A Gamble on E-Book Pricing

June 16, 2014

The e-book-pricing contracts that college libraries and publishers are now renegotiating are essentially bets worthy of Atlantic City or Las Vegas: Libraries are gambling against publishers in an effort to get access to the most material at the lowest cost. The Chronicle asked Michael Levine-Clark, associate dean for scholarly communication and collections services at the University of Denver Libraries, for a look inside the university's e-book collection to get a sense of how much digital books cost and how those costs will change as publishers adjust their pricing models.

How many e-books are available to borrow, and for how long?

The University of Denver has a total of 172,911 e-books in its demand-driven acquisition pool. The vast majority of those titles—139,756, in fact—are made available through the university's four-year-old partnership with the aggregator Ebook Library, known as EBL.

Under the terms of its agreement with EBL, the university allows only short-term one-day loans of books it hasn't purchased, and after three short-term loans on a given title, the university auto-purchases when someone tries to check it out a fourth time.

How much are the e-books used?

The university has lent out 11,851 of the e-books in the EBL pool, purchased 1,197 of those titles, and spent $264,710.98 on total loans and purchases. Within that same pool of books, the university has spent $79,331.31 on e-books published by Taylor & Francis, one of the most prominent commercial presses raising e-book-lending prices. Large as those numbers are, the university's patrons have accessed just 8.5 percent of the e-books available through the Ebook Library partnership.

More telling, however, may be the titles the university didn't purchase. There are 1,952 e-books the university has lent three times, but never bought, and another 8,702 that were borrowed once or twice.

So what's the gamble?

The university has satisfied campus demand for those titles that have been borrowed one, two, or three times, but it has only paid a fraction of list price for them. On the fourth loan, however, the university will pay the full list price plus whatever was spent during the loan period—that's the gamble.

What's the most expensive e-book in the collection?

The most expensive Taylor & Francis title in the university's collection is The World's Major Languages. The university spent $69 total on three short-term loans and eventually purchased the title for an additional $345.

But that was under a previous pricing model, in which the university paid 6.6 percent of the purchase price for each short-term loan. That number later jumped to 10 percent, and eventually, after the most recent revision, to 25 percent. Under Taylor & Francis's newest pricing model, the University of Denver would have spent an additional $189.75 in short-term loan costs—a significant increase—before purchasing the book.

Meanwhile, an Amazon Kindle version of The World's Major Languages retails for $74.30.

What's the university's most popular e-book?

The most popular Taylor & Francis title in the university's collection is Shaping the Humanitarian World. It's been lent 194 times since it was purchased for $207.