Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Survival of the fittest: big deals at risk of extinction

Lucky Jill Taylor-Roe has a relatively healthy-sized audience for her graveyard slot at 9am the morning after the conference dinner. She wakes us up with a bit of the Byrds as she posits her theme: to every thing, there is a season. Jill is talking about change in the context of the Big Deal.

In the early days of the Big Deal, the purchase model was based on maintained print spend plus an additional e-access fee that provided access to (almost) all of a publisher's collection. In the period since, Big Deals have been hugely advantageous, with a huge growth in full text downloads (Newcastle's Library is at around 1.5m downloads per year) and a huge drop in ILL and photocopying. NESLi Big Deals have become the major supply model for acquiring new journals.

But libraries are still not able to buy everything that is requested; in some subject areas (in Newcastle's case it's engineering and the humanities) new titles are not forthcoming because they are not available via any big deals - and the big deals are taking up the lion's share of the budget. This means the collection is compromised - and things will not improve as the credit crunch impacts the value of sterling against the currencies in which most journals are bought (the Euro and the dollar). Libraries are already having to ask for additional funds simply to maintain the current portfolio. In this context we need to reconsider the value of the big deal.

Research findings
Jill has been researching librarians' views of the big deal - early results show some obvious findings e.g. that the big deal simplifies administration and reduces ILL spend. But there is frustration with the limitations (cancellations) and the impact of titles moving publisher. There is a sense that the pricing model, based on retained print spend, is no longer satisfactory. Some are still happy with the big deal, but up to a third have cancelled big deals recently - due to budget pressures caused by currency weakness, in the newer cases - a challenge that will not go away.

Current solutions
In terms of managing the shortfall (median - £100k per annum), many librarians have been cutting the book budget. This is in direct contravention of stated student demand for more textbooks and leaves libraries open to poor ratings from students. Only one library noted that they were making up shortfall with a reserve fund set up for this purpose.

Future challenges
The VAT issue remains and while the recent cut to 15% has helped to moderate the effect of currency fluctuations, this is only a short term benefit - and there's a fee it will be raised to a higher rate than the original 17.5%.

The economic problems we face are not short term. In 2010 and beyond, libraries still plan to raid the book fund but will also tackle the serials fund. Jill's research shows an increase in plans to cut big deals, which will "no longer be sacrosanct". This is driven by other factors beyond currency fluctuations - budgets not keeping up with inflation, growing dissatisfaction with pricing models, an awareness that the books budget cannot be raided indefinitely.

Next steps
Jill's survey is ongoing and further results will become available but it is clear that inflexible deals that don't offer value for money will be vulnerable. Publishers must not bury their heads in the sand but acknowledge the warning signs and "think seriously about this - don't be complacent - there are hard times ahead for all of us and survival of the fittest is not just an empty phrase".

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