Where will libraries buy eBooks and who will pay the bill?

The academic book supply market has long played second fiddle to the world of scholarly journals: library book budgets suffered for years as libraries made room for challenging journal price increases. Significant attention was paid to the journals world when librarians tried to stop the acquisition of Academic Press by Elsevier in 2000 and since then, the Open Access agenda has kept journals firmly on the front page. Of course, there is still some way to go, but it is fair to say that the trajectory for journals is Open, seemingly in a variety of different flavours with the fundamentals of the scholarly publishing chain still intact.

The current landscape

With journals seemingly ‘sorted’ will this pave the way for greater efforts to make monograph content open? While that particular issue smoulders, issues around academic book publishing and supply have come to prominence over the last 18 months: One of the longest-standing book suppliers to academic libraries in the UK, Dawson, went to the wall along with parent company, Bertram, in 2020. Book publishers are starting to take some lessons from their journal counterparts with increasingly challenging pricing and pricing models for ebook access and a bunch of new-style aggregators are falling over each other to get a foothold in universities.

These new aggregators (BibliU and Perlego), and the not so new (Kortext and VitalSource), have the potential to shake things up a bit in different ways: They are reaching out beyond academic libraries in their search for traction and income by seeking to engage faculty and senior management in universities with messages around widening participation and user analytics and they are working with book publishers to define new models for access that will help safeguard traditional but diminishing income from student purchase of core textbooks.

New kids on the block

If you are EBSCO, Proquest or Askews and received a short term bump in library sales following the demise of Dawson, make the most of it. These new aggregators are not only interested in wider university money; they’ll take some of the library budget too and expect them to be competing for that in due course. Their modern interfaces may make those of the traditional library suppliers’ front ends look decidedly clunky, but have they yet cultivated the service ethos that’s needed to keep libraries happy and loyal?

Now, we know EBSCO and Proquest have deep pockets and that at least a couple of these new aggregators are led by entrepreneurs with significant financial backing. They and their supporters might be tempted to cash in on their efforts at some point when there is a knock on the door. Equally, the newbies may continue to pursue an independent path, developing their analytics functionality and working more closely with publishers on courseware services like those associated with Pearson. Or, as has largely happened in the journals world, will publishers string them along until they are ready to ditch them in favour of direct supply and relationships with their customers, whether that’s the library or the faculty, or both.

Despite the frustrations librarians are currently experiencing with ebook pricing models, it’s good to have books centre stage for a while, with  journals playing a supporting part.

If this topic interests you, you may also want to read ‘Can we get this as an ebook? Well, maybe…’ by my colleague Hazel Rothera in Issue 15 of Library and LR Update.

— Paul HarwoodAssociate Director of Learning Resources – Collections

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