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Interview with an Empire: Tim Collins, CEO of EBSCO Industries

Tim Collins

Tim Collins, President & CEO – EBSCO Industries, Inc.

EBSCO for many of us used to be best known as a subscription agent. While that part of their business remains, it has been interesting to watch the company evolve, much of it through acquisition of other companies under the leadership of a relatively new CEO, Tim Collins. EBSCO’s fingers are in many pies. There are full-text databases and A&I databases. They are a discovery service, and an ebook aggregator. EBSCO created Flipster, an emerging source for digital magazine replicas, and is the producer of DynaMed Plus and Nursing Reference Center Plus, content used by doctors and nurses at the point of care.  Acquiring some cool stuff has been on their agenda as well.  They stepped into the altmetrics game with the acquisition of Plum Analytics . Did I mention that they also bought Learning Express, and Yankee Book Peddler (YBP)?

In this post I ask Tim Collins for his views on publishing industry trends seen through the prism of his leadership role at EBSCO. While Tim is clearly an advocate for EBSCO, what I think is fascinating here is Tim’s sense of a connected world of stakeholders – this is publishing today.

Please tell us about your background and what took you to your current position.

I started a small company with my stepfather in 1984, when I was in college that created an abstracting service for popular magazines that we sold to school and public libraries. We sold this business to EBSCO and I managed it for EBSCO. The business became EBSCO Publishing. We created EBSCOhost (the online research service) and grew through acquisitions and new product introductions. When Dixon Brooke, Jr. retired as EBSCO’s President & CEO, I was selected by EBSCO’s board to become EBSCO’s first non-family President & CEO.

EBSCO has made many acquisitions over recent years. Tell us a little bit about why this was done and what you hope to achieve.

Each acquisition is different for us. Consider YBP, for example. This is a strong, established leader in its area, with a proven track record, and great people from top to bottom. So, our vision is to help them fulfill their vision. In other words, let YBP be YBP, but also to help expedite that vision through the provision of resources and focus. In recent months, we’ve been asked a lot about acquisition, and there has been much speculation about our next potential endeavor. The key in all of this is to have a truly meaningful impact with whatever we may invest in – whether it be an acquisition or an internal product development effort.  

Who are your customers? Who do you view as the primary stakeholders in the publishing industry?

Our primary customers are of course librarians. We also consider our partners (publishers, database providers, ILS providers, etc.) to be our customers as well. Some may say that the end users are our ultimate customers, and we go to great lengths to understand what they want, and how they want it.

What industry trends do you view as most significant?

It is easy to ‘follow the leader’, so trends pick up speed, “because others are doing it.” But as we all know, just because others are doing it, doesn’t make it right. So, we don’t always embrace trends. Let me share an example: the Short-term Loan (STL) for ebooks. We saw this spike in popularity in 2013, but it has since trended downward, and more significantly tailing off in the last 6-10 months. The reality is that, while we understand why it seemed like an attractive model for libraries, it is not sustainable for publishers. Simply put, having a library pay 15% of the normal purchase price for a book doesn’t cover the cost of producing the book. Publishers understand this and have been forced to diminish their exposure to this model by increasing short-term loan prices and not allowing front list titles to be part of the model — or not participating at all.

Many libraries are starting to see that, while they may spend less on ebooks for a couple of year by using STLs, they are often left with lower annual budgets (if they spend less in one year their budget declines the next) and a much less robust ebook collection to offer their users (as they don’t own as many books). While some libraries may feel like this is okay as they can enable their patrons to search ‘all’ ebooks via Demand Driven Acquisition (DDA) models without actually buying them, we worry about this logic as it assumes that publishers will continue to make all of their content available for searching via DDA at no cost to users. We don’t see this as a valid assumption as, if DDA results in reducing ebook budgets even further, we wonder whether publishers will be able to afford to make their ebooks available under this model.

We can see why book publishers worked with these models as they wanted to support their customers. But, if these models result in budget reductions, which result in publishers not being able to fulfill their mission of publishing the world’s research so that it can be consumed, we don’t see them being sustainable.   We understand that this view may not be welcomed or shared by all libraries, but we see the logic being sound. Business models need to work for both customers and vendors in order for them to be sustainable. There was much great discussion on this subject at the recent Charleston Conference and in related articles published in Against the Grain by both publishers and librarians.

Another example of a trend that we don’t think is sustainable is the closed business practices and forced packaging of discovery services with “next generation” Integrated Library System (ILS). While we’ve seen some RFPs where discovery services must be tied to the ILS (offered by the same company), we understand their origin. Librarians generally understand that the search functionality and relevancy ranked results that they provide to their end users is more important than the functionality offered in administrative tools used by their librarians. Given that the end user is at the center of the mission of a library, and given that the discovery service is where and how they are interacting most with these users, librarians want to have the flexibility to select the discovery service of their choice. We are now seeing a trend where libraries are standing up to these practices and pushing back. We’ve seen it from large consortia. It’s these folks with the muscle than can start new trends that lead to better library services.

What disrupting influences in the information industry are most important for library vendors to take note of?

Library end users are savvy. They are accustomed to instant gratification. The have grown up in a technology-centric, web-based world. It’s this consumer-world that may have the greatest influence on the library world. As libraries and library vendors, we have to understand these users, their needs and preferences — and keep pace. If libraries are to prosper, the habits, needs and demands of end users must be at the forefront of our plans and goals, and the experience they have with the library must meet and exceed their expectations.

What role do discovery services play in today’s publishing ecosystem? What is the future for discovery?

Discovery is increasingly more important across the entire spectrum — from publishers of content, database providers and ebook aggregators, to libraries, and most certainly, their end users. But the reason libraries spend so much time and resources on collection development is to provide the best possible services & resources to their end users. End users are the library customers, and library success is tied directly to user success. And because users’ interactions with the library now occur mostly online, the discovery service is where those users are experiencing the library. In fact, many libraries are moving away from making the catalog available as a separate starting point, relying on the discovery service instead. And this makes sense – not only are your catalog records already in the discovery service, but the items in a library’s catalog represent only a small portion of its overall collection.

Above all else, user satisfaction with and perception of the library are the metrics that matter most. Did the library provide a fruitful, expedient service? Will that user come back again?

Tell us a little about your views on the evolution of library search

There has never been a time in libraries when “search” has been more important than it is now.

In the 1990s and 2000s we watched and participated in the development of numerous search services that were individually transformational for libraries, but in aggregate resulted in libraries failing to meet end user expectations. Let me explain: offering a combined search of subject indexes and full-text databases was transformational to libraries, because users could search the full text of thousands of magazines and journals in seconds, and download the articles that they needed. There was no longer a need to search numerous volumes of many indexes and then walk around the stacks to find the articles. Same for ebooks: users could search the full text of ebooks and read them online, rather than using the card catalog and going to the stacks. There are many other examples of online tools that were similarly useful, such as archive databases and subject-specific services. Each was an improvement to the patron experience, but the aggregate result was that, to use the library, the user needed to learn multiple interfaces. This became much more of a problem due to the convenient “Google single search box” experience that had become the end user expectation.

In the academic discovery environment, there are two parts of the equation that set library resources apart from an open web search: the collection itself, and the detailed indexing applied to that collection at the article level. We realized early on that discovery could not be a watered-down search if it was going to be worthy of a true academic research experience and found on the front page of the library’s website. No matter how well open web search engines work, it is not likely they will ever go back and create high-quality subject indexing for nearly all important academic sources back dozens and dozens of years.

Tell us a little about how EBSCO is thinking through new business models in an era of ejournals, ebooks, and open access.

There is room and necessity for new models as the information world and related technologies evolve. The key is to understand the specific value of each model, how it fits, and appropriately design your library portfolio/collection to maximize the value that each brings. We see the ebook area as an area where experimentation with new models has occurred and approaches are starting to emerge that integrate these new models in a sustainable way.

While books and journals are very different, fundamentally we are seeing the same basic elements emerging. Despite the buzz around demand-driven acquisition (DDA) & short-term loan (STL), library use of profiling services and approval plans like those from YBP have steadily increased over the last 3 years. This is because these are core to building and owning collections (both print and e). We’ve seen a large spike in each of the last several years as libraries are leveraging the value that ebook subscription products bring (huge, cost-effective collections of scholarly titles). It’s these two components (approvals plans and subscription collections) that are making up the majority of the book collection development efforts. And it makes sense. With these, the library is building both a true book collection: buying core books to be owned by the library, while gaining unlimited access to tens of thousands of books through the subscription collection. After the foundation is in place, DDA is used as a way to maintain flexibility and support on-going demands. In other words, as a complement to these core collection development approaches rather than a replacement. And, we are seeing that even through DDA, libraries are choosing to purchase books, as opposed to enabling a short-term loan (STL). But like most models, there is value in STL when used appropriately. For example, esoteric titles that support a particular user’s need may not make sense to purchase and own for a given library, but may be good candidates for STL. We have seen the number of titles associated with library DDAs in aggregate come way down, and the STL associated with those DDAs are also now steadily declining. We see these as natural adjustments as models emerge, and publishers and libraries learn and make necessary changes. While new models are good to explore, as a community we have to be really mindful of when, how and if they fit.

This post has been corrected to describe EBSCO’s relationship to Flipster as creator of the product, not as  part of an acquisition.

About Robert Harington

Robert M. Harington is Associate Executive Director, Publishing at the American Mathematical Society. Robert has the responsibility for driving strategic growth and management of the AMS publishing program for books, journals and electronic products. Robert also serves on the MathJax Steering Committee. Robert came to the AMS from the American Institute of Physics, where he served as Publisher, successfully leading AIP's move away from its traditional role as a provider of publishing services, moving on to focus on serving the publishing needs of its member societies and AIP's own journals. He has forged an international career working in both non-profit and commercial settings, with rich experience across the United States, Europe, and Asia. Robert holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Oxford, and a first-class honours degree in chemistry from the University of London. The AMS has maintained an active publishing program for over 100 years and has established a reputation as one of the top publishers of advanced mathematics in the world, with over 3000 books in print, 23 journals, and Mathematical Reviews(r) (MathSciNet(r)). The American Mathematical Society was founded in 1888 to further the interests of mathematics research and scholarship, and serves the national and international community through its meetings, publications, advocacy, and other programs. The Society's offices in Providence, Ann Arbor, and Washington, DC employ 210 people. There are over 30,000 individual members and 570 institutions worldwide that benefit from membership in the Society.

Discussion

10 thoughts on “Interview with an Empire: Tim Collins, CEO of EBSCO Industries

  1. One item to note: Flipster was actually developed by EIS, rather than purchased.

    Posted by Alison McGonagle-O'Connell | Mar 1, 2016, 9:29 am
  2. To add a few relevant numbers to this informative interview, YBP saw the growth rate of DDA Records at 50% over previous year in 2013. The following year growth in DDA Record distribution dropped to 14%. In 2015 it moved into negative territory: -22% over previous year.
    This is just part of continuing significant shifts in content distribution and management.

    Posted by Michael Zeoli | Mar 2, 2016, 9:30 am
  3. The Scholarly Kitchen is my favourite virtual debating ground for the industry and helps clarify a great deal of thought during my daily grind. In this area I needed to join in as to suggest that having EBSCO (and by extension YBP) define the conversation around DDA and STL is like having Fox News as your sole provider of political opinion. It is not necessarily wrong but it lacks the independent challenge needed to test whether what is said is accurate across the spectrum of experience and evidence. YBP and EBSCO, due to their size in print and discovery respectively, are given disproportionately large amounts of air time to declare their position as fact when the bulk of the usage and experience takes place outside of their operations so their data is limited. As with certain political figures, if they say it enough times it becomes fact in the eyes of the constituents who are looking for powerful reasons to explain their own story of discontent.
    I love EBSCO’s developments and their solid business models but not ‘always’ being a follower of trends is an interesting comment that needs a spotlight. Their whole development plan (according to presentations to publishers where I have sat listening) is to watch trends in the market and then copy them, but make them much better. And I think that they have proven their non-innovator, fast-follower model brilliantly over the years. Let others test and then deliver better. But I think that the problem for EBSCO and YBP here is that the technology behind STL is deceptively difficult and hard to deliver if not built into the platform at the outset. Remaining popular with publishers, not being able to deliver the same service better than others and protecting traditional business streams at YBP all seem more solid reasoning for EBSCO not to “always embrace trends” in this particular case.
    Tim is doing a great job at EBSCO but sometimes in articles such as this an unchallenged opinion on a particular subject like STL gives credence to opinion as fact. It’s a great job of business protection and perpetuation and he should be applauded, but none of us should go away thinking this is the whole story on an area where EBSCO and and its parts struggle to deliver what the customers and their users want.

    Posted by Bob Parker (Associates) | Mar 3, 2016, 3:26 am
    • Bob, your challenge is not on solid ground. YBP is distributing DDA Records for ebrary and EBL – the companies most involved in the model – As well as for EBSCO. ***YBP is the largest single outlet for DDA Record distribution to academic libraries.*** As such, our data regarding #s of records sent, #s of records triggered into purchase, and #s of Short-Term Loans/2nd & 3rd loans, etc. is more than statistically significant. With this understood, the other comments become problematic. What’s complex is the business discussion, not the technology. Let’s discuss offline.
      Michael

      Posted by Michael Zeoli | Mar 3, 2016, 6:52 am
      • Will do Michael. It’s yet another fascinating time to be in this business. Change in the industry that is wrapped in the perpetual social shift around us all.

        As a slight aside to main thrust of this conversation there is common misunderstanding that purchases in the internet age are made at the source of the information – especially for print but increasingly ebooks. Publishers spend disproportionately in channels such as Amazon due to that being where the final sale is made. When actually, especially with the publishers I work with, the metadata driving these sales comes via YBP, Dawson, Coutts, ProQuest, whomever. The sales decision is made, batched up and bought through other online channels with the best price, supply times and service provision. Amazon did very little to drive the sale except build the world’s best and most expensive supply chain for books and rely heavily on 3rd party marketing efforts. YBP may be the largest distributor of information to academic libraries as they were in the paper slips days, but that does not necessarily translate neatly into purchases.But it certainly gives YBP solid ground for comment and data sharing, but not at the cost of the debate that is needed around this for the sake of everyone in the industry; from authors, to publishers to libraries and everyone who supports them.
        There are many factors that affect the number of triggered purchases, not just the model and its popularity. A key factor is the price that publishers are applying to short-term loans. I’ve spoken with publishers who price their loans at 100% of list price. That certainly affects the number of triggers of loans to slips proportionately. I’ve also spoken with libraries who have changed their profiles to exclude high cost loan prices. And that also directly reflects the amount of data being distributed. Combining these two pressures will naturally reduce the numbers being distributed.
        So there are many aspects of this conversation that need consideration other than DDA information is being distributed less so it’s not working. Carefully ignoring key commercial behaviours of the publishers and relying on specifically chosen data sets distracts us from the overall debate on the ongoing shift in content distribution and management. More conversation and data is very welcome for all of us trying to find a long term solution for our clients. My point was that opinion interviews such as this, with strong statements included, need balancing. They’re not wrong, in fact they are welcomed, but they need a counter balance – even if it is only someone else’s opinion.

        Posted by BOB PARKER (ASSOCIATES) | Mar 12, 2016, 5:48 am
        • Jeepers, Bob. I offer data points that are comprehensive, not “selective”. We build and assess models based on data, not opinion. That’s our business. Opinions, anecdotal comments and Amazon are not “counterbalances”… They are *not* equal but opposite forces. Galileo’s recanting of a heliocentric universe under pressure from an ideologically-driven organization did not diminish the evidence on which he based his model. There’s a universe of difference between a theory and an opinion.

          Posted by Michael Zeoli | Mar 12, 2016, 7:23 am
          • OK Michael, this is where I back away. I like debate that informs the conversation but it is hard to engage with a ‘one truth’ position, just as Galileo found with his ‘it’s complicated’ relationship status with the Vatican. So as I slink away I will resist the temptation to whisper, “e pur, si muove.”

            Posted by BOB PARKER (ASSOCIATES) | Mar 31, 2016, 5:17 am
  4. It’s readily apparent that EBSCO has been successful over the years, from journals to publishing to ebook distribution. That success leads to specialized insights into the market that are deserving of consideration.

    That said, my experience in the marketplace suggests that the above analysis shows a bias to the publisher perspective of the market and not a holistic view of the market. Having worked in the industry for many years, I understand that the business perspectives between libraries and publishers can at times converge but equally will diverge.

    I specifically call into question the statement that DDA usage results in reduced budgets. Not only does my anecdotal experience suggest that this isn’t true, there’s ample evidence available that suggests library budgets were cut prior to DDA’s explosion in the marketplace. For example, this article (http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2009/05/13/cuts-freezes-widespread-in-academic-libraries/) shows that budgets were being cut at major US ARLs back in 2009, when DDA was in its infancy and not a measurable influence on acquisitions. Furthermore, an article posted on Scholarly Kitchen (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/10/15/revisiting-demand-driven-acquisitions/), librarians say (via the comments) that their budgets are not actually decreasing when they use DDA.

    I think it’s reasonable to extrapolate that the explosion of DDA (and STL) were the result of budget cuts, adopted enthusiastically as a coping mechanism.

    Technology and data have fundamentally changed how acquisitions are done in the library market. Approval plans based upon antiquated print book philosophies are simply not going to return in force. Perhaps neither DDA nor STL is the long-term acquisition solution for libraries, but these models are important strategies in both dealing with the reality of budget cuts as well as understanding what’s important to libraries and publishers alike.

    I’d be interested in Scholarly Kitchen soliciting feedback from other aggregators (JSTOR, ProQuest, etc.) and using all perspectives to develop a holistic view of the future of ebook acquisition, which would be for our mutual benefit in the library market.

    Posted by Abel Ronner | Mar 4, 2016, 1:42 pm

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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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