ProQuest signed a definitive agreement to acquire Ebook Library (EBL) from Australia-based Ebooks Corp. Ltd. After the transfer is completed over the next few weeks, Ebook Library will begin its merger with ebrary, acquired by ProQuest in 2011. Kari Paulson, president of EBL, will take over the merged ebook services and lead the project to build a “best-of-breed” ebook platform for libraries drawing on the best features of both services.
Ebooks Corp., founded in 1997, retains its ebooks.com retail sales service to individual customers and its Ebook Services for publishers. The overall effect of the acquisition and merger should be to expand the number of publishers and publications available from ProQuest and to increase ProQuest’s market penetration internationally, particularly in Europe and Australia.
The new acquisition joins other ProQuest efforts to enhance the research experience. For example, the Interoperability initiative is working to enable users to seamlessly discover content across multiple formats including books, journals, dissertations, newspapers, and video.
Kurt Sanford, ProQuest CEO, explained the strategy behind the acquisition. Over the last 18 months, he and ProQuest have been engaged in “a rigorous analysis” of their corporate strategy, and it confirmed the critical importance of ebooks, especially in the academic market. “EBL’s first-rate user experience, innovative business models, and acquisition tools are very complementary to ebrary,” said Sanford. “These features will be combined with ebrary’s unmatched content selection, award-winning subscription service, and cutting edge, patent-protected core platform technology. The result will be an unparalleled ebook research platform that is connected to all of ProQuest’s products and services.”
Founded in 2004 by Ebooks Corp., EBL introduced a range of new services in the library market, including the patented Non-Linear Lending (NLL) model, demand-driven acquisitions, short-term loans, and chapter-level purchases for reserve circulation and coursepacks. EBL offers more than 300,000 ebooks from more than 500 publishers. It serves academic, corporate, government, and research libraries worldwide. Paulson will report to Kevin Sayar, senior vice president, ProQuest Workflow Solutions.
Content issues in the volatile ebook world are constantly changing. Publishers change policies at will and pull in and out of affiliate relationships. And then there are all the copyright and “copy-left” issues. Ebooks in the EBL collection all come from publishers at this point. Authors requesting inclusion for their self-publishing are told that it “only stocks books that have been through the rigorous editorial systems of traditional book publishing.” However, in a conversation with Paulson, she indicated that they were closely watching developments in the open access arena, with a particular focus on digital textbooks. Paulson also pointed out that under its previous ownership, EBL simply did not have access to sufficient resources to handle author input, regardless of other issues. However, she expected the ProQuest ownership to change things. For example, in the same interview, Sayar pointed to ProQuest’s comprehensive archive of dissertations as another candidate literature—and one produced by authors rather than publishers.
Developing a new merged platform will take some time and libraries can expect to see the volatility of the market affect the features offered by the new platform. As for a timeline on the new platform, Paulson stated that they had not developed a detailed plan, yet expected the project to take about 18 months or more. Until the platform reaches the market, ProQuest will let ebrary and EBL customers use each service’s established offerings. In the case of EBL, that includes such features as multiple concurrent access, online and offline access solutions, “Read aloud” for all titles, chapters for reserve circulation and coursepacks, browsing full text for students before borrowing and for faculty before purchasing, full-text search across catalog, parallel existing library processes by integrating with international third-party book distributors for easy acquisition and with ILS systems for catalog management. Flexible access models include Non-Linear Lending, unlimited access, and short-term circulation. Multiple concurrent access Non-Linear Lending limits the total number of lending days per year per title but enables multiple-concurrent access. Patrons can browse all books and use full-text search within the browser. Titles can be accessed online, through EBL’s PDF-based reader, or by downloading Adobe Acrobat ebooks to a PC, laptop, or PDA for offline use.
Short-term circulation is EBL’s pay-per-use model that provides a “just-in-time” solution for libraries and patrons and a possible alternative to interlibrary loan. EBL uses virtual photocopy technology to produce chapters on the fly. Chapters can be used for purchase by students, for reserve lending by libraries, or for inclusion in ePack course packs.
As to the development process itself for the new platform, EBL has already established advisory groups of librarians to help them develop new services and features. And ebrary has a history of similar groups. Paulson assured us that this approach would be key in working out the new platform.
Before you start your applause, however, there are going to be problems ahead. Publishers control most of the access to ebooks and their policies and attitudes toward how to handle ebooks in libraries seem to change weekly. Contracts and agreements with publishers will have to be confirmed and perhaps altered. For example, ebrary promises its library customers perpetual access to whatever ebooks they have “bought.” How will this work in in a world where a major publisher like Macmillan “leases” ebooks to libraries for 2 years or 52 uses, whichever comes first? That policy would hardly have enough stability to warrant a library’s adding the title to its catalog. Should we call this the Poof! factor? Though they have not yet done a detailed title check to verify overlapping content between ebrary and EBL, Sayar estimated the overlap would run about 80%. “The other 20% or whatever will be critical however to have depth,” he said.
Sayar expected the new merged companies would also build business in Asia and the Middle East. ebrary already has multiple languages in their platform, though they rely on publisher partners to produce any full translations of ebooks.
One of the most exciting potential developments under discussion for the new platform and for ProQuest in general is the interoperability aspect. This could begin the practice of linking all ProQuest content to all other ProQuest content, including that from the enormous Summon discovery service. Sanford stated that comprehensive access to research was one of the company's main objectives. He even hinted of some shifts in the works to make Summon more accessible.