In the February 2001 issue of Information Outlook, the magazine of the Special Libraries Association, Susan E. Randolph asked, “Who would choose to read an e-book rather than a printed book?” Today, in our increasingly “connected” environment, the naïveté of this question brings home just how much times have changed.
Randolph had several answers to this question, most of which still hold true today, more than a decade after she posed them. For example, the user of technical manuals would value the ability to bookmark or highlight content digitally. The student and traveler would love to have a library of titles in a portable device. The researcher wants to keyword search, and the distance learner needs access to materials 24/7. Add to these readers who would like enhancements such as links to audio capabilities for understanding how to pronounce certain words in the text, the arts aficionado who would like to see a video clip of a performance, or the model builder who wants a 3D rendering of where to put the next piece. The short answer to who would want to read an ebook, is all the potential customers of academic, school, public, and special libraries.
A September 2012 publishing industry survey from Aptara Corp. and Publishers Weekly highlighted an instance of a reporter for the tablet device industry posing a slightly different, though related, question: Whether or not the publishing industry could “adapt to follow the online trend fueled by ebooks’ rise, or if it was too old and archaic to function in a high-tech society?” The answer received was a resounding “Yes,” based on year-over-year results of an annual survey of ebook publishers. Confirming the legitimacy and potential of the ebook business, this survey found the majority of publishers now produce more than 50% of their titles as ebooks while almost half produce more than 75% of their titles as ebooks. Publishers continue to try to find ways to make money from ebooks. Technology and the increasing availability of wireless connectivity are enabling and fostering this growth through, among other areas, the mobile device market (e.g., e-readers, tablets, and smartphones). This is not to say that “the” winning paradigm for ebook success has been achieved. There are still significant inefficiencies in the publishing of ebooks that result in the addition of time and cost to each title produced. For example, the majority of ebook publishers (86%) are still producing a print version of every ebook title, and less than 65% of backlist titles have been converted to digital form.
Articles, conference presentations, and announcements on ebook usage in school, public, and academic libraries have become regular features in the literature. And this is by no means a U.S.-based phenomenon. In fact, in 2011, the global strategic management consulting firm Bain & Co. issued a report covering six countries (U.S., Japan, Germany, France, U.K., and South Korea) across three continents. This study focuses primarily on mass market publishing but provides some useful insight for corporate library purposes as well. Readers “tend to read more when equipped with digital readers.” And in encouraging news for publishers, “the vast majority of those readers will pay for e-books.”
Despite the broadened base of ebook delivery channels and the growth in consumption of content via multiple devices, the impact does not seem to have greatly affected corporate libraries yet. The authors decided to look into this matter to answer the question of whether we have reached the point at which ebooks represent a necessary component of the corporate content portfolio. Do information services departments need ebooks to continue to contribute to their organizations’ success? Or, put another way, can corporate librarians afford to ignore the value of ebooks as a component of the services they provide their customers?
In the past 4 years, our research has included in-depth interviews with corporate and special librarians in the U.S., the U.K., Spain, and Germany. The issue of ebooks has come up only twice and both times in the U.S. To be fair, two of the libraries in Europe do not collect any books; rather they rely on articles from literature searches and/or purchase research reports. In the U.S., one of the two libraries only has ebooks produced by the company; the other library has a subscription to a vendor’s collection of ebooks. Since this is hardly a basis for identifying patterns or drawing any conclusions, the authors conducted their own survey of two groups, the members of which were most likely to be able to help us, i.e., the Content Buyer’s Section of the Special Libraries Association Leadership and Management Division and the Conference Board’s Information Research and Management Council (IRMC). The IRMC conducts a series of regularly scheduled meetings and organized discussions that serve as a means to explore issues involved in the strategic management of information research/resources, the dissemination of knowledge within the members’ organizations, and the provision of products and services to support corporate decision making based on these resources. The Special Libraries Association Leadership and Management Division’s Content Buying Section includes information professionals and vendors involved in managing enterprisewide contracts such as vendor relationship management, contract negotiations, budgeting and funding of licenses, training and communications, risk management, and measuring and maximizing an enterprise’s return on the investment in content licenses (lmd.sla.org/about/sections).
A survey form was distributed to more than 150 individuals via email in September and October of 2012 and is discussed in detail later in this article.
Ebook Adoption in Special Library Settings
According to the recent Aptara/Publishers Weekly survey, while corporate/B2B customers represented only 5% of the industry focus of respondents, this segment recorded the largest increase in the impetus to do more with ebooks—customer demand (53%)—by a significant magnitude. Obviously, corporate and special libraries would be interested in all types of ebooks depending on their needs at any given time. Nonetheless, this figure does indicate that a very small segment of the respondents to the Aptara survey are experiencing turmoil in their customer base due to an increased appetite for ebooks.
There seems to be a definite opportunity for both participants in the purchasing equation. The Aptara survey noted that the two main drivers for producing ebooks were revenue and customer demand. Unfortunately, there seems to be little creativity shown in the business models currently offered. More than two-thirds of the respondents reported that they sold ebooks the same way they sell print books. Publishers should recognize that ebooks are in some ways the same as print books. For example, readers may want to browse them to see if their interests and needs are met. Some readers may want to use only a portion of the ebooks while others may want to use them in their entirety. However, for publishers, ebook usage differs in other ways: Deployment can be done quickly and widely to one or more readers almost instantly. Users accustomed to an “internet model” expect fewer barriers to their use in terms of reading devices and prices as well as how many people can read something at one time. So publishers should develop a production/purchasing paradigm that meets the diverse needs of both profit margins and customer demands. This would make everyone happy.
At the core of this discussion today often lies the same arcane models Randolph described in 2001. One model she writes about featured “closed, dedicated device e-books … that required an appliance that could only be used to read e-books” and was proprietary to an individual publisher. The content would be “locked to the appliance” to which it is downloaded from the web. Items could not be transferred to another appliance from either the same or a different vendor. Think back to when it was only possible to watch a movie on the one television to which it was sent rather than the ability to now watch the same movie on multiple TVs, your laptop or tablet, and/or your smartphone—all at the same time and in multiple locations.
The other model Randolph describes, “open multipurpose device e-books,” allowed e-books to be read on all computers from desktop to handheld, a model which is much more familiar to users of ebooks today, especially in the public library setting. There, titles can be downloaded to Kindle, nook, or Mac appliances via software from OverDrive and other vendors accessible simultaneously on a library’s website. With some small variations and different names, these are the same two models that corporate/special library content portfolio managers encounter today. These managers much decide how to purchase, license, or subscribe to titles via the internet and then how to deploy them within their organization to existing customer devices or to dedicated devices that the library purchases and loans.
The models are defined in our survey as the Agency Model, in which the publisher sets the ebook’s price and the agent (seller) gets a predetermined profit margin; Traditional/Direct Model, in which the ebook is purchased from the publisher at a wholesale rate and the seller determines the profit margin; and the Subscription Model, which typically offers readers access to books or content one chapter at a time to convert browsers into buyers. Other models described in the literature include the “patron-driven access model,” in which those portions of books or books in their entirety that patrons choose to use on an individual basis are essential purchased, and the “perpetual access model,” also known as “enduring access” or the option to own the ebook.
Direct loan of e-readers, such as Kindle, nook, and iPad, with ebook content already downloaded occurred for more than one respondent. However, the situations involved purchased ebook versions of internally authored works for loan to employees. This practice has not yet been extended to externally created content.
Besides uncertainties surrounding purchase/licensing models, there are other barriers to corporate/special libraries using ebooks in any significant way. Lack of technical standards is one barrier. The publishing industry has not yet settled on standards for ebook formats or device types. This lack of standards is reminiscent of the early introduction of CD-ROMs to the corporate/special library environment. Back then, every database vendor had proprietary content arrays and physical readers. The same type of problem has created a huge barrier to early adoption of ebooks. As the number of devices that can accommodate ebooks increases, coupled with the likelihood that a typical corporate consumer would own one or more of these devices, this barrier may disappear, especially as consumer expectations for access to ebooks grows. Digital rights management (i.e., antipiracy systems) is another barrier and remains a continuing concern with publishers, which are very reluctant to make content too available.
An additional barrier, in some ways the flip side of the accessibility coin, involves the task of making your customers aware that you have ebooks available. Many corporate/special libraries have customized catalogs as part of their intranet; others may offer access through federated searching capabilities that bring many of their resources together in one unified search result. How to add ebook titles to the library catalogs or searchable databases, not to mention finding the staff time it takes to do so, definitely contributes to a reluctance for ebook acquisition. Further complicating the issue is the question of how otherwise to let potential users know about ebook availability, especially in increasingly globalized environments.
The response rate to the authors’ survey was admittedly less than ideal. This makes it very challenging to conclude much about use of ebooks in the special libraries represented by the membership of the two respondent groups. Nevertheless, there were some very useful insights for those thinking about how ebooks may fit into their content portfolios. For example, the small number of respondents could signify that ebooks have not yet made significant inroads into the special library and corporate library environments. Actually, the majority of those who did respond did use ebooks themselves. Of the 27 respondents, 18 (66.7%) answered “Yes” to the question of whether they personally used or subscribed to ebooks, Perhaps people who didn’t use them personally just chose not to participate in the survey. Several respondents also agreed to be interviewed and we summarize some of their thoughts later in this article.
Those who answered “No” to personal use of ebooks were asked to tell why. Their responses indicate some of the existing barriers to ebook adoption. These can be categorized in a couple of ways.
Customer Appetite (End User or Researcher)
Some information service (IS) customers do not have an interest in ebooks. One respondent noted, “We haven’t felt the need—our economists don’t use books that much.” Low usage of books in general, regardless of format, led one respondent to conclude: “Print works just as well and [is] cheaper.” Likewise, one respondent saw a barrier in the nature of the industry the person worked in and the “highly distributed footprint.” While this particular IS does “license databases extensively,” the individual seldom buys books or ebooks for business use.
In 2010, a group of Federal Reserve librarians constituted as the E-Book Aggregators and Publishers Subgroup. The report by Luke Mueller emerging from the subgroup’s research evaluated the ebook market “with the goal of discovering any services that might benefit the Federal Reserve System libraries.” The work group looked for viable provider business models, notable collections, and generally any ebook services “that might make our collections more affordable, usable, and accessible.”
The effort of the Federal Reserve librarians represents an excellent template for how a corporate or special library might go about evaluating the decision to acquire ebooks. The study evaluated 10 ebook aggregators, six retailers, and 23 publishers of economics and business books (substitute here the subject area of your specific interest). They used the following criteria:
- Number of titles available
- Intended audience
- Licensing and access
- Viewing format
- Availability through aggregators
The main problem for special librarians and ebook publishers occurs when publisher models require prudent, budget-sensitive librarians to be able to predict usage in advance. Demand for the special librarian is too diverse, so having to determine which ebooks would be used regularly by a large number of people “makes it difficult to justify the investment on a broader level.” This segues to “cost” as a barrier.
These three categories seem inextricably connected. Whether or not one’s customers have an appetite for using ebooks, the challenges presented by how much the ebooks cost, how the contracts work, and how to deploy the ebooks are significant. Summing this up, one respondent voiced their frustration: “The subscription options are not in line with our needs and the costs are too expensive.” Generally, “equitable access at a reasonable price” is the goal. On the public library side, a rather exasperated statement from the American Library Association (ALA) identified three critical characteristics that it feels must be part of any business model for ebook acquisition: inclusion of all titles, enduring rights (the option to own the ebook), and integration of the ebook into existing library processes. These requirements could easily translate to the corporate environment. Publishers seem eager to reach out to public libraries in arriving at an equitable business model. Publishers need to reach out to corporate and special libraries in the very same way and incorporate any unique needs they might have.
Respondents were asked how they paid for their ebook access. For the most part, IS paid for the purchase and in some instances billed the cost back to business groups or departments (e.g., human resources) or individual users. In other instances, ebooks were a line item in the budget in order to track expenditures. In one instance, IS has funded the initial year of purchases and then plans to switch to a bill-back process to business groups.
Digging a bit deeper, we found that deployment options offered—or not offered —by publishers can be a real barrier to adoption. For example, the way licensing/purchase plans work did not mesh with how IS wanted to use the content: “Currently when you purchase an ebook most vendors only provide it for 1 individual and not for libraries/info centers. Most publishers who have the content … want us to buy an entire subject collection when we only want to purchase 1 or 2 titles.” Cost is consistently mentioned in connection with deployment: “Due to budget restrictions we still prefer to purchase books on demand for specific projects.” While the user is given the option to get an ebook, there is “still the problem with access rights if the purchaser and user are not the same person.”
As with any content acquisition in a special or corporate library, established selection criteria are essential to a productive ROI and demonstration of contribution to the organization’s vision and mission. Some of our survey respondents are still working on creating selection criteria for this type of content. Others have carried over the basic decision criteria from other components of their content portfolio: cost, format, platform (including compatibility with existing systems/technologies and ease of use), ease of acquisition (i.e., how difficult will the vendor make it for me to buy only what I want), relevance (e.g., business areas of interest), and widespread need (particularly in reference). The priority depends on the needs of the specific organization.
Interestingly, those special libraries that already use ebooks describe a variety of acquisition/deployment models and plans much like the kind one would find in database licensing. Many models can often mean that the IS negotiator can use the flexibility advantageously and really customize a relationship. On the other hand, too many options can create confusion and make acquisition a time sink. Respondents found it hard to keep track of the myriad models and did not always have the staff to investigate the use of various products such as OverDrive.
The acquisition models mentioned by our respondents include patron-driven acquisition (open all titles and buy only what is used), perpetual access (pay once now, keep it forever), subscription (usually via aggregators), and buy hard copy/ebook as a package. Not surprisingly, many of those who already use ebooks and are what we might consider “early adopters,” no longer maintain physical collections at all.
Each type of payment option connects to many options for handling secure deployment. Those who already contract for databases will find these familiar. These options include IP authentication (with enterprise or limited access and sometimes with further password authentication for personalization), concurrent usage, single user license, limited seats assigned based on usage, and device loan (e.g., downloaded on a Kindle or nook owned by IS and loaned to an individual). Storage of the content can also vary from inside the user’s firewall to cloud to vendor’s servers and used via the web.
Whether or not all of the above constitute barriers, their diversity indicates that acquisition and deployment of ebooks remains a complicated process. And complexity in and of itself is always a barrier. No standards seem to exist, and publishers and IS content buyers alike struggle with creating a mutually beneficial acquisition model. Practically speaking, if you are just beginning to think about ebook acquisition and deployment, we would recommend that you look for some guidance from the patterns and standards already established in your organization with respect to the use of databases.
Regardless of the barriers that exist, our respondents overall are not anti-ebook. Rather, most have “dipped their toe” into providing their users with ebooks. These include deploying reference materials such as the online version of the Chicago Manual of Style and the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics to all desktops via an intranet, or more commonly, providing generous online distribution of ebooks authored by employees of the organization. These kind of baby steps in bringing ebooks to users can be incredibly helpful in creating or enhancing user appetite and growing acceptance for consuming content in this way.
The IS manager still has to decide if this way of consuming content benefits their organization and this is where thinking about the incentives for using ebooks comes into consideration.
Globalization of content deployment is, perhaps, one of the most crucial drivers behind adopting ebooks. One survey respondent indicated that this was really the only way to “get this information to a global audience.” This individual further cautioned: “Remember, if you are REALLY looking at corporate it is all about global information distribution.”
When asked if they thought ebook use would increase, several respondents mentioned mobility as a reason for its increase, though the timeline predicted differed from immediate to 10 years. Users are already asking for deployment on tablets, and IS professionals are already being asked if their organizations have finalized a tablet policy with provisions for supplying ebooks to employees,.
However mobility is achieved, its importance to most customers cannot be overestimated, nor should the challenge of the planning process required to make it happen. In a recent Freepint Newsletter, Robin Neidorf reported: “In three short years, we’ve seen organizations make a leap from ‘not interested’ in getting content onto mobile devices for users to ‘I need to figure this out now.’” More importantly, no corporate IS can transition to new methods of deployment overnight. Thought leadership in this respect is critical, even if the reader thinks the horizon for adoption of ebooks on mobile devices is far away.
One Freepint interviewee commented on just how much time might be needed:
“There’s going to come a day when [the company] is going to distribute iPads to all workers. When that day comes, I’m going to need to have been preparing for 10 months.”
If the push for mobility is being driven by company management, as Neidorf suggests, this provides even more incentive for corporate IS to contribute to (if not spearhead) “organizational readiness” for this change.
The literature is replete with discussions of the value of IS being on the cutting edge of information and knowledge deployment within organizations. This is especially true when adoption of new methods of service and content deployment can result in cost savings and competitive advantages, including shortened time to market, enhanced sales force capabilities, or increased ROI multiples.
Although not new to public library or even academic library settings, ebooks have not experienced widespread adoption in corporate libraries. Further, as recently as June 2012, the Pew Research Center found that even in public libraries, there are obstacles to both patron and staff wide scale adoption of ebooks due to issues of training and awareness as well as technology complexities. While we can make the statement that a new generation of library users (in all settings) is becoming much more facile in their expectations and use of electronic resources, especially ebooks, as of the last quarter of 2012, use of ebooks was by no means ubiquitous. Whether or not it should be is really up to each individual IS manager to evaluate. If the answer is “Yes” in your organization, being a thought leader and proposing a cutting- edge solution for your organization could be a very powerful contribution for the library to make.
Cost Savings and Usage Measures
When asked who was responsible for acquisition of ebooks in their organization, the majority of our respondents indicated IS. In some cases, responsibility was split depending on the content, and HR (for training and general topics) or marketing also made purchase decisions. The latter occurred most often when content was authored by someone in house.
As with purchases of external information overall, centralizing the process can result in cost savings and a better ROI. The more IS can drive this process or at least be involved with the vendor relationships, even when other departments initiate the process, the more likely alignment with organizational goals can be achieved and demonstrated.
The ability to measure use is an important factor in understanding and demonstrating ebook ROI, even though in some instances, use does not necessarily equate to value. Our survey respondents measured use in a number of ways, and some did not measure use at all. Similar to statistics for database use, many rely on the vendor to provide ebook use metrics, including number of checkouts or chapters downloaded, who uses what and when, number of users, and titles used per month and annually. One even reports “top 10 titles” for the month. Others use in-house data such as catalog access metrics (for those respondents who link users to ebooks directly from their online catalogs) and COUNTER software reports.
In general, corporate and special libraries have been cautious and consequently a bit slow in deploying ebooks. Despite some obvious advantages with adding them to an organization’s content portfolio and some similarities with how other electronic resources such as databases are acquired and deployed, the complexities of ebook acquisition and deployment remain significant. Choosing to ignore how ebooks might complement your current content portfolio, however, is no longer an option. The situation is simply changing too fast for corporate and special librarians to ignore ebooks. It would put librarians at a disadvantage when customer expectations come knocking or when management wants to know if anything is in the works.
Putting It All in Perspective
The authors can remember a time when company information specialists were the envy of most other types of librarians. They seemed to have all the latest tools and resources. Corporate librarians belonged to a strong and growing professional association, and many attended both local chapter and annual meetings of that association. These specialists eagerly tried the latest innovations in the field, took a leadership role in managing the information needs of their customers, and often positioned themselves as early adopters of new technologies and services. They provided beneficial examples for their peers as well as competitive advantages for their organizations.
The past 2 decades or so, however, tell a different story. What has happened to make corporate IS leaders more tentative in their decision making? Can we attribute it to the current recession and/or the global slowdown of the past 5–10 years? Our survey leads us to believe that the earlier risk-taking spirit and entrepreneurial approach, both critical components of leadership, are not as present in corporate IS today as they were in the past.
Staff reductions may have made the workday so busy, there is no time for evaluation of new resources. Perhaps deep budget cuts have put an end to risk-taking and experimentation. Or, perhaps publicly held firms may be concentrating on holding on to lots of cash in the face of an uncertain future. Many firms seem to use cash to buy back shares and increase dividends to enhance shareholder value. Whatever the cause, the result is no-growth budgets for the information center and apparently a resulting inability or unwillingness to provide thought leadership.
Nonetheless, over the past few years there have been several attempts on the special library front to encourage exploration of ebooks as a component of the IS content portfolio. A number of forward and creative thinkers in our profession (on both the vendor and practitioner side) are pushing possible pathways to adopting ebook strategies for organizations. For example, writing in the July/August 2011 issue of Information Outlook, Christine Stamison suggests ways to develop a sound ebook strategy. The strategic issues she outlines would apply to any type of special library. She focuses on the best way to incorporate a new medium into a library, the amount of internal support, the breadth available in budgets, and how user access and content compatibility are critical decision points. Think back to the “old days” when incoming employees who had had access to Dow Jones or LexisNexis or ProQuest while in college came to IS to ask, “Where is my password for these databases”?
Writing almost a year earlier than Stamison, Stephen Abram focused on experimentation. Given that the great turbulence in the world of ebooks on all fronts—publishers, distributors, aggregators, customers, end users—Abram suggests a number of “watch outs” for the prospective “buyer” of ebooks, including the hot topics of digital rights management and copyright. His admittedly unscientific survey of his blog readers confirms that uncertainty abounds among those who have currently incorporated ebooks into their portfolios as well as those who are thinking about it. This very uncertainty, however, has led to widespread experimentation with e-readers and subscription and deployment models.
Like Abram, we would agree that this uncertainty and resulting experimentation will lead to shareable lessons learned and help guide those who cannot or will not take risks at this time with ebooks. Perhaps the most important lesson Abram conveys is this: However challenging the choice between what he terms “p-books and e-books,” it creates a great opportunity for information professionals to engage in and even lead the discussion. No professional worth their salt should pass up the challenge.