K-12 Ebook Business Models and Why You Should Care About Them

“Why do I sometimes feel that the conditions I have to accept when I buy ebooks do not work well for me or for my students?”

“I’ve heard the term business model, and I’d like to understand how business models affect me in the real world of my work. But I don’t want to spend a lot of time learning about them. I just want a basic understanding.”


If you are a school librarian, and these ebook questions are on your mind, then please continue reading.

This is the first article in a three-part series on ebooks in K-12 or school libraries. It is intended for school librarians who want a basic understanding of how ebook business models work in their world, and of how to make them work as much as possible to the librarian’s advantage.

Let’s first try to understand what a business model is and why a librarian would care about ebook business models. The answer is simple. A business model is the idea, the concept, that a business has of how it will make money. If this idea does not work, then the business fails, and in the world of libraries and ebooks the library loses a valued supplier. In order to be effective, the business model must work for both seller and buyer. It will usually involve compromises for both parties, and to some extent it may be negotiable. When you read the terms and conditions under which you buy ebooks, you are reading an explanation of how the business model plays out in life. If you understand the basic model, the basic concept, then all the verbiage becomes easier to understand.

For instance, if the business model is to sell ebooks as if they were printed books and to make money accordingly, then the publisher will require your students to check out and return the ebook and you to refrain from letting more than one student use a single copy at once. Since both publisher and librarian are familiar with this concept of buying and selling books for library use, both find the model acceptable, though they may wish it were more favorable to one side or the other.

Your key takeaway about business models is that while they are often simple concepts, implementing them in the real world of a school library can become complicated.

Keeping our focus on developing a practical understanding of ebook business models in K-12 libraries, let’s take a quick look at the major ones. We will go over them in more detail, next week. For now, we will focus on the business models and not get into details of user experience, apps, and features.

To keep things as simple as possible, we will begin with the ebook business model that is closest to the traditional print business model. It’s the one we glanced at a minute ago. Printed books are manufactured, stored, sold, shipped, received, processed and so on. We all know how they work, and that because of their physical properties they are very different from ebooks, which are pieces of software with book-like content. Because of these physical properties, it has generally made sense for libraries to pay for printed books before processing them and before providing them to their patrons or students.

Treating ebooks as if they were printed books seems like it might be the easiest way to deal with them. That is, it seems like the simplest business model. It is the business model that the largest trade publishers use, not only for fiction but also for nonfiction. It is generally the only model for bestsellers. Online retailers, as well as library wholesalers use this as their primary business model. For the library, the advantage of this model is that (after years of experimenting) most publishers are comfortable with it, so you can get almost any book under this model. The disadvantage is that since the model treats the ebook as if it were a printed book, you lose features such as unlimited simultaneous access that are practical only when books are treated as software.

A second model is to treat ebooks as if they were articles in an aggregated database of journals. The advantage is that the library gets access to large numbers of books while paying relatively little for each one. The disadvantage is that when the subscription ends, the library may lose access if it does not have funding to renew. The practical limitation is that, while such collections of ebooks may contain useful scholarly and scientific content, they do not contain current bestsellers. The suppliers who offer this option developed as academic journal aggregators. Aside from displaying books rather than articles, this is like a subscription to an aggregation of journals.

Demand driven acquisition describes a third group of models in which the library acquires access to large numbers of books but pays only when a book is checked out or read. This is essentially pay per per use, so it provides books just in time rather than just in case. The patrons select what they want. That is, the patrons (or students) drive the purchasing process. With proper cost controls in place this can be an excellent way to provide a wide range of content at a manageable cost, though, again, current bestsellers are unlikely to appear. When used to supplement other models, DDA products can enhance a library collection, though since the students are doing the selection, you will always need to use other models that keep you in control so you can shape the collection to support your curriculum.

The fourth kind of business model is based on permanent, unlimited simultaneous use. This model has been pioneered and developed by the publishers whose mission is to serve school libraries. In this model, everyone in a school or district has permanent, unlimited access to each ebook that the library purchases. Most school librarians prefer this model because their libraries get to keep the books even if they lose funding, and there are no limits on the number of users who can use a book at once. Hence, a teacher can assign a book to an entire class without the library having to buy more copies. Other advantages include some truly innovative and useful platform features, such as allowing students to pull content from books to create their own books.