Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Added Value: subscription agents vs publishers

Agents, publishers and added value: how librarians view the performance of subscription agents and journal publishers

Jill Emery, U Texas, Rick Anderson, U Utah

Publishers challenged the value of subscription agents at a US conference and so Rick and Jill got a group together to investigate further: are librarians getting the same service from the big publishers as they would from the subscription agents? Areas covered included customer service overall, management of title list, accuracy of renewal and invoicing, timeliness of renewal and invoicing, administrative metadata, technological services, accurate pricing, correct initial access activation and resolution of access problems.

Total of 179 responses filtered for librarians working at university libraries - 77 final responses - 90% had the Elsevier package, the six main publishers were all covered.

Results show that librarians feel that subscription agents provide much better service. Interestingly there was a 50/50 split on whether librarians go via their subs agents to resolve access issues or go direct to the publishers.

Some of the results that took Jill and Rick by surprise - questions on satisfaction on customer service. Subs agents did better than publishers - of course, that's where their money is - but only about 19% better.. Why are agents better at resolving access problems than the publishers themselves? Only a 4% difference, but it is an extra layer to go through, so this seems odd. And, if publishers can't produce accurate renewals accurately who can? Agents handled the nuances of special deals better than the publishers themselves.

"Lack of management" at the publisher is a recurring theme, but there was some criticism of the agents too, so no clear cut; at the Charleston conference (www.katina.info) feedback included lots of support for publishers and vocal discontent at the subscription agents - but room for improvement for both parties.

Concluding thoughts:
  • in terms of Big Deals, things won't get much worse for agents - most of those deals have been done (although, the coverage of the major publishers ranged from 40% or so for T&F to 90% for Elsevier, so room for growth here?)
  • however if agents improve their handlings of Big Deals things could gradually get worse for publishers (who may prefer that libraries go direct)
  • Subscription list findings should be wake-up call for publishers to get their acts together

Agents are so much better at back office functions and dealing with administrative data; should publishers get out of the subscription management business altogether? Cede it to a third party - - not necessarily an agent - but publishers could consider outscourcing the print administration to the agents and stop competing on that service and just focus on the areas where they have competitive advantage.

Q: isn't there a difference between the agents themselves in terms of qulaity
A: they didn't specify agents by name, but did for publishers - will re-do the survey and test differentiation between agents although most respondents are only dealing with one agent so no comparitor there.

Q: Most publishers are "relatively" agnostic on whether libraries through agents or not - it's just one large publisher that want them to go direct, and for consortial deals it is difficult for one subscription agent to manage that. The questioner would love to give up the back office function of this. Ebsco respondent doesn't think this is the case and think they work successfully with Swets on joint management

Q: fundamentally disagree with the idea of outsourcing service - this the core of an organisation; look at it the other way around and question how efficient libraries and agents are at sending us the money
A: do the survey to publishers and agents to question their perception of how libraries and agents..

Q: was the survey based entirely on e-journals? the service has got worse since the move to e-only and Big Deals in terms of accurate subscription lists
A: print world was very straightforward, now we are in the 4th dimension.. making life harder for everybody on both sides

Q: do you have geog info on who answered?
A: all US libraries

Q: focus on bigger publishers and agents - how about publishers who don't have the resources? what is the perception of that group who may be less able to
A: problem with getting a representative sample to be able to generalise out to all smaller publishers
- use ALPSP and SSP

Q: significant differences between the publishers on the survey questions - 2 or 3 seem to have got it reasonably well, the remainder are very radical: those with most market penetration are not necessarily the ones that are good at the basics, such as getting a correct invoice out.. And if the biggest players can't get it right..

The full presentation is available at http://tinyurl.com/3x9g5u


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