serials subscription economics: or, monopolies, italics, and cannibalism

So the husband and I were talking yesterday about the new EBSCO monopoly on certain periodicals, after I read Dorothea Salo’s post on the matter (now BoingBoinged). And he was wondering, so really, what’s the issue here? What’s the appeal of these database vendors? And a BoingBoing commenter wonders, “the content providers have decided to sell their content through only one vendor…is that not their right?”

Salo addresses some of this in a follow-up post, but I want to as well — a scattershot Things What Might Not Be Apparent If You Are Not A Librarian post.

* One of the intriguing aspects of getting your journal access electronically is that it’s more like renting than owning. Different vendors may have rights to different date ranges of the back issues, and you may have any number of contractual limitations on your database access, and if you stop having a contract with a vendor, then no, you might not have access to the back issues you had access to yesterday. It’s not like a print collection, where you paid to buy the physical thing — and it came with limitations, like lack of fulltext search and the need for ever-increasing shelf space to store — but you *have* the thing until it falls to pieces, anyway, even if you cancel the subscription. You stop leasing your database access, you no longer have back issues. Now, maybe you get them through another vendor — if you have contracts with multiple vendors, and publishers have contracts with multiple vendors, then you may still have access through other means, albeit not necessarily to the same range of back issues or through the same interface or with the same features.

* But maybe you don’t have access through another vendor, and that’s the issue with the current EBSCO deal. If you want to have access to certain publications, you have to deal with EBSCO. And this connects with two other issues:

1) EBSCO, as a monopoly power, can set forth whatever crazy terms it wants. (“But if they’re too crazy you can just refuse,” I hear you saying. Yes, but see below.) For instance, maybe you just want to read Time, but they will only sell you Time in a package deal containing dozens of other titles such Injury and Abdominal Imaging and The Lady’s Magazine or Polite Companion for the Fair Sex and you really, honestly, do not care about these publications (all real EBSCO titles fyi), but you have to pay for them if you want Time.

2) Now replace Time with, say, Science or Nature or whatever the incredibly critical journal is that your patrons absolutely cannot live without. The current EBSCO monopoly is over popular press magazines, and I imagine it will be incredibly irritating to public libraries who can no longer afford (see below) to stock them, but if you are a university and your library cannot afford to stock the marquee journals for your top academic programs, this goes way beyond “irritating”. So take the current EBSCO deal as a harbinger of things to come, and you see why it’s worth setting up some barricades.

* I owe you one more “see below”, and that’s cost. Serials are very expensive. People have been cancelling print subscriptions to make way for them, sure, but they’ve also been scaling back their monograph acquisitions just to keep up with serials. Serials prices have escalated enormously and library budgets, well, haven’t. MIT spends seven million a year on serials — yes, they’re big, and yes, as a nearly-all-science institution they depend unusually heavily on them — but this should give you a sense of the absurdly large chunks of change involved.

The thing that should make this — from your perspective, from a patron perspective, not just a librarian perspective — a problem, the thing that should make this more than something to brush off as businesses-doing-business — is that monopoly power over access to key periodicals takes away a major chunk of libraries’ negotiating power, when their institutional contexts may not allow them not to say no to those periodicals, and when serials budgets are already cannibalizing everything in their path. What you will see, as a patron, is non-serials acquisitions and services being cut merely to maintain the status quo of subscriptions. And if that is not something you like, librarians are going to need to know that their institutions will back them up if they need to take scorched-earth negotiating positions with vendors.