Just imagine if libraries were like airlines. Your flight to Information could cost $20 or $2,000 depending on how far in advance you book, whether you're connecting through Seattle or going direct, how full the flight is, the day of the week, the phase of the moon, and who knows what else. Airlines employ operations research Ph.D.s who create and maintain elaborate systems to "manage the load". These systems make sure that people who have little choice of when and where to fly pay a lot more than others who have flexibility to seek low fares.
You don't have to imagine very hard to realize that academic libraries are part of a system that's a lot like the airline industry. Consider college students. Once they've signed up for a class, they have little flexibility with their assigned reading. Even a college library with a 10 million volume collection won't be of much use to them, because someone else will have checked out the assigned reading – if it's not on reserve. The student is sent to the college bookstore, where it's a pretty good bet the book won't be on sale. If the student has planned in advance, they might bought a copy used on Amazon, or borrowed it from an upperclassman.
Academic book "load management" was not devised by financial engineers, it arose as a by-product of a paper-based distribution system. Students don't perceive librarians as evil just because they haven't bought a hundred copies to supply the whole class. But the environment is very different when the books are digital. Scarcity of digital books is a manufactured fiction, so it's easy for a student to perceive the library as being complicit in a money-extraction machine, never mind the benefits that accrue globally when publishers are rewarded for producing books worthy of being assigned in a course.
Libraries hate saying “No” to their users, so ebook models that allow unlimited simultaneous access are very attractive to them. Even limited simultaneous access would help meet the needs of students. The same models are very scary for publishers, because they count on profits from selling many copies of course-assigned texts to cover their losses on slow-selling titles. Academic libraries don't have the money to replace that revenue, because the embedded practice is for students to pay for their own textbooks.
A few universities, notably Indiana University, have started to reexamine the role of academic libraries in the digital provision of course-assigned textbooks. Libraries have a better bargaining position with publishers than students, and are in a unique position to integrate digital texts with databases and other types of information available from the library. It makes little sense to tell students to come to the library for quality information- unless they need it for a class!
Publishers also have incentives to find library-based digital solutions for course-assigned reading. If the library can be charged based on the number of students enrolled in a course, no revenue is lost to used-book sellers, peer-to-peer networks or students who don't bother to read the texts. Solutions that work have nonetheless been elusive, partly because it's very difficult to have print and digital models coexisting, but also because budgets are tight all around.
At Ithaka's Sustainable Scholarship meeting this week, JSTOR's Bruce Heterick told the gathered publishers and librarians that JSTOR's ebook program, to be launched in 3rd quarter of 2012, would include a pilot program to address the course-assigned title problem. This news was warmly received by the entire audience. Books at JSTOR will make over 15,000 books available on multiple platforms (including ebrary and NetLibrary) and on multiple devices (iOS and Android). At launch, the ebooks will be offered on a sales model, and all the ebooks will be archived in Ithaka's Portico service so that libraries can be assured that their access will really be perpetual. The icing on the cake is that the ebooks will be integrated with JSTOR's discovery and crosslinking platform, which is very popular with the students and faculty at subscribing institutions.
Although the details of the course-assigned title pilot were not yet decided, JSTOR Managing Director Laura Brown responded to questions by saying that as many as 3 different models would be tried in the pilot. JSTOR's subscriber outreach has suggested that different approaches are needed in different sorts of institutions. I suppose you could think of these models as “charter flights” that can be added to package tours.
Regular readers of the Go To Hellman blog will know that I'm working on a new approach to selling ebooks. I view every market problem as a possible opportunity for the new model, which we call "unglued ebooks". Course-assigned titles are no exception.
My analysis indicates that the market dynamics for some books may favor the ungluing model. It works by aggregating donations by many people and institutions with a stake in a particular book and then paying the book's rights holders who “name their own price” to issue a Creative Commons licensed digital edition. The ebook can then be used without limit by everyone, everywhere. (OK, it’s backwards from Priceline, but we totally have to get Leonard Nimoy as our spokesperson!)
In situations where two titles compete with each other to be put on a course list, the ungluing model introduces a severe form of price competition. A title that is successfully unglued, even at a price equal to the present value of its entire future revenue stream, would have a huge advantage over a competing title that remained on the per-copy selling model. It remains to be seen, of course, whether students and libraries will be able to organize an ungluing campaign to meet the high ungluing prices commanded by books with steady recurring sales. Still, there is a huge variety of courses and books, and thus a reasonable chance that the model will work in at least a few cases.
There’s a great need for experimentation and risk-taking by libraries and publishers in the transition to the digital environment. It's good to see JSTOR step up to that plate. But don’t take my airline industry analogy too seriously. When developing new models for ebooks and libraries, let’s omit the pat-down security searches and checked-baggage fees, OK?