College Libraries Push Back as Publishers Raise Some E-Book Prices

M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle

Susan Stearns, the Boston Library Consortium's executive director, says a recent surge in e-book prices left librarians feeling ambushed. "There was a very, very deep collective sigh of, 'Oh my gosh, not again.'"
June 16, 2014

In mid-May, the Boston Library Consortium, which represents 17 academic libraries in New England, received an abrupt and unsettling phone call from ebrary, an e-book library owned by the aggregator ProQuest. A company representative said 11 academic publishers, including major players like Taylor & Francis and Oxford University Press, would be raising the cost of short-term e-book loans effective June 1. In some cases the increase would be as much as 300 percent.

The suddenness, scale, and timing of the changes—shortly before the end of one fiscal year, with money already committed for the next—left the consortium and its member libraries feeling ambushed. "There was a very, very deep collective sigh of, ‘Oh my gosh, not again,’" says Susan M. Stearns, the consortium’s executive director.

The word "again" is telling. Academic librarians have long decried the prices commercial publishers charge for access to serial publications, particularly electronic journals in the sciences. With journal packages taking up increasingly large chunks of library budgets, the prospect of publishers’ ramping up prices on another digital format has spooked some librarians.

"I think the fear here is that we got burned by locking into journal contracts that we should have never locked ourselves into," says Bryn I. Geffert, librarian of Amherst College. "Once burned, twice cautious."

Publishers contend that the e-book-pricing model was still in beta, and that recent changes are simply a market correction. But the tone and intensity of reaction to what otherwise seems like a routine, if poorly timed, price increase has exposed a lingering sense of suspicion between large, mostly commercial publishers and academic libraries. "There is in fact mistrust between the academic libraries and some of the large commercial publishers because of past pricing behavior," says Ms. Stearns.

Kelsey Corlett-Rivera, a librarian at the University of Maryland at College Park who recently published a study on e-book use at the institution, says mistrust has spurred efforts on the part of academic librarians to seek the upper hand when it comes to e-book pricing. "There’s a big push for the libraries to set the agenda this time around," Ms. Corlett-Rivera says.

At issue is a short-term loan model for e-book purchasing that has been tested over the past two years. It allows libraries to offer large catalogs but pay for only those books that are actually used—and not to pay full price until books have been used several times.

Each time a client checks out one of the e-books in these "demand-driven acquisition pools," the libraries pay a portion of the title’s list price—from 10 to 80 percent, depending on the length of the loan and the publisher’s rate. After a certain number of loans—publishers say the number can be as low as two, theoretically, or high as 25—the library automatically buys the title at full price.

‘Existential Threat’

But the resistance from academic librarians indicates a weightier battle playing out between libraries and publishers, one that extends beyond the contours of a single pricing dispute. In March, the Oberlin Group, a consortium of 80 liberal-arts colleges that includes Amherst, published a statement calling for an end to "restrictive licensing agreements" that prevent e-books from being shared among libraries the way hard copies pass through Interlibrary Loan. The statement, signed by Mr. Geffert and 65 other academic librarians, called the current model of e-book exchange an "existential threat" to the "ecosystem of sharing."

Two months later, after the announced cost shift on short-term e-book loans, Ms. Stearns and John Unsworth, the Boston consortium’s president-elect, wrote a stern letter to The Chronicle accusing the commercial publishers of "price gouging." The letter referenced continuing dissatisfaction with scientific-journal pricing. "We’ve seen it before, and we should not stand for it again," the letter read.

The consortium also hinted that publishers might have acted in concert to raise prices. Ms. Stearns stands by that inference. "I have no direct evidence that there’s been any sort of collusion here, but it certainly seems suspicious," she says.

Meanwhile, the Orbis Cascade Alliance, a collective of 37 libraries in the Pacific Northwest, published a "cost-containment update" on its website to alert members about the changing prices and map out possible responses. Kathi Carlisle Fountain, Orbis Cascade’s collection-services program manager, says the alliance will have to remove about 5,000 titles from its pool of 18,500 e-books in order to accommodate the changes.

She says Orbis Cascade’s members appreciated the sentiment in the Boston consortium’s letter and many felt similarly aggrieved. "We share their alarm at the rise of the short-term loan rates," Ms. Fountain says. Of the publishers, she says, "I’m glad that they’re calling them out."

Publishers insist, however, that there was no conspiracy to raise prices and that the previous cost model for e-books wasn’t sustainable. "We had absolutely no knowledge and we weren’t advised by the aggregator at all that other publishers were making a change at the same time," says Rebecca Seger, director of institutional sales for the Americas at Oxford University Press.

Ms. Seger says that Oxford considered the current model a pilot, and that poor returns demanded higher rates. "We knew it was going to look like penalizing libraries, but it wasn’t," she says of the recent price changes. "The model was just so one-sided, given how it was eventually used. We had to make some tweaks to make it sustainable."

Publishers say that the model was intended as an alternative to Interlibrary Loan, but that it had instead became a way for students and professors to access low-circulation titles like scholarly monographs without libraries’ paying full freight for them. "A monograph could get used nine times. and a publisher still wouldn’t get list price," Ms. Seger says. "Nine times? That’s huge for a monograph." Under the model, she adds, "The books get used so much more, and we get paid so much less."

Oxford University Press responded by raising the cost of short-term loans across the board. A 28-day loan that once cost 30 percent of the title’s list price will now cost 70 percent. The press also doubled the price of seven- and 14-day loans, while one-day loans jumped from 15 percent of list price to 25 percent.

Ms. Seger says that she regrets the timing of the announcement and that Oxford has delayed its price increases until July 1 to give libraries more time to wrangle with their budgets. She says the fact that almost a dozen publishers raised prices simultaneously reflects a common acknowledgment that the existing model didn’t work. Publishers began looking at data from short-term loan programs this year and quickly realized they weren’t favorable, she says. Then many presses waited until the end of the academic year to make changes.

"I have to say I was surprised ... that so many publishers were making this change at the same time," says Lisa Nachtigall, director of sales development for digital books at the publishing giant John Wiley & Sons. "But I don’t think it’s unexpected, given that we’ve all been participating in two years of very active pilots with these consortia."

Ms. Nachtigall and Ms. Seger also point out that publishers have been warning libraries over the past half year that changes were coming to the short-term loan model.

Wiley, like Oxford, is trying to accommodate libraries as it reconfigures its pricing model for e-books. Ms. Nachtigall says Wiley has not signed any new formal agreements with aggregators, meaning its prices have not yet been revised. Ms. Nachtigall has reached out to both the Orbis Cascade Alliance and the Boston Library Consortium, an acknowledgment that the relationship between commercial publishers and some academic libraries has frayed. "We have to rebuild those bridges," Ms. Nachtigall says.

Mr. Unsworth, the Boston consortium’s president-elect, agrees that publishers and libraries need to discuss issues like e-book pricing together as digital collections grow. But he also notes that any cost changes will be viewed by libraries as part of an historical tug-of-war that began with serials and has moved now to e-books.

"This isn’t the last chapter," Mr. Unsworth says. "I would say we’re in the middle of a larger story here."