November 7, 2007

Ebook Business Models

This is a topic I've been thinking about a lot recently, as we (at York and as a profession) start to move in a coordinated way to making ebooks an important part of our collections. What's the best way to acquire ebooks? How should we pay for them? What should our access models be?

Note to ebook vendors: in the end, I want your products. I think that it is practically inevitable that we will be moving to an online-only model for most of our book purchases over the next decade or so. But, I need you to listen to me (and all my colleagues) and learn what works for us not just what is easy to monitize for you.

And there are vendors with business models I like: Morgan & Claypool, Safari and Knovel to name just a few.

Now, this post is mostly about where I would like to see things going in the near future. I'm going to make some more sweeping long term wishes at the end, but right now I'm concerned with the next few years and months and how I would like to see vendors constructive their offerings.

Some thoughts:

  • Collections, annual license. Title by title, one time only. I'm mostly ok with that model.

  • Big collections need to be really cost effective. Basically, you want to suck up my entire mono purchasing budget by locking into a huge annual licensing fee for a huge collection of ebooks. This doesn't work for me. It may be easy but it's not cost effective because it's really restricting me from purchasing stuff from other publishers that might be more appropriate for my niche programs.

  • Hello? You already sold me that in print. Charging the same amount for an ebook as for a print book on a title by title basis is crazy. And wrong. Let me benefit from the fact that you still cover your costs for production via selling me the overpriced print. Don't sell me the same item again at the same inflated price. Give me prices based on print only, online only and both. Both should be about 125% of print. Online only should be about 50-75% of print.

  • And don't try and resell all me your old crap either. A lot of collections inflate their title counts with a lot of old content. Yeah, I know, getting money for those is gravy for you. For us, paying for those titles again is a crime. Either don't include them (my choice) or make it very clear in your pricing scheme that I'm not paying much (if anything) for them. Ten to fifteen year old IT or engineering books are often of limited use. But you know that, right?

  • It's not necessarily "The more the merrier." I don't need 800 HTML books in my IT ebook collection. I need good and up to date information on HTML, which I don't measure by title count. Don't try and pretend having 800 makes your collection better. All those books just clutter search results both in our catalogue and in your interfaces.

  • Let me unbundle. It's my job to choose the right stuff for the needs of my users. If I'm a small school or supporting niche programs I need to be able to break down big collections into smaller collections to make it cost effective. And by smaller, I don't mean ones that will still cost me 10s of thousands of dollars.

  • Let me choose. I don't mind choosing title by title. After all, it's what I do for print books anyways. This is the logical extension of unbundling. I will commit to spending the time if you give me the flexibility and make it cost-effective for me.

  • Let me replace. Out with the old and in with the new. In a lot of subjects, having ebook versions of multiple editions of a work just clutter up the search results with hits. I don't need them and let me expunge them from the collections. I do the same thing with the old print books, by the way. It's called weeding.

  • Ebooks aren't print books. A bit about the future. Most vendors' models right now is basically to move print books into the online environment with little or no change or enhancement. But ultimately we need to recognize electronic texts aren't print text. They are used differently, discovered differently and should be constructed differently. Like I said above, I don't need 800 HTML books. What I need is one good source of information on HTML that covers everything.

    This is what an scitech ebook can be, a good source of information on a topic. Up to date, reviewing the literature, covering a topic comprehensively at multiple skill and knowledge levels, annotatable, sharable, copy and paste-able, blogable, citable, authoritative yet responsive and mashupable. We need to reimagine the scholarly monograph in the scitech fields, to find a business model that works, that rewards creators and meets the needs of readers. If it's something I'm going to pay for it needs to be better and easier to use than the free web, although I'm not sure I yet understand how I would evaluate that. Certainly, there has to be a compelling reason that students and researchers would use it rather than the free web, and I'm not sure what the range of those compelling reasons is yet either.

Add your own in the comments! I'm sure we all have thinking about ebooks and have ideas to share about making ebook business models fair and sustainable.


Michael Knee said...

I like the content of Safari. However, I don't like having to pay for the same titles year after year. Sure, I can substitute new books whenever I want, but there are core titles that will probably remain for several years, and I need to pay for them over and over again.

John Dupuis said...

Hi Michael. I agree with the expense part of Safari. I do find it a bit pricey on title by title basis. What I do appreciate is that I can limit my total expenditures by only picking the titles I want.

Wow!ter said...

Great Post,

Two saddition to your list:
-we like to read our stuff offline.
-book chapters should become discoverable in A&I databases

CogSci Librarian said...

To elaborate on wow!ter's point: how will patrons find e-books??? We have to work on ways to make them "discoverable".

And, as wow!ter alludes to, we need to be able to print pages, chapters, etc. I understand copyright / publisher's constraints, but we have to be able to work that out.

Finally, they have to be usable, functional. netlibrary has come a long way in that department, and I like the safari interface.

Great post!

John Dupuis said...

wow!ter, CogSci, Thanks for your input. I couldn't agree more.

On the other hand, the whole printing/downloading thing is a tough balance as the publishers really fear mass downloads of their content affecting their bottom line, like the music industry. I'm skeptical about that but I do see their point.

If users could download all the Safari content we have, would they need to use the product itself anymore? If they stopped using the content, stats would plummet. If stats plummet, we'll cancel. If we cancel, users won't have anymore content to download. I'm not sure I completely agree with each step in the progression but I also do have some sympathy with the publishers on this one. And I'm not generally one to generally have much sympathy with publishers.

As for discoverability, I'm seeing more and more that all our licensed resources have exactly the same issue. They're great, students need them and would find them terrific if they knew they were there. But, finding a way to get stuff in front of their eyeballs can be really challenging.

Until we really have a real way to have discovery at the network level (ie. using google, etc, to find library resources, which is already starting to happen) I think we really need to emphasize instruction as a way to inform students about our content.

Wow!ter said...

@ John,
Apart from printing and copying, you should also think about the e-book readers. Since the Iliad there appears to be an upswing in e-book readers, or at least a renewed interest.

BTW My english blog is at

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Wowter. I probably should have mentioned ebook readers as part of the downloadable feature set. On the other hand, so much of the functionality of ebooks in the scitech world comes from interactivity and database-backed calculations that I think that it might be somewhat less useful in that context to use a reader than, for example, to read an ebook version of a novel or scholarly monograph.

On the third hand, there's also no reason that with the increasing computing power and storage capacity of hand held devices that there couldn't be infinite applications in the scitech world!

CogSci Librarian said...

John, Wow!ter, ... can we use Safari, Knovel, netLibrary e-books on a handheld e-book reader from Sony, e.g.

Ok, really, that question is for publishers, not you guys.

The med field is making mobile interfaces for their tech books, so it would be great if e-book vendors made mobile / e-book reader interfaces for their stuff. Maybe they already have? Note to self: log in to Safari on iPod touch & see ...

Fun thread!

Anthony Woodcock said...

A lot of great points. Reminds me of cable TV, where you are forced to buy a package of crappy channels at some inflated price, when you only want say 3 of the 40 channels.

I think cable TV could learn something from this post as well..

Great point regarding the quality of the information. Slapping on a bunch of non-relevant content does not make me happier, however, it maybe eye catching to some who read your ad copy.


John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Tony.

You're right, it's just like cable tv. On the other hand, since we've subscribed to Books24x7's big packages, I come to see some of their advantages as well.

kathryn.zhang said...

there are more advantages of ebooks than the print books,so i regard ebook will be used more and more!