Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

Purchasing E-Books in Libraries: A Maze of Opportunities and Challenges

Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

Purchasing E-Books in Libraries: A Maze of Opportunities and Challenges

Article excerpt


With the introduction of library e-books in 1999, the once-straightforward process of buying books took on many complexities. This chapter of The No Shelf Required Guide to E-book Purchasing offers an overview of these challenges and the advantages and disadvantages of purchasing from different vendor types.


For those libraries looking to purchase e-books, you are not alone. According to the Library Journal 2011 survey of e-book penetration and use in libraries, 95 percent of academic, 82 percent of public, and 44 percent of school libraries are already offering e-books, and many more are considering it. (1) For anyone contemplating purchasing e-books, asking why is the most important question. What are the primary goals of purchasing e-books in your library or your consortium? Is it to expand the collection or to increase the buying power of a group of libraries? Is it to replace existing print collections, offer new services, or experiment with new business models in the hope of saving money? Whatever the reason, it is imperative to keep one's goals in mind throughout the process. Buying e-books is a complicated process. To do it effectively is an even greater challenge due to the many ways to procure e-books. This article will explore available business models; dissect the ownership and lease models of e-books; compare and contrast purchasing from aggregators, publishers, and wholesalers; and discuss the benefits and challenges of consortial purchasing.

Print to Digital

Buying a print book is relatively easy. With the introduction of library e-books in 1999, however, the once-straightforward process of buying books took on many complexities. First, for purchasing and accessing e-book content, vendors require license agreements. These agreements contain terms of use and restrictions on access. Second, e-books are priced differently from print. Instead of the traditional print list price (or list price with a discount), the price of an e-book is generally the list price plus a percentage. The final price is determined by the business model selected, the number of people who will use the book, or the size of a library's user group. Third, new business models were developed--and continue to be developed--to fit the diverse needs of libraries and vendors. Many of these models are very different from traditional print purchase models. Fourth, the notion of ownership has come into question with e-books. Do libraries actually own the content, or is it leased? Libraries must circle back to the license agreement to determine the answer to this question.

Business Models

There are a variety of business models available for purchasing e-books. Several options are one book/one user, multiuser, unlimited simultaneous use, subscription, patron-driven acquisition, and short-term loan (aka pay-per-use). Depending on the model selected, a library may own the title in perpetuity (perpetual access) or use the content for a designated period of time (lease). Many vendors also require libraries to pay ongoing access fees. Fees may be waived if a negotiated purchase amount is spent with the vendor annually. However, some vendors, such as OverDrive, calculate annual fees based on existing collection use data. Libraries that choose not to pay the access fees could lose the content. Therefore, it is imperative that librarians carefully read the license agreement to determine if e-book content can be used when access fees are withheld.


Librarians, used to the security of print copies stored on local shelves, may be uncomfortable with many of these business models. For these librarians, selecting models that offer more control of the content are best. For example, e-books in the public domain and those provided via open access offer greater ongoing access to libraries than e-books purchased with a short-term loan plan. Some libraries negotiate with vendors to obtain e-book files and host them on local servers. …

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