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Subscription agents: Rebecca Pool asks who will survive the seismic shifts in scholarly publishing circles

Subscription agents: Rebecca Pool asks who will survive the seismic shifts in scholarly publishing circles

It’s no secret that life for the subscription agent hasn’t been easy. Within several years of the arrival of online journals, most publications became available on the Internet, packaged up and sold in multi-year agreements, bypassing many of the services that agents traditionally provided.

What’s more, this bundling of content increasingly saw publishers and librarians completely omitting subscription agents and sealing deals direct. Factor in dwindling library budgets, the emergence of open access, the much-covered collapse of Swets, and the traditional subscription agent has, at best, been floundering.

‘The real point of subscription agents was in the days of print when you were taking hundreds of copies of a journal from a publisher and splitting these up for many different libraries,’ says Mark Carden, chairman of the ‘Researcher to Reader’ conference, which succeeded the annual conference from the now-dissolved Association of Subscription Agents. ‘So, in many ways, the raison d’être of subscription agents has disappeared – especially with the arrival of electronic publications.’

Yet, several survivors have adapted. US-based information services provider, EBSCO, for one, has long embraced the steady shift from scholarly print to electronic publications. As Gareth Smith, vice president of sales in the UK and the Nordics, points out, in the late 1980s, more than 88 per cent of orders placed by EBSCO on behalf of academic libraries were for print materials. Yet in 2016, 80 per cent of orders were for online publications only.
‘We processed more than 5,000 e-journals package orders last year on behalf of client libraries,’ says Smith.

Monika Schneider, director of publisher relations and sales, Europe, at Germany-based book acquisitions and subscriptions services provider, Harrassowitz, tells a similar story. ‘We have been dealing with electronic publications for years and these have been a major part of our business and revenue stream,’ she asserts. We believe there is not a subscription agent anymore, as once there might have been. Agents now provide a variety of different services in different combinations, and serving different markets.’

Indeed, diversification has been crucial to success of the likes of EBSCO and Harrassowitz. EBSCO formed EBSCO Publishing as early as the 1980s, which marked the advent of its transition from sole subscription agent to more general intermediary.

Research internet platform, EBSCOhost, followed in the 1990s, in line with the first moves towards electronic publications, and the company also claims to have delivered one of the first cloud services, now offering EBSCO Discovery Service and EBSCOhost apps.

‘We have offered e-books and audio books for libraries since 2010 and in 2014 we launched our digital replica platform that now offers library access to more than 1,200 titles,’ highlights Smith. ‘In 2015 YBP Library Services joined EBSCO so we could offer monographs to our existing suite of serials database and software offerings... and we are also part of the Future of Libraries is Open [FOLIO] initiative to develop an open source platform for libraries.’

Crucially, Smith believes intermediaries must educate libraries and publishers within scholarly publishing as to what they do and how they are evolving alongside the industry. But key roles remain clear.

For librarians, the ordering, management and payment of journals orders via title databases and support services continues, as does the acquisition of domestic and international content. Meanwhile, publishers demand content ordering, customer contact, subscriber verification, order consolidation, renewals, streamlined payments and more, all of which Smith reckons intermediaries amply provide.

‘We are also at the forefront of technical developments and these services represent the backbone of the library ordering system for journals and packages,’ he says. ‘I suspect that, in many cases, these systems are taken for granted as librarians have had access to them since they started working with libraries.’
‘However, these systems have to be supported by a global knowledgebase... and this is an expensive and valuable undertaking which we need to remind librarians and publishers benefits them immensely,’ he adds.

For her part, Schneider from Harrassowitz is certain the role of a more general intermediary is here to stay. She reckons in an industry with myriad players, intermediation will remain important, and as she highlights: ‘Intermediaries provide a service to limit relationships between libraries and publishing houses to one-to-one instead of many-to-many.’

‘Also, the number of smaller publishers is growing while the variety of products and models within the major publishing houses is also growing which leads to a need for transparency and analysis,’ she adds. ‘We are being told by major publishers they cannot imagine a big deal with consortia without the support through an intermediary.’

And critically she believes intermediaries are instrumental to managing the quality of many relationships. For example, ONIX is the international book industry XML-based standard used by publishers, aggregators and other supply chain partners to communicate product information.

But while defined as a standard, Schneider highlights how it is used in many different variations. ‘We make sure that messages transmitted via this standard are being normalised,’ she says. ‘As [industry] complexity grows, the need for our service seems to be expanding further and further.’

Open access for all?

As the relentless transition from print to electronic proceeds and agents diversifies, the additional threat of open access continues to gather momentum.
Richard Bennett is commercial director of Hindawi, one of the world’s largest publishers of peer-reviewed, fully open access journals. As he puts it: ‘With the move to open access, there just isn’t a role for the traditional subscription agent as subscription management is simply gone. Articles are freely available, you can put them wherever you want, download them into a repository and do whatever you want with the content,’ he adds. ‘Open access is a slow but significant progression making the core business of subscription agents even more difficult to support.’

Today, open access remains a relatively small proportion of the swathes of serial publications scooped up by libraries but the transition and its impact on subscriptions to traditional journals will influence the future of any subscription agent-related business. Given this, the likes of Harrassowitz and EBSCO are already spotting the opportunities.

Smith, from EBSCO, believes intermediaries are well placed to support open access initiatives, and as more country mandates are enforced around the world and open access content ensues, the need for support will only grow. For him, article processing charges (APCs) offer a clear opportunity.
Highlighting a recent report from Jisc on APCs and subscriptions, he points out how these charges already make up at least 12 per cent of institutions’ journals spend.

And, as he also points out, a recent University of California-led study – Pay it Forward – concluded that the library journals budgets of how research-intensive North American institutions were showed them unlikely to be able to fund publishing activities through APCs.

‘As debate of APCs continues, a number of recent e-journals package negotiations have included clauses that a percentage, if not all, of articles from a contracting institution be published at no cost to the author,’ he says. ‘As an intermediary, EBSCO can serve a number of roles including contractual and financial arrangements, such as APCs payment.’

And as Smith adds, open access also has to be discoverable to users. ‘Given this, EBSCO indexes all open access titles included in the Directory of Open Access Journals and we are second only to Google as the second biggest driver of traffic to open access articles,’ he claims.

In a similar vein, Harrassowitz is also confident agents can provide services to manage open access. As Schneider emphasises: ‘We are not selling products anymore, we rather sell our service and this change of role has helped us to better understand our business in general. It doesn’t really matter whether there is a price tag to a product or not, as with open access publications, it is the service that we are being paid for.’

But what does the open access publisher think? Bennett believes gold open access, with its associated article processing charges, does indeed hold opportunities for agents, but he claims to have not yet seen any real action here yet.

‘The thing that institutions are struggling with is the complexity of the management of gold open access but I haven’t seen anyone significantly move into this space from a subscription agent place,’ he says. ‘There’s probably an opportunity here but I see Jisc getting involved and it does seem like the funders and infrastructure providers are stepping up to the role. Certainly somebody has to move into this space, as institutions are employing more and more people for what is an increasingly complex area.’

Open access and APCs aside, Mark Carden is adamant that a role for outsourced order management exists, and that this could be fulfilled by the subscription agent: ‘It never made much sense to me that you would outsource your APC management to a subscription agent, it’s not really what the subscription agent does,’ he says. ‘Indeed, if I was at an institution, I would want a strong in-house scholarly communications department to do this. But if I was working for a library I would quite like to have an organisation handle all of my billing and ordering problems, so there is still a role for outsourced order management.’

Order management role or not, the thorny issue of payment exists. Carden believes that many libraries have grown accustomed to the notion that subscription agent services are free: ‘Libraries’ procurement processes are also designed to drive down prices rather than drive service up. Opportunities exist but they will only work if libraries will pay for them.’

Hindawi’s Bennett also believes libraries would benefit from more support from agents, but points out how budgets simply don’t permit for the payment of this right now. ‘At the same time publishers aren’t willing to give up margins for something they don’t see as a real value-add,’ he says. ‘And so this becomes a difficult place for the subscription agent to live.’

A different perspective        

But – difficult or not – talk to librarians, and subscription agents feature very much in their businesses. Professor Kevin Smith is dean of libraries at the University of Kansas. Directly after Swets’ bankruptcy in 2014, Smith, then director of copyright and scholarly communication at Duke University, publicly argued for subscription security and the need for libraries to reduce outsourcing to commercial organisations.

Today, his arguments remain, but he also highlights how many of his colleagues still rely on subscriptions services.

‘Our subscriptions colleagues tell me that in the online environment here, subscription agents have a major role to play and we lean on them a great deal,’ he says. ‘Here, publishers generally do not provide any kind of customer service, so if we were dealing with publishers directly, life would be difficult. However our subscription agents provide us with this customer service.’

‘We still negotiate directly with a lot of publishers for packages but we have always done that,’ he adds, ‘so I don’t think the extent to which we are in contact with publishers, versus contact with subscription agents, has actually changed that much.’

Likewise, James Caudwell, responsible for e-resources subscriptions at Cambridge University Library, highlights how the library relies on several subscription agents, especially for online-related services: ‘After Swets we didn’t put everything we had with EBSCO, that would have been the easy alternative. Instead we wanted to spread the risk so we spent quite a lot of effort placing orders with more agents.’

According to Caudwell, these agents are critical in handling the invoicing and renewals processes of his library’s many subscriptions in continental Europe and beyond, as well as foreign language subscriptions. What’s more, as the library takes on more online publications, agent services remain important. By way of example, he highlights how many online publishers from outside the UK and US, have yet to develop adequate network access and authentication offerings.

‘We’ve experienced unhelpful models, were IP ranges are offered to a certain number for a certain price and if you require more IPs, you pay more money,’ he says. ‘This is ridiculous as we can’t offer journals access on just, say, 20 machines at the university. Clearly an opportunity exists for agents to work with publishers on gaining IP recognition across an entire campus.’

Crucially, according to Caudwell, post-Swets, his dealings with subscription agents are now more secure: ‘We have had different problems with transparency over charging and it’s has been an uphill struggle to see this [information] on invoices, but we’re happy now.’

Smith, from Kansas University, believes that subscription agents haven’t made significant changes on security post-Swets, but that bankruptcy concerns have diminished, with fewer players in this space. And he says such agents are here to stay: ‘Even in a world of all open access – which I don’t see happening that soon – there will be a need for some kind of intermediary,’ he says. ‘We have been using middlemen to support the consumption of knowledge resources [in traditional publishing], and we will probably need that support in the production of knowledge resources [in open access].’

‘It is a very common aspiration in the academic world that we spend more money on production rather than consumption,’ he adds. ‘But it’s going to be more efficient to have an intermediary here, than not.’


Accucoms on Aggregagent


What is Aggregagent? In the context of the big deal, how does it help publishers and librarians?

Accucoms launched the Aggregagent in June 2016 to provide a new route to market for a large number of independent publishers. The Aggregagent brings together the content of many leading publishers to form a new type of ‘big deal’ – one in which it is clear to the library and member publisher exactly how much money each title in the package is being sold for. Currently, only the very largest publishers have the capacity and critical mass to make large-scale deals with libraries and consortia. However, building Aggregagent collections opens up this part of the market to smaller publishers. With ever increasing proportions of library budgets being consumed by the ‘big deal’, the Aggregagent allows smaller publishers to obtain their fair share of the library budget. From the librarian’s point of view, the Aggregagent allows libraries to purchase a large number of high quality titles from a wide range of societies, university presses, and smaller publishers, in a single, simple transaction.

You signed your first deal with the Microbiology Society late last year - what does the deal involve? What/who next?

We were delighted that the Microbiology Society was the first publisher on board with the Aggregagent concept. As we add more publishers with like content, we can start to build packages featuring Microbiology Society’s journals and take them to libraries around the world. The Aggregagent allows libraries to buy content in subject packages, both narrow and broad, and indeed the entire collection if they have a broad collection development need. We know that libraries don’t want to be forced into buying the entire content of a collection, so the Aggregagent is all about choice for the library.

How will Aggregagent boost sales for Accucoms?

Having collections of content that span a number of publishers, across a wide range of subjects, allows Accucoms to gain the attention of libraries and consortia that wish to acquire content in that way, something which is more difficult to achieve on a title by title basis. This does not prevent Accucoms from selling subscriptions one by one to those libraries wishing to acquire content in a highly granular way. It just provides additional options.

How are you generating new business for publishers?

The Aggregagent opens up a whole new market for publishers amongst those libraries and consortia that prefer to purchase content in larger collections. It allows smaller publishers to get their fair share of the monies available to purchase the ‘big deal’.

Key future services from Accucoms?  New opportunities?

We are already offering a wide range of marketing, sales and customer services to publishers. Currently we will be focussing on growing the Aggregagent business and continue growing our services in telesales, marketing, representation and customer services.

How do you think the consolidation of scholarly journal publishers and titles has impacted subscription agents? And what about a transition to open access? And also print to electronic publishing? What are the opportunities here for subscription agents?

Consolidation of publishers has reduced the need for subscription agent intermediation – both customer service and financial transactions have simplified with the advent of first electronic publishing, and latterly the consolidation of publishing requiring fewer transactions to purchase more content. The Aggregagent adds to this consolidation, of course, and allows a raft of publishers with less than a critical mass of titles to take advantage of fewer transactions to sell more content. However, there remains a long tail of independent publishers who continue to be serviced by the subscription agents.

What about the changing role of subscription agent to a more general intermediary? Why do you think the need for intermediation is still strong?

The basic premise of the subscription agent remains, even if those fulfilling the role continue to evolve. It’s easier to manage a many-to-many relationship as a series of many-to-one and a one-to-many relationships. It's what iTunes and other music sites achieve as the intermediary between a multitude of music publishers and the great array of music consumers. Only if the number of publishers dwindles to just a few will the need for the intermediary vanish.