The Evolving Role of the E-Book Vendor, Part I: Adding Value to Library-Publisher Relationships
At least seven years ago, I remember one full-service library book vendor encouraging libraries to not to fear e-books and announcing that their goal was to make e-book purchasing work like print book purchasing: they aimed to integrate the processes of e-book provision with their already well-established print book sales methods. Since that time, e-books have been well integrated into the same purchasing processes libraries use for print books: approval plans, firm orders and standing orders work well title-by-title. However, e-books give publishers other sales workstreams and pricing models that go outside the routines that have been in place for print books. This is the first of two posts looking at some challenges for book vendors in selling e-books to libraries.
Libraries have long depended on book vendors to mediate relationships with publishers, realizing economies of scale by reducing the number of contacts libraries and publishers each have to maintain: publishers can sell hundreds of copies of a book to a vendor, who can then sell that title, copy by copy, to many libraries, along with copies of other books. As I've mentioned before, book vendors added to their suite of services to libraries other duties, chief among them title identification and duplicate control, and have evolved from just selling books to selling bona fide collection development assistance. Merging e-books into this relationship has been of great value to libraries and helped some of them get over the hump of adopting e-books as a viable format.
E-book platforms introduce a new complexity that didn't exist in a strictly print book collecting environment. On the one hand, a vendor can consider a platform to be analogous to a binding format, for the purpose of (potentially) managing different ISBNs and a library's preferences for one format over another. On the other hand, for a library to buy an e-book on a vendor's platform, the library has to have worked out a deal—a license, SERU or other agreement—that states the terms under which such purchases take place. Here's where it gets complicated, for libraries, platform providers and vendors and the binding metaphor breaks down: imagine if a library not only strongly preferred a paperback binding to a hardcover one, but was legally prohibited from purchasing any hardback books!
E-book pricing is different from print pricing: there is no stated list price for e-books, to which a discount—to be negotiated between the vendor and publishers as well as the vendor and libraries—can be applied. Some e-books are sold on the condition that no two people can read the “copy” to which the library purchased access at the same time, which makes those e-books like print books, though it's an arbitrary restriction in the digital environment, designed to protect revenue streams. Some are sold with multiple or even unlimited simultaneous users—the latter example is the standard model for e-journal access—but they're sold at a higher price than the single user-at-a-time book. Vendors now can provide a library customized pricing for hardcover, paperback and various access options for e-books in real time, though the complexities of these arrangements have required a lot of work “on the back end” for vendors. The integration of e- and print processes is preserved.
One thing that has begun to happen on a regular basis, which throws a monkey wrench into the library-vendor collecting machine, is that publishers have begun to come directly to libraries, selling e-book content. How important is a vendor in this relationship, when a publisher can make one sale of a lot of titles to a library? The publisher may offer the library a huge discount per title (compared to print), if the library agrees to buy subscriptions to e-book content for titles that are going to be published during a year. This sales model is exactly like a journal subscription, though it may not renew automatically, but the bibliographic format is monographic. Some publishers are also digitizing their backlist content and offering enormous discounts off the print price to libraries, who may already own the print content but find the digital format preferable, particularly in the case of reference works.
In the case of future content—the subscription to “collections” of forthcoming titles a publisher offers—it is of great value to our library to manage this purchase through a vendor: again, duplication control is important, even if selection is undermined. This kind of offer has helped both libraries and vendors transition into e-book buying and selling, respectively, but the conversations happen in a different order from what occurs with print books and discounts: the library becomes something of an intermediary between the publisher/platform provider and vendor!
In the case of backlist content, the discounts may be deep: any sales of the content are a boon to the publisher, who already has the content and is looking for a way to resell it, often to the same customers, with the overhead invested prior to the sale offer. That is to say, the publisher creates one digital copy and then has to provide enough server space for all its customers to access the content. The major investment is in creating the digital copy. This wouldn't be feasible in a print backlist deal, in which the bulk of effort and cost would be shifted more toward printing and distribution instead of creating that version from which hard copies are derived. So far, publishers offering backlist content have been less willing to work with vendors to intermediate their sales to libraries, enticing libraries to leave the vendor out of the deal by offering very low prices per title. Duplication control isn't as valuable a service from a vendor for backlist content, even in a print environment.
In the next post, I'll look at how these developments may compel book vendors to behave more like subscription vendors and examine where that mental model works and where it breaks down.