E-books, Libraries, and Publishers at the Charleston Conference

Earlier this month, a number of our library staff had the opportunity to virtually attend the Charleston Conference, an annual gathering of librarians and publishers focused on discussing important topics and issues facing the library landscape. For this collections blog post, I’d like to share some insights raised by Michael Zeoli, Senior Advisor of Publisher Strategy at De Gruyter Publishing, in his presentation “Strategies Driven by the Necessity of Online Access: Libraries, Publishers, and Distributors.” While his talk largely addressed how other publishing companies can support the evolving e-book environment at academic libraries, some of the information shared may help our library community further understand the form in which our e-books are accessed and how we acquire them.

Zeoli began the talk by giving some background on e-books. While the written word has taken many forms throughout history (from stone tablets to animal hide scrolls to the cloth and paper bound books we see today), e-books are the first format to have removed the “object” aspect of the book, and this affects how books are now consumed. While libraries could previously be seen as “book barns,” they are now more akin to “content delivery vessels,” aimed at providing a massive amount of discoverable data and content. This change has affected how library users interact with library resources, how academic libraries acquire new material, and how publishers sell their content.

While the adoption of e-book platforms has been increasing since the mid 2000s, recently there have been large moves from publishers and digital content companies in response to the evolving digital landscape. This year, Clarivate, a major web analytics company, is acquiring ProQuest, one of the most well-known electronic publishers. While a major acquisition may excite many people interested in the growing tech possibilities that will come out of this acquisition, others may feel this is simply another step to a more homogenized industry that has pushed many smaller vendors and publishers to bankruptcy and closure in the past 20 years. As Zeoli mentions, with the expansion of large digital data companies dominating the publishing playing field, “information as service [has become] preeminent over product delivery,” meaning data such as a book’s discoverability and usage statistics have become increasingly important to how libraries approach new materials rather than solely considering the content in the book. 

As we see publishers adapt to this trend, how are academic libraries affected by this shift?

While many academic libraries began embracing more automated systems of acquiring e-books based on patron demand and usage statistics, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that rather than a direct movement towards these purchasing systems, the response has been complex and nuanced, Zeoli says. But in general, it seems libraries that were hesitant to adopt e-book preferred purchasing models have begun adopting new or temporary policies to do just that. Adding to the complexity of this decision is the fact that purchasing an e-book brings with it a multitude of new factors not present when purchasing a print book. For example, the process of purchasing one book title, while before e-books would perhaps just involve comparing prices from vendors, is now a process that involves many details that determine its use and effectiveness. For e-books, library staff must compare the titles pricing between vendors, the amount of users that can access the title for the price, the platform it’s hosted on and download options, its possible duplication in larger packages already owned, its online availability elsewhere, and many other factors. It seems likely that this increasingly complex purchasing process is why many academic libraries are moving towards more automated structures, and as the growth of these large digital data companies and publishers continues, they will likely keep developing more automated systems and data tools to help libraries navigate the e-book purchasing process.

A struggle libraries face when publishers offer these usage or patron-driven purchasing models is reconciling the efficiency of automated systems with the irreplaceable “on the ground” perspectives and expertise of librarians who curate their e-book purchases for the specific needs of their users. Zeoli’s presentation provided wonderful insight into the evolving mindset of publishers in the wake of an ever-expanding electronic academic world, but as is the case with any topic related to libraries and collection development, there is always more than meets the reader’s eye.

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