Choosing Ebook Platforms for K-12 Libraries

This is the third in a series of  articles on ebook  models in K-12 or school libraries. The first article was about why school librarians would want to know about anything as abstract as an ebook business model (hint: knowing the basic models will help you choose the best products to meet your library’s goals). The second article examined the four basic models and boiled them down to their simplest levels. One treats ebooks like printed books. One treats ebooks like journal articles. One treats ebooks like books in a bookstore. One treats ebooks like shared resources. Today’s article will show how to use these basic concepts to select the best kinds of ebook products for your library.

Some issues to keep in mind

Before going further, let’s look at some of the issues that come with ebooks in school libraries. We want to have these in mind as we consider how to create a combination of products with different ebook business models. These issues involve three areas: the supplier’s platform and business model, assuring that the ebooks are used to support the educational goals of the school, and bridging the digital divide.

To begin with the platform and business model issues, we need to understand what an ebook platform is, and why it is important. We already know what a business model is and how the four kinds of business models affect school libraries. The platform is the specific technology that an ebook supplier uses to provide ebooks. It includes a web-based interface for student use. It may include apps that make the books readable on mobile devices. It will have an administrative interface or dashboard for you to use so you can control loan periods, track usage, etc. It may also have a teacher interface so that teachers can assign reading to students, and then monitor their progress. If you need to select and purchase individual ebooks before your students can read them, it will also include a book ordering function. In other words, the platform supports everything you, your students and your teachers do with ebooks. Without the platform, you cannot use the ebooks.

Ownership is an issue. Since ebooks are software, and you are buying licenses to use software, rather than purchasing printed books, you need to ask what will happen to your ebooks if you decide to replace one supplier and its platform with another. When you are working with the ebook as printed book model, you want to be sure that you can migrate the books you purchase to another platform, should you decide to change suppliers. This should not be a problem, but be aware of it. In the subscription model, you are renting access to the books, so you do not own them. Hence, migrating them is not an issue. However, in some cases the subscription model is mixed with the DDA model, in which case you may find yourself owning ebooks that students have selected and read. In the unlimited simultaneous access with perpetual ownership model, the sophisticated interactive features of each platform will add so much to the usability of the books that migration would be a mistake, if it were possible.

The other issues pertain to making sure that the ebooks are used, especially in the classroom. The suppliers all provide professional development for librarians, but you will need to allow time to develop your own expertise and to train your library assistants so you can support your teachers and students. If your ebooks are used only by students on a library assignment or for pleasure reading, then your school is underutilizing them.

Lastly, the digital divide issues are always present. If the platforms you use allow both offline and online reading, then students who do not have internet access at home may be able to use them if they have their own tablets or if the school provides tablets to them.

This series of articles is not intended to provide a detailed comparison of specific ebook products for K-12 libraries. The products are usually under ongoing development to improve them, so any such comparison is at best a snapshot. These articles will give the reader an understanding of the business models that ebook suppliers use, and this understanding will help the reader select a combination of products that will be appropriate for her or his school.

When choosing specific products, the most important criterion is the commitment of the supplier. Is the supplier committed to the K-12 market? Does the supplier support adequate customer service and support staff to help you in an emergency? Does the supplier shape its products to suit K-12 library needs? These are the kinds of questions to ask when evaluating specific products.

Now, let’s go back to the four ebook business models. When we look at them, and at the kinds of content available through them, we will see that selecting kinds of products is simpler than would appear at first glance. Understanding the business models and how they correlate to the kinds of books your library needs makes the picture clearer. If you need a refresher on the four models and some of the companies that use them, click here to read the previous article in this series.


Ebooks as Printed Books

Referring back to the last article, for many popular books this is the only business model that the publishers will allow, so you will have to choose a supplier that uses this model. This model usually involves perpetual access to each title that you purchase, but you may have to pay an annual platform fee, which amounts to a subscription. In some cases, you may have to purchase a new copy of a book after it has been checked out a fixed number of times. If your budget is cut and you cannot pay the annual fee or buy a replacement copy, then you may lose access to the books even though you “own” them.

Since you have to pay for each book, whether anyone ever checks it out or not, you will want to limit your purchases with this business model to books that you know the students will use, either because they are required reading or because they are high interest, such as current bestseller fiction. In other words, aside from any platform fees, you will want to apply the same criteria to purchasing ebooks with this one user/one copy model as you would to purchasing printed books. Lastly, you will want to be sure that you can migrate your purchased books to another supplier’s platform, if you wish.

Some of the companies that offer this model are OverDrive, Cloud Library from Bibliotecha, Axis360 from Baker & Taylor (now a part of Follett), Follett Shelf, and MackinVIA. Amazon Whispercast, Apple, and Barnes & Noble also offer consumer versions of this model that have been adapted for educational use.

Subscription Models

The essence of this business model is to treat books as if they were journal articles in a database. The library purchases access to the database for a specified period of time, and if the library does not renew, then students lose access. We say that the library purchases access, but this model is really more like renting than like buying because of the time limitation. You are renting access to a collection and never have ownership, even in the ebook software sense of the word. The supplier selects the specific titles that go into each collection and will update the selection as needed to keep the information current. The collection will contain high quality books, mostly if not all nonfiction, but it will not contain current bestsellers.

This is a good model for academic materials, for homework support. Some of the vendors index the contents of the books to make locating specific passages or chapters easy. Again, this is similar to how they handle journal articles. Often, it blends into the DDA model.

Gale’s GVRL and ebooks from EBSCOhost are examples of this model.

Something Like a Bookstore—DDA

Demand Driven Acquisition, sometimes called Patron Driven Acquisition, is based on the concept of buying books just in time for them to be used, rather than just in case they might be used. In the ebook as printed book model, you select individual books on the assumption that they will be read. You avoid buying books that you suspect will not be read. The subscription model operates on a similar assumption. You purchase access to a collection containing a wide range of books just in case someone wants to read some of them. You base your decision to subscribe on whether or not the collection as a whole contains information that you think your students will use. DDA takes a different approach. The supplier provides access to a collection of books, but the library does not pay for a specific title until a patron, or student, selects it. There may or may not be a setup fee or a small platform fee, but the supplier is counting on checkouts to create a profit. Conversely, the library is counting on limited use to keep the service economical.

Since the library pays little or nothing to provide access to the collection, this is a practical way to handle books that are unlikely to get heavy use, and that are not available via a subscription collection. You would not want to use it for books that you knew your students would be using every year.

Brain Hive is a good example of this. It started with the DDA model but also offers ebooks for purchase.

Unlimited Simultaneous Use with Perpetual Access

In this model, the supplier gives you the best possible deal. You pay once and then have enough copies of each book for your whole school to read it at once, unlikely as that may be to happen. You never run short of copies, and the copies never wear out. The companies that offer this model count on you to purchase new editions or new books in order to provide them with a stream of income. Otherwise, the model would not be sustainable. The books that they offer on this basis are written specifically to support curriculum and often come with teaching guides and sophisticated features that let students interact with the books. For instance, students may be able to take notes and even use information from books to create their own writing projects. Because the publishers that create these books work closely with K-12 educators, they may include management features to make the books useful to classroom teachers as well as to school librarians.

This model is at the other end of the business model spectrum from the ebook as printed book model. While the publishers who treat ebooks as printed books make most of their sales to the public and are rightfully concerned that school and library sales will erode the consumer sales that they need to survive, the publishers who have developed and champion the unlimited simultaneous use with perpetual access model sell only to or principally to school libraries. They compete with each other to create the best books and best platforms for school use, and this works to the advantage of the school librarians. While these publishers often sell access to their books through resellers, they prefer that school librarians order directly from them and often give better pricing to those that do. This is obviously the best model for the bulk of the ebooks that a school library would purchase.

Rosen Digital is a leader in this model. Along with ebooks for reading, they also offer several kinds of interactive ebooks with teacher tools to facilitate classroom use, as well as databases that contain content from their books.


To conclude this series, we have covered the four basic ebook business models that school librarians have to deal with. In the first article, we looked at why school librarians need to know about ebook business models. In the second article, we looked at each model in some depth and gave examples of them all. In the third article, we correlated ebook business models with kinds of content.

School librarians have a wide range of business models and suppliers that they can work with. By applying their knowledge of the underlying business models, they can select the most convenient and economical combination of products to reach their library’s educational goals.

Further Reading

Since the whole subject of ebooks in school libraries is in flux, I am not going to provide a detailed bibliography. Here are links to three articles that will provide additional background for those who are interested, but without requiring a large time commitment to read them.

American Libraries Magazine —  An overview of the subject by three experts.

Publishers Weekly — An overview of ebook use in schools.

Harvard Business Review —  An explanation of what a business model is.