Ebook Collections: What’s the deal with Big Deals?

In our analysis of the ebook buying methods in academic libraries, we’ve examined thus far the unexpected effects of Demand-Driven Acquisitions (DDA), a model that showed promise at its inception but eventually led librarians and publishers to question its long-term sustainability, and we’ve cleared up some confusion surrounding the Approval Plan and explained why it remains as effective for purchasing digital books as for print. If we take a closer look at these two tools for acquiring content—the former a radical departure from traditional curation-based methods of buying that places the user and his/her activity at the center of buying, and the latter a decades-old method that has stood the test of time and evolved to support new technology and new methods (including DDA)—we discover that they share one key feature: both are centered around ‘title-by-title’ purchasing. Both invite and encourage a focus on individual titles, which are ‘picked’ or ‘chosen’ for purchase either automatically based on a set of pre-determined parameters or based on usage.

This begs the question: what about the packaged collections? What about the collections of ebooks sold to libraries in bulk? What benefits and challenges await libraries choosing to bypass the process of selecting individual titles (at least to some degree, if not entirely) and welcome packaged deals? Has the availability of ebook collections (hereafter referred to as eCollections) enhanced and/or improved collection development practices in academic libraries? On the heels of recent announcements that some libraries across North America are canceling their Big Deal e-journal packages—citing inability to keep up with the rising cost of subscriptions and insufficient use of old journals that make up a large portion of those collections—it seems fitting and necessary to examine how eCollections perform as part of libraries’ acquisitions strategy in a rapidly changing ebook market.

If purchasing e-journals through big packages (so-called Big Deals) has become the norm, has it also become the norm with ebooks? What are the benefits of purchasing from aggregators as opposed to purchasing directly from publishers? What type of content do eCollections entail and how relevant is that content to today’s researchers? And what are some of the challenges faced by libraries purchasing eCollections? As we’ve seen with DDA and Approval Plans, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for any ebook model or any library—however big or small, affluent or modest—and the better we understand the possibilities afforded to libraries through packaged vs. title-by-title deals, the closer we get to an understanding that eCollections hold a significant place in ebook collection development and have, indeed, become a new version of ‘big deals’ in academic libraries.

The obvious benefits of ‘title-by-title’ (or ‘pick-and-choose’) buying have been well documented in LIS literature: not only does it provide libraries with the flexibility to supplement their existing catalogs with targeted selections, it requires less initial investment of time and money; it is often seen as the easiest way to select and purchase only what libraries need; and it is also the most intuitive to the library profession, because it places the art of curation front and center—something many librarians still see as an integral part of their professional identity. However, over time ‘title-by-title’ buying becomes daunting because librarians find it challenging to keep up with the amount of scholarly content produced each year (which is only increasing in volume). It also becomes costly even for large institutions, because cherry picking in any form tends to be more expensive compared to the discounted prices associated with bundled content.

On the other end of the purchasing spectrum lies the ‘critical mass’ approach and eCollections—‘bundles’ of ebooks sold to libraries by aggregators or directly by publishers. Generally perceived as more affordable, requiring less labor, involving less restrictive DRM policies, and giving libraries the most value, eCollections are said to alleviate some of the frustrations librarians encounter with title-by-title purchasing. But just as the DDA model has challenged libraries, publishers, and vendors to rethink traditional methods of buying and selling, asking all sides to place their trust in the user’s ability to drive purchasing, so, too, has the idea that books in digital format being grouped together and sold as a package required all involved to further rethink how to amass content as efficiently and logically as possible.

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The logic from the beginning has dictated that ebooks be grouped according to subjects (sometimes broken down further into time periods) or they would be amassed via aggregators into large, multi-disciplinary virtual libraries spanning publishers and fields of study. Subject-based collections usually include large numbers of titles in a particular field needed to build a thorough, authoritative collection to support an institution’s growing research needs in that area. This, in turn, helps the institution remain competitive and on the cutting-edge of research and innovation. The titles in eCollections do not only include newer titles but also include the backlist that the library missed purchasing or simply didn’t have the funds to purchase through title-by-title methods.

While a number of publishers develop their own eCollections and sell them directly to libraries, particularly those that have long been on top of digitizing their portfolios (e.g., Wiley, Oxford University Press, Cambridge, Taylor & Francis, SAGE), aggregator-managed eCollections remain an attractive option for libraries looking to receive deeper discounts and build collections that are not only subject-specific but span publishers and disciplines. According to Library Journal‘s 2016 survey of U.S. ebook usage, the top vendor from which ebooks are purchased is EBSCO (82 percent), followed by Gale (59 percent) and ProQuest (58 percent).

Aggregators, like publishers, are held to high standards when compiling eCollections. In her 2013 “Ebook Access” article for Online Researcher, Sue Polanka wrote “[Aggregators] must do an excellent job curating collections in order to generate [library] interest and sales. They must provide ample discovery of individual titles within their collections. They also need to be accountable to publishers and authors by monitoring the use of subscription collections and determining acceptable methods of revenue distribution.”

Polanka here focused on the quality of the content itself, the user experience, and the aggregator’s relationship with publishers, all of which result in libraries successfully integrating eCollections into their catalogs. Once those are in place, other benefits of working with third-parties, including working with vendors, come to surface, and they extend beyond receiving discounts. These include a more streamlined ordering process, sophisticated customer support (vendors invest heavily in communication with both publishers and aggregators and seek to employ staff with LIS and information science background), and easy duplication control (a major issue for libraries not wanting to pay for books that they already own in one or multiple formats).

Perhaps the key word to use when highlighting the advantages of working with aggregators is ‘consolidation.’ In a world that sees hundreds of thousands of new academic titles published each year, keeping up and ordering books on a title-by-title basis is a daunting task for time-strapped librarians—even at the most affluent academic institutions not facing severe budget cuts or staff reduction. Librarians also have reported the challenges when interacting with many different publishers simultaneously. Not only is it time-consuming, it is also expensive and involves a significant amount of internal labor.

Julia Proctor of University of Wyoming Libraries raised the issue of time management in New Library World’s “Avoiding Ebook Big Deals:” The staff time that it takes to go through those packages is an indirect cost to the library and a considerable one because often these packages contain thousands of titles and take a great deal of time to evaluate.” Consolidating content also has significant benefits for the library user, who may find it frustrating and unproductive to have to learn multiple interfaces at the same time while doing his/her research.

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What about the question of ownership? Should libraries purchase eCollections (the ‘perpetual access’ model) or simply subscribe to them (the ‘lease’ model)? Judging from recent librarian feedback, perhaps the question to now ask is: Is it possible (and desirable) to have both options? When opting for perpetual access, librarians essentially choose to own eCollections in perpetuity either by hosting their owned content on their platforms or more often using the external platforms provided by aggregators. This means that although they only purchase ebooks to own them, they continue to pay hosting fees to third parties. On the other hand, when opting for a subscription package, libraries pay aggregators (or publishers) annual access fees but do not own the titles in the collection.

Both ‘ownership’ and ‘subscription’ models present a unique set of benefits and some challenges for libraries, and it remains unclear which will eventually prevail, if it is, indeed, necessary for one to ‘outdo’ the other. According to the Library Journal 2016 survey already cited, 79 percent of libraries opt for some type of subscription service when acquiring ebooks. Yet nearly 40 percent of libraries say they are moving in the direction of perpetual access.

The ‘nearly 40 percent’ includes the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library of Tulane University, New Orleans, which forgoes the subscription model for acquiring ebooks and instead opts to purchase all ebook content outright. Andy Corrigan, Associate Dean of Libraries and Head of Collections, and Eric Wedig, Coordinator for Scholarly Resources for the Social Sciences, say their library has so far purchased more than 900,000 ebooks with records in the online catalog. And those ebooks have mostly been acquired in deeply discounted package sets or in historic book collections. “Ownership is an overarching issue with many ebooks, since without some safe assurance of ownership, the library’s ability to preserve ebook content for long-term access cannot be assured even after a full purchase cost is paid.” Tulane continues to pursue highly discounted ebooks through package purchases and looks to support least-restrictive licenses and platforms, say Corrigan and Wedig.

While Tulane continues to build a collection it intends to own in perpetuity, subscription services remain an attractive option for libraries in need of content that ages rapidly and is constantly evolving. It has long been argued that subscription services make the most sense for content that updates frequently (including reference books such as encyclopedias, almanacs, dictionaries, etc.) and content that ages fast and needs to be ‘refreshed’ fast (including subjects such as computer science, medicine, technology, etc.). By subscribing to ebook services, libraries are more able to stay on top of time-sensitive content; not only can they deliver up-to-date content to their patrons quickly, they can deliver a lot more of it via subscription than they’d be able to if they purchased titles individually. And if they are catering to academic communities keeping up with those rapidly changing disciplines, providing access to patrons at the point of need by leasing rather than owning content makes sense for those libraries.

Some libraries approach ownership simply as a matter of weighing short-term and long-term needs. Steven Sowards, Associate Director for Collections at Michigan State University (MSU) Libraries, East Lansing, explains MSU’s strategy: “If we expect continued use—due to durable interest in the topic, or an expectation that some class may rely on a database—we prefer to buy outright with perpetual rights. That is also a preference as a hedge against potential bad budget years at some future date: we should be able to afford annual maintenance fees, but if we own rather than rent, we would not lose access to masses of material.”

MSU is a large university (50,000 students) with many distance learners. That is a factor toward seeking online resources in general, including ebooks. Having a single print book, or an ebook with one simultaneous user, is risky when multiple students in a class may want access to the same text in the same week, says Sowards. “Faculty are used to having unlimited simultaneous user access for journal articles and assume that the same is true for ebooks, even though it is not always so. We try to have multiple or unlimited user rights for that reason.”

MSU subscribes to two large ebook aggregator collections, bringing in more than 100,000 titles at a low cost-per-title and with unlimited user access. “I view this as a virtual undergraduate library serving large classes but not building the permanent research collection,” says Sowards. “I have no problem with overlapping access: the same title rented in an aggregator, while also owned as an ebook or in print. We also know that some rented ebooks will drop out of the packages each year, so we review usage statistics annually and buy the ebooks with the heaviest use, so that if access to the rental copy should later disappear, we will still have access. This involves several hundred ebook titles in an average year.”

Sowards here points to two possible challenges libraries face with subscription services: First, there may be overlap and duplication because libraries already have purchased some books found in those eCollections through other channels and in other formats, and second, titles are sometimes pulled from eCollections—often without prior notice to the subscribing institution—because contractual agreements between publishers and subscription-package aggregators may be subject to change.

In “The Case of the Disappearing E-Book,” Helen Georgas asks: “How can academic librarians promote and encourage use of ebooks by faculty and students, especially as course material, if the ebooks might, at any given moment, disappear? While she understands that publishers sometimes struggle to respond to this shifting marketplace, she warns of the impermanent nature of eCollections and sees it as a major obstacle in shifting from ownership to subscription, adding: “continuity of access is important for a number of reasons, and there are significant logistical and workflow issues if e-textbooks are added to, and subsequently removed from, catalogs.”

This opens up another issue that e-journal publishing has grappled with for years: are libraries getting the content in those eCollections that they want and that users want? And how quickly are new titles making their way into those collections? Although the vast majority of ebooks in aggregator-supported eCollections are populated with new titles, an old perception persists that new titles are embargoed or significantly delayed from digital availability and eCollections, leading some librarians to question whether mass purchasing requires libraries to pay for the titles they don’t want in order to get the ones they do want.

According to industry estimates, however, only about two percent of titles in those collections ‘lag behind’ in terms of how quickly they are made available. Aggregators and publishers have made great strides in recent years in improving the availability of new content in eCollections. They have also continued to diversify their offerings, which explains the arrival of new, ‘hybrid’ models like Evidence-Based Acquisitions (EBA), allowing libraries to combine the benefits of DDA to build collections that are affordable to them.

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EBA is designed to help libraries build collections based on usage but, unlike DDA, it guarantees more stable revenue-producing conditions for publishers because it requires participating libraries to commit upfront. The premise is simple: A library pays an upfront fee that is smaller than the cost of an entire collection of titles. Its patrons get access to the entire collection of titles (not owned by the library at that point) for an agreed period of time. At the end of the period, the library then chooses the titles for the collection based on usage. The upfront fee then is applied toward the purchase cost of the newly built collection. The basic idea behind EBA is to help libraries acquire what users need (based on evidence), while giving publishers more stability than was the case with the DDA model.

The model has caught on with libraries because they get a lot of value for little money. However, like DDA, EBA is showing to be unsustainable for frontlist because publishers are starting to embargo new titles. Like DDA, EBA starts off strong. During that first year when the library and the publisher strike a deal, both sides see benefits. Libraries are able to build an entire collection for a set amount based on usage and evidence and publishers are able to secure some predictability in terms of revenue. However, in Year 2 the stakes get higher, as the publisher needs to show revenue growth, yet a large part of the publisher’s content is now old and may not have shown use. Why should the library pay more in Year 2? Even if it agrees to pay more at that point, when Year 3 comes around, this problem becomes even more apparent.

EBA was designed by publishers to solve some of their sustainability challenges with DDA, however, it shares similar issues in the long run. And now that aggregators have begun experimenting with EBA, greater challenges are on the horizon for publishers, since they will receive just a fraction of the EBA revenue from aggregators instead of the whole pot.

Michael A. Arthur, Department Head, Resource Acquisition & Discovery, University of Alabama Libraries, Tuscaloosa, who works extensively with various ebook purchasing methods, including both DDA and EBA, says that EBA promises to be cost effective but challenges are starting to rise at his library and he is skeptical about EBA’s long-term sustainability.“Excessively high cost means that we spend more on one publisher [in this case Cambridge University Press] than any other. We can’t spend such a large amount on one publisher. Also, since we have no idea what titles we actually will purchase at the end of the EBA period, we are forced to hold off on any purchasing from this publisher during the year.”

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As libraries, publishers, aggregators, and vendors continue to learn through trial and error, it is evident that all sides see value in mass collecting and eCollections are, indeed, here to stay. The question isn’t “Should libraries subscribe to or buy them” but rather “When and how libraries should subscribe to or buy them?” All evidence points to libraries continuing to invest in eCollections as a way to both augment their offerings and to stretch their budgets as much as possible, particularly when acquiring through aggregators.

As librarians’ roles expand beyond curating collections and involve more work with faculty and more outreach, as budgets and staff continue to shrink, and as more and more books inundate the already-saturated academic book market, librarians will rely on eCollections to alleviate the burden of keeping up and ensuring their institutions can fall back on the breadth of their library’s content, and this content extends far beyond the frontlist.

Libraries will also continue to experiment with how those collections are built until their needs can be matched with the business needs of publishers, aggregators, and vendors and, more important, until users are given what they need. For some libraries, this may mean investing in subscription-based packages only, because their patrons will always seek access to time-sensitive information. For some, it may mean investing in ownership because their ultimate goal is to not deal with canceled subscriptions, disappearing titles, or overlap with the print collection. And for some, it will not become an ‘either/or’ dilemma but remain a decision to make the most of all available options as circumstances dictate.

As for publishers, aggregators, and vendors, they, too, will continue to evaluate their options, enhance their offerings, and rely on the feedback from librarians to make eCollections as user-friendly as possible. According to the feedback thus far, this means encouraging, supporting and enabling instant, simultaneous, remote, and uninterrupted access to all titles in eCollections; continuing to make new titles available in eCollections; loosening DRM policies (so that users can interact with content as needed); not updating interfaces too often (so that users don’t have to re-learn how to use the software with each update); and, of course, the main reason eCollections exist in the first place—giving libraries a lot of bang for their buck.



“10 Steps to Implementing an eBook Collection: A Guide for Librarians.” Springer.com. http://bit.ly/2oSXpNM.

Bosch, Stephen & others. “Do Libraries Still Need Book Vendors and Subscription Agents? Creating the Future of Technical Services, 2011.

Ebook Usage in U.S. Academic Libraries 2016. Library Journal, 2016.

Georgas, Helen. “The Case of the Disappearing E-Book: Academic Libraries and Subscription Packages.” College & Research Libraries, 2015.

Herther, Nancy K. “University Presses Lead the Way for Publisher-Based Ebook Systems.” Information Today, 2011.

Perpetual Access: Myth and Reality. Center for Research Libraries Webinar. January 20, 2016.

Polanka, Sue. Ebook Access: Business Models for Subscription Services. Online Researcher, April 2013.

Proctor, Julia. “Avoiding Ebook ‘Big Deals:’ Alternatives to Ebook Backlists.” New Library World, Vol. 114, No. 7/8. Emerald, 2013.

Tucker, James Cory. Ebook Collection Analysis: Subject and Publisher Trends. Collection Building. Emerald, 2012.

Zhang, Ying. “Evidence-Based Acquisitions: A Win-Win?” InfoToday Europe, 2014.


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