The Evolving Role of the E-Book Vendor, Part II: Phoenix or Dinosaur?
Last week I posted about how library book vendors have had to change their sales models to accommodate e-books. Grounded in book sales, book vendors' databases are structured around the book in all its formats: paper, hardcover and various e-versions, which makes this transition logical. This week I incorporate subscription vendors' services, which are germane to the e-book question, and ponder who is better positioned to assist libraries with their e-book management.
In November, I explored on this blog whether e-books are serials, monographs or both and wondered whether there is “something fundamentally serial about digital content.” Bibliographically, I think so, but looking at the question bibliographically means to ground our understanding of e-books in a print- and MARC-based viewpoint, which sticks us right back in the pre-digital era. MARC records force libraries to decide whether a given work is to be treated as a serial or monograph, assuming that a serial's content changes and a monograph's content remains static. Once that decision is made, certain characteristics apply to either type of treatment and distinguish it from the other.
(MARC has been forged and forced into describing types of works for which it had never been designed. I've seen MARC records for vacuum cleaners, commemorative dishes and laptop computers. This is a testament to MARC's flexibility as an inventory tool; however, as I once heard someone describe it, MARC considers anything either to be a book or a deformed book: it describes containers and their text-based content. That's probably a topic for another time though.)
Containers and content, pre-digital, corresponded to how information was published and distributed. Selling books meant many small, one-time transactions: delivering content in static packages, paid upon receipt. Selling journals meant advance payment for the delivery of forthcoming content over the period of a year, in several static packages that make up a larger dynamic work, and which were periodically (annually or less frequently) indexed to provide access at a level even finer than each piece.
When dynamic subscriptions entered the age of digital publishing, the Big Deal was born. License and access maintenance became services that journal vendors provided. Journal vendors were already used to keeping track of which libraries had paid for what content with which publishers and facilitating the financial transactions as a third party. With e-journals, the financial transactions remained a necessary service. Checkin and claiming of missing issues were obviated, but for the first time libraries could lose access to an entire journal run. Vendors began offering services in mediating access to titles between publisher and librarian.
Book vendors managed many more titles than subscription vendors, through many more micro-transactions before helping libraries manage e-book transactions. They maintained a regular stock of some titles, often for years, and kept track of which titles were in stock with publishers and could be ordered quickly. The finite, static nature of books was not as attractive in a digital format as journal content and book publishers bided their time in making the shift. Meanwhile, through Web access to vendor databases, libraries and vendors used digital technology to streamline transactions that carried over from the pre-digital world.
Now that e-books have taken off, they can act like journal issues, though they are not described like journal issues, with respect to packaging and delivery. To a vendor the ambiguity of an e-book is increased because it can also be sold as if it were a book, which has not been the practice with journal issues.
For e-books, how far does the vendor's role extend into the licensed agreement between the publisher or aggregator and library? In selling print books, there is no unique agreement between library and publisher for the sale of a title, nor is there any mutual relationship; when the content is licensed instead, there is and there is. When access issues come up, are book vendors prepared to help libraries troubleshoot or resolve these issues, especially if there were to be a disagreement between a platform provider and a library as to whether a library ought to have access to particular content? In other words, does the vendor facilitate just the transaction or the access too? In the past, I have argued that the vendor should mediate access, based on having heard from at least one vendor that they would make e-book sales work in the same streams as print book sales. Whenever we've told a vendor that a book for which we were billed didn't arrive in a shipment, the vendor has fixed the problem. I would have expected the same service from a vendor with an e-book—get the provider to turn on our access—but now it resembles a subscription more than a purchase. In a subscription, the agent manages the finances and the publisher not the agent typically delivers the content to the library. The e-book access therefore differs from a book sale in that it requires the seller's assent.
E-book package subscriptions have all the granularity of buying books—MARC records, many titles—with more ambiguity, introduced by the subscription model: each book's purchase isn't the result of and doesn't result in money changing hands. Whether subscription vendors or book vendors, some combination of the two or another type of intermediate ultimately serves a library's e-book needs remains to be seen. Can book vendors effectively manage subscriptions and dynamic packages? Can subscription agents successfully manage metadata and access at the book or chapter level? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, journal and book publishing may be on the cusp of a radical realignment or synergy in which subscribed content of the future escapes the antiquated containers: books and journals. If the answer to both of them is no, vendors will be competing harder for a smaller share of libraries' diminishing budgets.