So you want to purchase a Scholarly eBook for your Library?

A patron requests a newly published book that your library doesn’t have a copy of. You, as the Librarian, could maybe inter-library (ILL) loan them a copy? Unfortunately, as more and more libraries are choosing to purchase books only in eBook format, it has become harder and harder to get a ILL of a print book published after 2012. There are some attempts to solve this ILL eBook problem – like the exciting Occam’s Reader – but nothing that has yet broken into the mainstream and has been widely used by libraries.

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Image Credit: Tina Franklin

Another option here is just to buy a print copy of the book and add it to your collection. In our case though the patron needs access to this book rather quickly and they are also not currently located in the same city as your library. It will take far too long for you to receive the book, process it, and then mail it back out to them.

So you decide to purchase an eBook copy. That way you can get the patron access to the book with almost no wait period. All most all eBook publishers/vendors activate access to eBooks within less than 24 hours of purchase. Most do it instantly after purchase.

So where do you go to purchase this eBook? Should you go to the Publisher? Or an Aggregator Vendor? Being a good Librarian, you want to make sure you purchase a copy of the eBook that is the most user friendly, that allows concurrent users, and has very little -if any- DRM restrictions.

A good place to compare the different polices of eBook publishers and vendors is this Lund University LibGuide. It’s a good source of important information about ILL restrictions, offline reading, printing and copying, fulltext format (PDF?), and text-to-speech capabilities.

Now generally you don’t have that many options for purchasing an eBook, you can either go the the individual publisher themselves or an aggregator vendor and there are really only two large vendor companies out there right now: ProQuest (ebrary, EBL, and Ebook Central) and EBSCOhost (EBSCOhost eBooks). ProQuest and EBSCO both have around 900,000 eBooks each (My unofficial numbers. Based on searching their entire collection in their collection management interface). In my experience there is a decent amount of overlap between ProQuest and EBSCO (Maybe 30-40%? This just a guess. Somebody look into this please!) and prices for eBooks they both have are often approximately the same. You’re not likely to find any savings from comparing their prices for the same eBook. Also, vendors sometimes don’t get an copy of the eBook till a few months after the published date, i.e. till the publisher has had the chance to sell it on their own for a bit.

eBooks on ProQuest and EBSCO also have a lot of restrictions on them. Perhaps most importantly: a user can’t download whole eBooks as plain PDFs. Only way to download the whole eBook is as DRM protected Adobe Digital PDF that only allows for brief check-out periods. Users can download/copy sections of the books as plain PDF’s but there are varying limits on these restrictions depending on the book and the rules the publisher tells ProQuest and EBSCO to follow. These specified limits sometimes mean a user can’t even download a full chapter of the book. ProQuest tries to stick to a 15% can be copied, 30% can be printed/downloaded rule. I can’t find any official statement from EBSCO about what percentages of the eBook they allow to be copied/downloaded, however they do cap the download limit at 100 pages. Interestingly, ProQuest doesn’t have a cap, so for a ProQuest eBook that is over 335 pages it could be possible to download more than 100 pages as a plain PDF.

However, one thing ProQuest doesn’t do (at least on ebrary) is make these copy/download percentage restrictions visible before purchase. EBSCOhost does this.

When we look a Publisher eBook platforms, things get even more complicated. Some publishers allow the ability to download the whole eBook as a plain PDF, some do not (Lund LibGuide is a good tool for determining who allows what). The big academic publishers (e.g. Wiley, Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis) all allow the ability to download each chapter of an eBook as a plain PDF, with no restrictions on downloads numbers or concurrent users. So a user could download the whole eBook in separate sections if they went PDF by PDF. Springer-Nature launched the ability to download whole eBooks as plain PDFs a few years ago.

However, unfortunately neither Springer-Nature nor Elsevier allows you to purchase on a title-by-title basis. That is, to purchase eBooks from these two publishers you need to purchase a package or collection. So in our case of a client needing just the one eBook, if the eBook comes from one of these two publishers, you will need to look at purchasing from ProQuest or EBSCO – if they have it! Other publishers like Wiley and Taylor & Francis allow this title-by-title purchasing. It’s frustrating that Springer-Nature and Elsevier don’t.

Generally publishers have less restrictive DRM than aggregators when it comes to eBooks. Publishers eBooks often don’t have limits on concurrent users, ProQuest and EBSCO do. Also, it is easier to find and download full chapters and sections from publisher eBook platforms than from vendor platforms. You often have to dig through the eBook to download sections on EBSCO and ProQuest. A link to download the PDF is not front and center like it is on publisher eBook platforms.

A good rule of thumb I’ve heard from a few veteran librarians now is to always purchase eBooks from the publisher instead of a vendor when you can. Vendors’ eBooks also have the risk of disappearing.

Purchasing an eBook isn’t easy.

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About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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