Reactions to Cost-Per Circ-Model

Reactions to the HarperCollins announcement of a "cost-per-circ model (CPC)," with several library e-content vendors quickly announcing they would support the model, have been quick in coming.  Some of the reactions have been cautionary.

For example, Bill Rosenblatt suggests Libraries:  Be Careful What You Wish For. This thoughtful post points out the new model is "great for library patrons . . . in theory." The reality may be "CPC may end up being better for the publishers [and] give more control over the titles that libraries make available and reduce libraries' traditional curatorial roles." He contrasts the CPC model with the current "Pretend Its Print (PIP)" model. Rosenblatt points out that PIP offers advantages: more titles, including front list bestsellers; furthermore, there is no need to limit circs per month, as many libraries must to make CPC fit into a budget. He explains that cost per use figures aren't available yet and wont be until "the catalogs that publishers make available under the two models are similar." 

CPC also "gives more control over e-book distribution to publishers." Libraries can no longer argue, as they might more easily under licensing with PIP, that we have "the right to acquire which e-books titles they want and (probably) pay consumer prices." Pricing of e-books under CPC, he adds, may have no relation to cover pricing, allowing publishers to set high price-per-use for high demand titles; libraries might respond by suppressing "availability of certain highly popular e-book titles, because  . . . patrons will blow through the e-book budgets." Publishers, he adds, may "deliberately choose [what] to make available over which services and at what license fees." He concludes that though "we are in early days" with CPC, libraries "will need to consider their traditional functions of curation and community services as well as the bottom line." 

On The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder points out in "The Problem with Hoopla’s Pay-Per-Loan Model" that "librarians also liked the model because it meant they would not have to pay full price to get copies that might go unused, but then the monthly bills started arriving and the honeymoon ended." He then cites how 4 libraries have put borrowing limits on Hoopla. He reports the 43 library system Clevnet dropped the consortia offering of Hoopla due to cost; most of the libraries then got Hoopla on their own without funding issue "but then again only 2% or 3% of their patrons are signed up. As that number grows, the libraries are bound to be facing a budget crunch."

The point of this post is not to dispute these claims but to add to the discussion. Doubtless, libraries should pay attention to curation, access to content, and cost when examining new e-content business models. Cost per use is a potential budget buster.  To use the example of my own small (3 location) system, Hoopla use has increased 93% over last year, compared to a 10% increase in our PIP e-book vendor. The amount initially budgeted was not adequate. Our users overwhelmingly tell us that they prefer having any title they see be available, however, and therefore so far we have put money where we see use and growth to the detriment of some other materials budget lines. Might we have to put further limits on what we allow to be borrowed (currently 6 titles per month)? Probably.  But there are limits on the types of physical materials than can be checked out and on the number o PIP titles a patron might have at any time, too. For our users, the honeymoon is definitely not over. Therefore it is not for us as a library, either.

As far as curation of and access to titles goes, though Rosenblatt's points that they be considered is well taken, does the CPC model necessarily change anything? Since we already lease under the PIP model, how are we currently ensuring curation? This is a serious question, but could things be any more of a mess than they are now? Efforts like the Internet Archive's Open Libraries initiative may help, and libraries should seek ways to improve what we conserve in the digital space, but expecting publishers or library e-content vendors to help in this endeavor will be bootless. And might having anytime access to backlist titles perhaps increase their use, helping to ensure they are more likely to be preserved and available in digital format than before?

Rosenblatt and Hoffelder are eminently correct to say libraries must be careful in moving forward with e-content business models.  Many of the details have yet to be seen with the new HarperCollins model for e-books. We ReadersFirst nevertheless approve of this publisher's willingness to experiment. It is a good step in what we have long advocated: a RANGE of e-content models that will foster the most use possible of the widest range of titles while assisting curation, from ownership/perpetual access to some titles down to the wide reading of today's ephemeral best seller. Give us the models. Let us count the costs and do what is best for us.