Preview of the “Annual Review”

Jill Emery and Graham Stone described the reviewing process in chapter 6, “Annual Review,” of Techniques for Electronic Resource Management (2013). The process itself is pretty straightforward and the authors offer several valuable tips. For example, it is a good idea to divide your resources into batches and schedule yourself to review each quarter, making sure that you are allowing time to meet cancellation notices if you need to. Another wise piece of advice is to compare new licenses to the existing contract to be sure that unwanted changes haven’t snuck into the deal.

Since we often have access to usage statistics, this data should also play a big role in the decision-making process for continuation or cancellation. COUNTER-compliant usage data makes it easier to compare usage across vendors, with indicators like cost-per-use or percentage of total e-resources budget. Like they say, you can prove anything with statistics, and it’s nice to see how a vendor fits in among its peers—where it’s apples-to-apples, not apples-to-Volkswagens.

You can check up on vendors to see if they are actually providing compliant data by finding their listing (or lack thereof) on the COUNTER website. Even if they aren’t COUNTER-compliant and you still value their service, you should ensure that they minimally are sending you some kind of usage data in some form. However, besides usage data that comes directly from the vendor, it’s also smart to keep track of trouble, outages and downtime on your own. This could be useful in your decision-making process when searching for loser products, or even getting a refund or lower price on renewal.

Emery and Stone suggest that many vendors are open to re-negotiation once they realize they might be on the chopping block. This came as a surprise to me, especially after learning about the Big Deal packages of databases. If your library subscribes to a Big Deal plan, prices and amounts of content seem to be fixed. I would be surprised if vendors would be willing to allow you to negotiate a smaller package or drop your number of simultaneous users in that context. With Big Deals dominating large percentages of material budgets, the ability to have a bargaining chip on the vendor is definitely appealing—however, wouldn’t it mean that re-negotiation would actually change the deal into a “medium deal”?

Silencing the Cynic

Traditionally, I am distrustful of business-types who primarily appear to be only interested in profit to the detriment of their customer and competition. Survival of the fittest may be reasonable to expect, but so is ethical behavior. I want to believe that there is more good in these deals than I think.

It doesn’t seem right to me to encourage publishers to prey on the scholarly clientele, many of whom are partially funded by public tax dollars (as with public schools or universities). Good business practices thrive from win-win situations, so the optimist in me hopes that there is more to the “Big Deal” business model for delivering digital academic content to libraries. What truly goes on behind the scenes?

Zac Rolnik’s article in the Serial Librarian in 2009 suggests that content selection has been taken away from the library (i.e. the bibliographer) and given to the Big Deal publisher, who has the power to pad the subscription with unsolicited content. These freebies are potentially wasteful, so it would seem better for libraries to choose what they want–if they could actually afford to do it this way. If I shush the cynic in me for a moment, I then consider that, since they have taken on the role of the bibliographer, it is in the publisher’s best interest to do a good job of matching content to the needs of the library because if not, at some point they risk losing the client. I would be interested in knowing HOW they approach this–what content gets selected for inclusion in a bundle and how does it vary from institution to institution?

Hopefully content does vary from institution to institution based on needs/focus, but we know that pricing definitely does. This is where I put my cynic cap back on. In 2012, Strieb and Blixrud discussed the rates of nondisclosure clauses in contracts between libraries and publishers. Knowing that libraries tend to believe in the idea that “information wants to be free” and are often subject to open records laws, it is curious to me that a publisher would ask them not to share the pricing they have agreed to, unless they are concerned with protecting a profit margin. It is a lot harder for a vendor to extract extra money out of a rookie negotiator if it is common knowledge what everyone else is paying.

To me, the refusal of three of the Big Seven publishers to sell e-books to libraries also points to greed. Why should they let libraries lend their e-books out if they can force more readers to purchase (instead of borrow) the books they want? Perhaps libraries aren’t going to get 5s across the board on their ALA Ebook Business Model Scorecards, but it would be nice if publishers would start negotiating in good faith with libraries soon.