with the subscription business model. It’s more about stepping back and revisiting the basis of our business model and having discussions with our partners, libraries and publishers/content providers, to educate and understand the business and explore additional options,’ Feick continued.

‘On some of the listservs, there has been discussion about the viability of the subscription model and whether agents are still needed. We still see that libraries require our services and that the model is solid. Due to the Swets bankruptcy, Harrassowitz has seen growth in our transfer business, as have other agents. Clearly there is a demand for services provided by a subscription agent.’

Feick added: ‘With libraries re-evaluating their vendor selections due to the Swets bankruptcy, we speculate that in 2015 there will be an increase in libraries reviewing services and further discussions with their vendors including preparing signed service agreements and RFPs.’

Growing trends

Although overshadowed by the Swets crisis, 2014 also witnessed a number of growing trends for subscription agents often determined by customer demands, changes in technology and economic cuts.

‘Libraries continue to face financial challenges which impact their collection development budgets,’ observed Powell of EBSCO. ‘Budget cuts also impact staffing which is where an agent can make a difference. This is work that takes up valuable time and by taking on the work of managing a library’s subscriptions, an intermediary can help free up staff so they can be reallocated to better serve the library mission.’

Feick of Harrassowitz also noted that many libraries are short-staffed and appreciate the advantages of using subscription agents. Highlighting the growth of some libraries returning to subscription agents after the management and invoicing for the ‘big deals’ did not work well for them.

She observed: ‘About 10 years ago we lost business as customers moved towards big deals. However, now we are seeing a trend of some customers coming back to subscription agents, saying that they would rather get their invoices in electronic form all from one place rather than dealing with multiple organisations.’

Scheld of PCG also noted the changing demand of big deals: ‘The days of the big deal are behind us, being replaced by much more bespoke packaging. Librarians want to be able to pick and choose their own content and not be forced to pay for arbitrary bundles. In fact, we have noticed trends in the opposite direction, such as greater demand for pay-per-article options.’

As the transition from print to digital continues, Powell of EBSCO observed: ‘Libraries can benefit from e-packages when they are able to leverage the economies of scale and bring more content into their collection for less money. We expect to see a continued move from print to electronic and we expect discovery to help improve the end user experience and, in doing so, improve their perception of the library’s value.’

Breaking bad tidings... how Swets broke the news of its bankruptcy via Twitter

Patron-driven acquisitions (PDA)

Following on from last year’s Research Information subscription agent report, 2014 also saw discussion around patron-driven acquisitions (PDA) and open access (OA).

Scheld of PCG observed: ‘There is a lot of conversation regarding PDA but still some hesitation both from the libraries and publishers. Until there are more uniform models and more success stories from both sides, we’re still in a wait-and-see mode.’

Continuing on this point, EBSCO’s Powell observed how PDA has been slow to develop for periodicals: ‘As an e-book provider, we do see libraries experimenting with PDA but less so for journals and magazines.

‘It will succeed if it helps librarians save money while providing their end users with more access to information and a better user experience.’

Feick of Harrassowitz noted how the subject of being able to handle and process acquisitions of serial materials is an area rarely taught at library schools: ‘There is a need to educate people in how the industry works, for example through organisations such as NASIG (North American Serials Interest Group), UKSG, ALA’s (American Library Association) ALCTS division, and the ASA.’

Open access

The debate surrounding open access still continues, but has this affected subscription agents?

Feick of Harrassowitz observed: ‘Open access is still a small proportion of the vast array of serial publications, so open access has yet to affect the subscription business model.

‘Even though there is no payment for the subscription, there are services that agents can provide such as information about the open-access journal, including links to the content, subject analysis, or publisher. Agents are developing services to manage open access, which will require a fee paid by the library. Right now, there is not much of an economic impact.’

Scheld of PCG agreed with this point: ‘OA still accounts for a very small percentage of library holdings, and librarians have yet to rely significantly on OA rather than traditional journal subscriptions. From a theoretical standpoint, I would expect that substantial growth of OA would eventually cause subscription agents to adjust their services in order to remain relevant.

‘Perhaps they would play a role in coordinating APCs and act as a communication link between publishers and authors/OA funders.

‘The challenges with keeping the OA system efficient and cost-effective will provide opportunities for innovative players.’

Powell of EBSCO added: ‘OA still includes transactions and we believe subscription agents will have a role to play in managing that content. Again, there is value in the service provided and that may look a bit different with OA but the core value is the same – an easier library experience.’

The long-term future

Discussing the long-term future of subscription agents, Powell of EBSCO observed: ‘Subscription agents help libraries manage their print and e-journal subscriptions and free up staffing while making managing budgets easier. As long as libraries still see the value in those services, subscription agents will remain an important part of the collection development experience.’

He added: ‘We also believe that that nature of our business and the services we provide give us a distinct advantage as a subscription agent. In addition to being the largest intermediary between libraries and publishers, EBSCO is also able to provide usage consolidation and analytics to help libraries make collection development decisions.’

Feick of Harrassowitz added: ‘Agents need to work fast and smart. We need to look at any efficiencies that we can gain internally and externally by exchanging data with libraries, library automation vendors, and content providers to help streamline the subscription process and make life easier for everyone. As a result, we are looking to develop and improve standards and best practices through organisations such as ICEDIS, EDItEUR, NISO, and ASA.

‘Harrassowitz conducted a customer service survey in 2012. The results showed that customers wanted a fast service response, stability and reliability. When we asked what would they change? Many of the respondents said “Don’t change, keep doing what you are doing.” This indicated to us that customers trust us to supply subscription services and want us to continue to explore efficiencies and expand our subscription offerings and that they truly appreciate and need our subscription services.’

Scheld of PCG concluded: ‘Agents are key to a successful publishing supply chain as they are the intermediaries between content and library consumer. Without agents involved in facilitating the purchase process between thousands of libraries and thousands of publishers, the system would likely grind to a halt.

‘The long-term future will require greater transparency in business transactions between agents, librarians and publishers. As OA models grow, an agent’s role will not only be that of a traditional sales functionary but also a content advocate, working with both libraries and academics/researchers to bring forth new content. As long as there are subscription-based products, there will be a need for subscription agents.’