Posted by: Steven Harris | October 7, 2009

A World of Conundrums

I’m a fan of electronic content, which, I suppose, includes ebooks. I like ebooks, but I’m not a big fan of most ebook platforms and purchasing models that are out there now in the academic library market. One of the things that I especially don’t like is the idea of making ebooks another subscription+license kind of product. As we’ve been looking at our library materials budget this year, we see that almost 80% is taken right off the top for subscription products. That doesn’t leave us much leeway to buy discretionary things…like BOOKS!

Some of the ebook packages we have are based on a subscription model for a large and growing selection of titles. But if we ever cancel our subscription, we have nothing to show for it. No perpetual ownership. For one of these packages, I was looking at the use recently. There are about 42,000 titles available to our users. In the first 3 months about 2,700 of those had any use at all. I’ve ranted often about how “just in case” collections of library books don’t circulate very heavily. Typically, between 50 and 80 percent of a library book collection may never circulate at all. It’s only 3 months, of course, but it seems like the ebooks aren’t doing much better. 6 percent? Even if it goes up 4 times, that’s only 24 percent.

One of the solutions might be a purchase-on-demand program. Pay for what gets used. Keep those forever. Have ownership. Which, I think, only works if your users continue to have access to the large mass of un-owned titles. If you want to drive purchasing based on demand, there has to be a wide selection of materials to choose from.

But as I start to think about the math of purchase on demand, I’m not sure this is an economically viable option. We are paying annually about $40,000 for our subscription plan. If, instead, we paid only for the items that got used (2,700), we’d probably be paying in the neighborhood of $250,000 to $400,000. Assuming something like $75-$150 per title. Even with the number-of-use thresholds that are typically offered in purchase-on-demand (only pay after 3 uses), we’d still be shelling out around $170,000. (Again, I’m only looking at a few months use. Could be much higher.)

When do I need to say ownership of these titles is necessary? And how much are we willing to pay for them? Or, even if I don’t own anything, is $40,000 to $50,000 a year a good deal on all these books to which we have access? I think I need a mixed approach. Pay the subscription model. Buy a few of the most used titles. But I don’t think we could actually afford to pay the price of a total on-demand kind of model. That might change if this was the only way we were acquiring any books. But we’re not ready for that yet. My brain hurts!



  1. That’s my main problem with eBooks–they’re moving more toward something you borrow and don’t out-right own. It is clearly more difficult to pin down ownership of digital items, but I am concerned about ownership becoming a thing of the past.

  2. I talk a good game about electronic collections, but it IS a very scary prospect not to own anything.

  3. We’ve jumped in with EBL demand driven acquisition, but we’re a small institution (2000 students.) We took 15% of science monographs funds to pay for it. I’m definitely doing less firm ordering since the titles I would have ordered are in EBL.
    Conceptually I love demand driven: only pay for what is used. I hate buying books that sit on the shelf. We’ll see how it goes. I’m blessed with a daring head of Collections and head of Information Resources.

  4. Deborah, sounds like where I’d like to be one day.

  5. Steve, if you were where Deborah is, you’d be working with MEEEEEEEE! đŸ™‚

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