Results of ReadersFirst E-Content Business Models Survey

205 responses came into our survey of what e-content business models librarians would like. Libraries responding ranged from across Australia, Canada, and the United States.  Thanks to all who responded!  You can see a list of the responding libraries and also the survey comments here:

A PDF of the results can be seen here:

88% of the responses were from public libraries; since some of the consortiums also consist primarily of public libraries, the survey seems primarily valid for this group. Academic or school libraries will require another survey.

The results and comments overwhelmingly suggest four points:

·         No business model currently available is adequate for all library needs

·         Librarians would like a choice of business model options at point of sale:  the ability to choose traditional, metered, or other ways on a per-title basis

·         Librarians believe that currently available models are preventing us from fully realizing the advantages of e-content and thus limit access by patrons

·         If a variety of models were offered, librarians would likely spend as much or more on content, offering a greater variety of titles and more of less well-known or new authors

The comments also suggest many librarians believe that prices, especially for the traditional model (unlimited lease period, one user at a time per title), are expensive enough that they make some titles unattractive to acquire and maintain and that they certainly to limit circulation. A variety of models might also serve to address this issue while offering fair value to publishers. Responders also suggest that a tiered pricing (a price for one copy, a lower price per copy for 5, and a lower cost per unit still for 10 copies) would be of interest.

Fully 94% of responders said multiple license types would be beneficial. 82% would like the traditional model to be one option. Fewer—only 39%--seem to favor the metered (limited by number of circulation and/or lease period) model. If asked, more would prefer a lease limited by number of circulations (say, 26) rather than being bound by a time period such as 1 year. This option is viewed much more favorably by 65% if some metered titles could change to perpetual access after a period of time.  Fully 83% would dislike metered access only for best sellers, since it prevents long-term preservation of titles. 68% would like to see some sort of subscription model, where a certain number of uses for a range of titles could be purchased, especially if librarians could choose to “bundle” certain authors. But a combination of many models, each offered for every title, is strongly favored. To quote one comment:  “[We want] A model wherein a title is available in various checkout models (at various price points) such that we might . . . purchase a perpetual one license/one user version . . . so that the long tail of the collection might be maintained but that we could also purchase a metered . . . version so that when peak demand ebbs we can still provide the title [without] versions languishing on our virtual shelves.”

Pay-per-use, although it offers the advantage of simultaneous access for titles, was not rated as highly as some might suspect.  Only 42% favored it, while 44% came out strongly against. This response must, however, be considered in light of budgeting:  as the comments make clear, librarians a wary of this model because the more successful it becomes, the more likely it is to be a “budget buster.” One must either keep stoking with more money or else begin to limit the number of uses. When asked to rank seven models, the response was to put pay-per-use at the bottom. The models were ranked as follows in preference (with low scores being better):

1.       Simultaneous use by checkout -- i.e., when buying 26 checkouts, have the checkouts available all at once: if ten people are on a holds list, let them all have the title at the same time—score 390   

2.       Variable licensing (changing a license model after 6, 12 or 18 months. For instance, I choose a title on the 26 circ per license model and it does well; I would like the option to renew some or all of the copies as One-copy/One-user)—score, 453

3.       Traditional (perpetual, one user at a time—score, 455

4.       Metered, sequential use (when buying 26 checkouts on a title, they would be available one user at a time for that title)—score 496

5.       Subscription (a lump sum either per year or per month, buying a defined number of circulations)—score 658

6.       Pay-per-use with standard price—score, 710

7.       Pay-per-use with variable pricing (pay per each copy checked out at a different agreed-upon price, depending on the demand for the title)—score of 800

Simultaneous use does, however, earn strong support, as is suggested by one model ranking “first” in the list above.  Many comments mentioned it as a desirable model. Perhaps there is no perfect model, but one that offered flexibility in lease terms but gave some greater control over budgeting than pay-per-use seems to be getting close to that elusive ideal.

That the status quo is inadequate for librarians is reinforced by 80% agreeing that “Implementation of new business models will allow our library to expose the maximum number of titles to new audiences” and “74% agreeing that “Implementation of new models will allow our library to purchase more new authors while maintaining our purchasing of better known authors.”    

ReadersFirst hopes that the results of this survey will be useful, sparking conversations among librarians and, perhaps even better, a dialogue between publishers, library e-content vendors, and librarians. That we have made progress in access to titles and in ease of use in platforms over the last five years in undeniable.  Isn’t it time, however, to think about how we can continue to move forward? Digital content use (especially perhaps in audiobooks but certainly in e-books too) is NOT on the decline in libraries.  Indeed, we continue to see growth in digital circulation, even as print circulation remains stagnant or even falls. If libraries could make better use of their admittedly limited materials budgets to offer more to their readers, publishers and libraries could all benefit, with more authors discovered, more books read, and (likely) in the end, more books in all formats sold. Library e-content vendors might take notice of the survey results as well. How might implementing some of these models in your platforms allow libraries to explore the ever-expanding offerings of independent e-book authors?

We have made progress, indeed, but for librarians, it is time for yet another step.

The author offers special thanks to Cathy Mason of Columbus Metropolitan Library for her work on business models for the survey, Tressa Santillo of Massachusetts Library System and Micah May of DPLA for help polishing the survey, and Andrew Albanese of Publishers Weekly for spreading awareness of our effort.  The comments made by responders have been very helpful in interpreting the results and are worthy of a read.  

Michael at St Mary's County Library