Ebook Business Models in Libraries

The Approval Plan: A Sorting Hat That Discovers the Right Books for the Right Libraries

At a time when academic libraries are investing more time and resources experimenting with models that place user demands at the center of library acquisitions (via such models as DDA), there seems to be confusion and misunderstanding about which methods compete and why. Publishers and libraries spent a significant amount of time pitting the print book against the ebook in the early years of digital reading—at the time very few were pointing out that there was no real competition between the two formats to begin with, at least not to the extent that one should cancel out the other. Similarly, librarians have been tempted to decipher the maze of book and ebook buying models as a zero-sum game, i.e., that some models must clearly stand in opposition to others.

While it could be argued that some ebook models do, indeed, encourage ownership while others encourage access (making it easy to distinguish between purchasing and subscribing to provide access), or that some models encourage purchase of a whole book while others ask for micro-transaction payments based on use, such arguments become problematic when applied to methods of discovering and acquiring content that were intentionally designed to adapt to the changing needs of libraries over time rather than to compete with new models. Nowhere is this confusion more evident than in the case of the Approval Plan—the many decades-old method that thousands of academic libraries around the world use to discover and acquire scholarly books.

Has the Approval Plan stood the test of time, many now ask, as some libraries move away from buying to own to embrace the access-based services. Does the complex process of profiling (books and libraries), which stands at the core of Approval Plans, still make sense in the age of advanced technologies that track user activities in order to provide proof of what is needed without guess-work or prediction? Does the emphasis on thoughtful curation rather than on the immediate—and perhaps momentary—demand of the user put libraries at risk of developing collections that won’t be used? Not only has the Approval Plan stood the test of time as a highly effective book buying tool—especially with the integration of ebooks—it has evolved with libraries consistently and to the point where it may not even be appropriate anymore to consider it a ‘traditional’ method. In fact, there are more Approval Plans running in academic libraries today than ever before. How is it possible, one wonders, that a method used to support buying scholarly books for over half a century continues to adapt so well to new technologies and not appear outdated? Continue reading The Approval Plan: A Sorting Hat That Discovers the Right Books for the Right Libraries

Demand-Driven Acquisitions: Do Library Patrons Get What They Need?

In the years and decades leading up to the digital revolution, academic librarians often questioned how much of the content they acquired in print really got used. Did the books they purchased in advance via approval plans and other methods get used enough to justify the cost of the library’s largely speculative buying? Were those books they bought really what library patrons needed in the first place? Then the universe of content exploded online and overnight, it seemed, an ocean of digital books became available—some for purchase, some via subscriptions, some free (e.g., Project Gutenberg). New ways of building library collections content emerged—ways that would allow librarians to gain valuable insight into patron activities and answer the decades-old question at the heart of collection development: Are libraries acquiring what patrons need?

The last few years have seen a steady proliferation of business models used for selling and acquiring ebooks by libraries, each with a unique set of benefits and challenges, but no other model has held as much promise to give patrons what they needed—at the moment they needed it—as Demand-Driven Acquisitions (DDA), also known as Patron-Driven Acquisitions (PDA). This is because at its core, DDA places the user (the patron), not the librarian or the publisher, in the driver seat. For the first time in the history of institutional book buying, patrons decide, for a portion of titles, what the library collects, leaving publishers and vendors without the predictability they enjoyed for many decades before ebooks came around.

Why were so many libraries and vendors happy to give up control at first? Hasn’t the industry invested the past two decades in the argument that quality will always trump quantity in research and that content filtered by professionals—not random users, even if they were savvy researchers—is far superior to what is freely available online? And haven’t we also argued that information literacy—the ability to find and evaluate information at hand—in and of itself needs to be taught and learned? The simple, and somewhat paradoxical, answer is: by giving up control all sides would eventually benefit. For libraries, it meant that a larger pool of titles would be immediately available for discovery—the titles they would never buy outright—and this in turn meant that the library would be able to support their patrons’ research at the point of need. For publishers, it meant incremental revenue and more revenue from the backlist that libraries either overlook or never have any intention of buying through other means. And for patrons, the ultimate beneficiaries, it meant that they would have immediate access to what they needed when they needed it, while remaining blissfully unaware that their actions were driving the buying. Continue reading Demand-Driven Acquisitions: Do Library Patrons Get What They Need?