v25 #6 eBook Aggregators: A Primer

by | Feb 17, 2014 | 0 comments

by Deborah Lenares  (Manager Acquisitions and Resource Sharing, Wellesley College)

The academic library market for eBooks is now well developed; often a library has more than one option to license access to a title.  Most large publishers now have their own proprietary platforms and also license their books through multiple aggregators.  However, before 2005, aggregators were the only commercial supplier of eBooks for academic libraries.1

Market History

eBook aggregators, companies that license access to eBooks from multiple publishers, have been part of the library marketplace since 1998, with the founding of NetlibraryNetlibrary was the first company to license rights from publishers to convert print books to digital files for the academic library market.2  Netlibrary offered eBooks to academic libraries through a variety of business models: purchases at the individual title level, subscription subject collections, shared consortial collections, and patron-driven acquisition.

From 1998 to 2001 other aggregators began licensing access to specialized eBook collections: Xrefer (now Credo Reference), Books 24×7, Safari Tech Books, and Knovel Engineering Library were all founded during this time.  In 2001 ebrary began licensing eBooks to academic libraries through subscription collections, and in 2004 MyiLibrary and Ebook Library began licensing eBooks through the patron-driven acquisition business model.3  EBSCO acquired Netlibrary in 2010, and ProQuest acquired ebrary in 2011 and Ebook Library in 2013.  These four aggregators: Ebook Library, ebrary, EBSCO eBooks, and MyiLibrary continue to be the four major vendors in the academic library eBook aggregator market.  There are also numerous smaller aggregators with specialty collections in areas such as: medicine, law, engineering, business, technology, reference, and international titles.

Sales Models

Aggregators license access to eBooks through a variety of sales models: patron-driven acquisition, title-level purchasing, collection purchasing, or collection subscriptions.  Carolyn Morris and Lisa Sibert provide an overview of eBook acquisition models in the book No Shelf Required.4  Each business model has its own benefits and challenges for libraries.  Subscription collections provide temporary access to large collections of titles for a relatively low price.  Titles are not owned in this model, and the aggregator can withdraw titles from the collection without warning.

Aggregators also license perpetual ownership at the individual title or collection level.  When the title is purchased in this way the library has access to the title in perpetuity, either through the aggregator’s platform or, if the platform becomes unavailable, hosted from the library’s servers.  The cost for perpetual ownership of titles is often the list price of the print book, or some multiplier of that price.  These titles are often controlled by single use, multiple use, on non-linear lending licenses.  A single-use license limits use to one book, one reader.  A multiple-use license provides some limited number of users at the same time or an unlimited number of users.  Non-linear lending allows an unlimited number of readers to access the book at one time but limits the total number of uses within a one-year period.  If the book reaches the number of allowed uses during the 12 months, access to the title is temporarily suspended until a new period begins.

Patron-driven acquisition, also known as demand-driven acquisition, turns library acquisitions on its head: putting the patron in charge of purchasing titles for the library collection at the time of need.  eBooks enable this revolution in library purchasing because there is no delivery time necessary for access to digital content.  Libraries using patron-driven acquisition load records into library discovery systems, and patron use triggers the generation of fees for temporary use or the purchase of titles.

Libraries can license content from aggregators through any combination of these sales models.  Decisions about which models are best should be based on your unique community of patrons and their use patterns, the collections under consideration, and the price offered by the aggregator.  Multiple business models and vendors can be used, but libraries may want to remove duplicates from their eBook collections to reduce unnecessary spending.

Benefits and Challenges for Libraries

Libraries choose to license content through aggregators for a number of reasons:  to make use of patron-driven acquisition; to provide access through one preferred platform;  or as part of a multi-vendor approach to building collections.  Sourcing large collections of eBooks from an aggregator allows libraries to simplify their work processes for selection, invoicing, and MARC record downloads.  Some libraries prefer to make eBooks available through an aggregator’s platform because of the advanced functionality such as downloading of EPUB files, highlighting and exportable notes.

Some libraries choose to limit their use of aggregators due to concerns about digital rights management and preservation.  In order to reduce publisher concerns for the security of their intellectual property when licensed through a third party, aggregator platforms must use more restrictive digital rights management (DRM) than what is offered directly from a publisher’s platform.  A disadvantage of buying perpetually owned eBooks through an aggregator is that the four leading aggregators do not have preservation agreements with Portico, LOCKSS, or CLOCKSS.  This might be due to the third-party nature of rights management.  The publisher, as the copyright holder, might be the only entity that can make such an agreement with a preservation service.

Benefits to Publishers

It is clear that there are benefits for libraries using aggregators, but why would a publisher choose to sell eBooks through an aggregator?  Although many big publishers now have their own platforms for eBooks, most did not have the facility to host and sell eBooks directly until 2006, years after the aggregators were up and running.  Many small publishers still do not have their own eBook platforms or the ability to sell eBooks directly.  Publishers commonly use third-party book vendors to sell print books to libraries;  so using an aggregator as a sales channel is another opportunity for their publications to reach readers.  Publishers benefit from the aggregator’s platform, which can offer enhanced security through digital rights management.  Aggregators manage the technical aspects of eBook creation such as file format conversion, library support, MARC record creation, and integration with library discovery services.

Aggregators must balance the expectations of library customers with the expectations of publishers.  Library customers often want lower prices, removal of DRM, and permission for interlibrary loan.  Publishers often want reduced financial risk, security of their intellectual property, and the opportunity for their content to be discovered, used, and purchased.  Although these expectations can be in conflict, as Mark Huskisson, Director at Ebook Library, explained, it is the aggregator’s role to find “where the tension is taut, but not stressed, and is not pulled too far in one direction”5

Choosing an aggregator

Although aggregator business models have converged over the past four years, there are still significant differences between vendors.  In preparation for this article the four main aggregators (Ebook Library, ebrary, EBSCO eBooks, MyiLibrary) were asked to submit information about their collections, platform functionality, and sales models.  This information has been edited for accuracy and brevity.  An excerpt of the response is shown in Figure 1, and the full report is available as a publicly shared Google document.6  It is important to remember that this information was collected in October 2013 and will be outdated soon.  The data can be used as an initial comparison, but it is important to contact each vendor directly for up-to-date, complete information.

Aggregators play an important role in the current academic library eBook marketplace.  The availability of various sales models, and the diversity of publishing partners, provides an opportunity for libraries to easily develop robust eBook collections.  Libraries will see increased demand for eBook collections as patron acceptance of, and preference for, eBooks continues to grow.7  Aggregators will continue to play an important role if they continue to provide good value to publishers looking for alternative sales channels and to libraries looking for flexible sales models and platforms that provide patrons with desired functionality.


Figure 1 (click to enlarge)


1.  Lynn Connaway and Heather Wicht, “What happened to the e-book revolution?: The gradual integration of e-books into academic libraries,”  Journal of Electronic Publishing 10, no.3 (Fall 2007), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jep/3336451.0010.302?view=text;rgn=main (accessed November 14, 2013).

2.  Lisa Bransten, “Netlibrary Targets an Early Market for E-Books,” Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), November 4, 1999.

3.  Connaway, “What happened to the e-book revolution?”

4.  Carolyn Morris and Lisa Sibert, “Acquiring Ebooks.”  In No Shelf Required: E-Books in Libraries, ed. Sue Polanka, (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2010), 95-124.

5.  Huskisson, Mark, Director Ebook Library.  Email Interview by Deborah Lenares.  October 24, 2013.

6.  “Ebook Aggregator Comparison,” Shared Google document, last modified December 3, 2013, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AmFxsBZWgkyddEV3a3FaNk8wVTd0TG5uM2U2RExyNlE&usp=sharing.

7.  Deborah Lenares, Steve Smith, and Robert Boissy, Ebook Use and Acceptance in an Undergraduate Instituion (New York: Springer White Papers for Librarians, 2013), accessed November 4, 2013, http://static.springer.com/sgw/documents/1370809/application/pdf/H6593_CB_WhitePaper_eBooks_Undergraduate+Inst.pdf.


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