Necessity, the mother of invention for aggregators

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Kari Paulson, vice president for market development, ebooks, at ProQuest, and Heather Sherman, head of library programme management at Dawson Books, tell Tim Gillett about the latest purchasing trends

What have been the key developments around ebook access during the last 12 months?

Paulson: As ebooks have become more widely adopted and the print to electronic transition has accelerated, publishers have become increasingly concerned about revenue shift and sustainability of their publishing programs. This has been especially true in regions where approval plans had been a primary way of acquiring print books. In light of these concerns, we have seen more price adjustments for ebooks.  At the same time, we have seen increased experimentation in alternative access models – such as evidence-based acquisition and models for consortia.

Sherman: We’ve seen ebook usage increase over the last year as students become increasingly comfortable consuming information digitally. Two groups of users in particular benefit from accessing titles electronically: distance learners and those with disabilities. Distance learners rely more heavily on ebooks as they provide equality of access to a student group that’s been difficult to service in the past. The ‘anytime, any place, anywhere’ nature of ebooks means that universities can now offer students that aren’t based on campus, with a level of access to key monograph titles that wasn’t always possible with print books. Our user forums tell us that providing high-quality support for users with disabilities is important to libraries, and suppliers need to ensure that their platforms support these users fully. Again, ebooks have a role in ensuring equality of access.

Are pressures on budgets making things easier or more difficult for aggregators?

Paulson: Pressures on budgets never make things easier for anyone.  However, they do force everyone, including aggregators, to do more with less.  This can often lead to innovation and more efficient ways of providing content – ensuring the maximum value and eliminating waste.  We see this in access models, but we also see this through greater automation that helps eliminate waste, manage budgets in real-time and eliminate manual work needed to manage collections.  As an ebook supplier, we have also seen digital become increasingly appealing as budgets get squeezed. 

Sherman: Over the last 24 months we’ve seen clarity begin to emerge in how library budgets are assigned for monograph spend. For many universities, it’s vital that the library holds copies of key reading list titles to ensure that students have access to the essential texts that lecturers expect them to consult. Purchasing these titles can account for up to 50 per cent of the library’s spend. Linked to this is PDA spend, as this allows libraries to clearly demonstrate that students have a role to play in determining how their fees are spent. PDA spend can be up to 30 per cent of the library budget.

It’s not possible to service reading list and PDA buying without being able to aggregate material across different publishers. Libraries want to buy from suppliers who offer content from a broad range of publishers and in a range of formats. Recent consolidation in the library supply market has demonstrated how key library suppliers are looking to provide a ‘one stop shop’ in much the same way that print supply works.

Can you give a rough breakdown of your different access models (subscription, PDA, DDA, purchase)?

Paulson: Between EBL and ebrary, ProQuest offers a wide range of access models for perpetual access, rental, packages and subscription. Academic Complete is our flagship subscription, and we also offer a UK and Ireland version of Academic Complete and a variety of smaller subject-based subscriptions.  We have a wide range of access models for perpetual access – non-linear lending, single-user, three-user, and unlimited access. Titles can be purchased as firm orders or can be purchase on demand through our sophisticated DDA programs. Our DDA options include short-term loan for most of our titles and as well as ability to purchase on trigger or to mediate requests.

Sherman: As with print purchases, a large number of ebook titles are being selected on the basis of their inclusion on a reading list. From discussions with customers, we know that for these purchases some libraries have an e-first policy, whereas others continue to buy key books in both print and e to meet user demand. Rentals account for a small percentage of ebook purchases, although we are seeing an increase in rentals being used as a prompt for PDA. Traditionally, PDA purchases have been triggered by the amount of time / number of users reading an ebook, and these continue to represent the main reasons for titles being purchased through PDA.

How do you ensure that libraries want to use your services rather than going direct to publishers? Or do you accept that they will always want to access ebooks from a range of suppliers?

Paulson: We strive to offer the widest selection of content and the best tools for acquisition, end-to-end collection management and best user experience.  The value of an aggregator is inherent in the work we do – not only to provide a common set of tools and interface for content, but also the support of deeper workflows for both library and patron. We remain focused on building deeper integration with as many of the systems libraries are commonly using as possible – whether ILS, discovery, collection management systems. 

There is real value in providing a consistent, streamlined, and automated workflow across all titles.  We have also been working very hard at ensuring that our platform provides the best experience for end users.  That said, we recognise libraries want choice in where and how they buy their ebooks, so our access models and tools support that choice. The pick-and-choose models we offer allow libraries to avoid duplication with existing publisher packages and our profiling and de-duplication tools allow libraries to build wide selections of content around what they already have elsewhere. Libraries do and should want to access ebooks from a range of suppliers. No aggregator or publisher can offer everything that’s available in one place, which means libraries must use multiple suppliers to provide the widest breadth of content to their users.

Sherman: Libraries will always use a range of suppliers for ebooks, just as they do for print titles. However, in contrast to print titles, publishers and aggregators offer different titles, prices and purchasing models for ebooks. Libraries will select the supplier that best meets their needs for each individual title and also how they best interface with their purchasing processes and models. The role of the aggregator is two-fold: to provide access to the broadest range of titles, whilst removing the overheads associated with maintaining relationships with individual publishers, and to give the users a single portal through which to consume content from a variety of publishers.

With demand for ebooks (and supply) likely to keep rising, what provisions are you making to keep up with the trend?

Paulson: As we integrate EBL and ebrary into a common platform, we are investing in a state-of-the-art content management warehouse, ensuring that we’re well positioned to expand content levels infinitely as well as easily cater for new access and pricing models designed for the future.  We are also investing heavily in building out workflow tools to provide greater end-to-end efficiencies for libraries with acquisition, discovery, analytics, weeding and invoicing tools and for end users with discovery, access and research tools. 

Sherman: Ebook provision lies at the heart  of the Dawson strategy. Our recent focus is to make major improvements to the experience of reading an ebook, whether this is online or mobile, and we’ll be launching a new version of our ebook reader after Easter. Our customers have, through our user forum, helped us design the new reader, and they’ve also given us some great guidance on making the reading experience as accessible as possible for all students.

PDA has become embedded as a standard part of the library collection development policy for many of our customers, so our roadmap includes enhancements to our current offering – again designed around feedback from our customers.

Our sister companies in France and Spain are experiencing significant ebook growth, driven by work we did last year to translate the platform into key European languages. This work is supported by our ebook buying team, who’ve been very successful at acquiring non-English language content. We’ll continue this work, as it also has benefits for our UK customers, who want titles in languages other than English.

We’re also looking further into the future and considering strategically how we should invest in the library business and we hope to be able to reveal these plans later in the year. We are dedicated to providing the best library service to our customers and meeting all their acquisition needs now and in the future.

Are short-term loans continuing to increase in importance? 

Paulson: Access models predicated on demand, supporting wider discovery and use by patrons, will continue to increase in importance for the library. ProQuest will continue to innovate in order to meet this demand.

Sherman: Short-term loans are still the minority compared with the various models on offer, however we are witnessing an increase in the use of rentals as a trigger for PDA purchase. An outright purchase is made following a predetermined number of short term loans (rentals) of a title, while rentals are paid for.

Do you see any new trends relating to ebook acquisition on the horizon? 

Paulson: As both budgets and publisher sustainability continue to come under scrutiny, we should expect to see further experimentation with both pricing and access models before we see full maturation of either.

Sherman: The purchase decisions libraries take around ebooks have become more sophisticated. We’ve passed through the phase where libraries bought ebooks to supplement high demand print books, and moved to a world where the content is of prime importance, and library selections are based on which suppliers offer the most attractive price, most suitable purchasing model, and more recently how they best meet the access needs of users.

Finally, we’re beginning to receive requests for print PDA as well as ebook PDA. As libraries become increasingly format agnostic, and focus on the content instead, a supplier that can offer a hybrid PDA model will have an advantage.

About the author

Tim Gillett is the editor for Research Information and contributor to Fibre Systems

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