Digital books or various forms of ebooks are not usually sold, they are licensed for use by libraries and their patrons. One simple reason for this is the digital books and ebooks are not physical things, they are digital objects, or sometimes digital services, so there is nothing strictly physical to which a specific sale can be attached.
Bill Rosenblatt recently blogged about the licensing or access models that have been tried in the US public library market: Libraries be careful what you wish for. The most widespread public library licensing model has deliberately aimed to mimic the arrangement with physical books. In the Pretend its print (PIP) model, a library will buy one or more ebooks and lend them serially with periods booked in and booked out. If the ebook is already being read by one patron, the interested party will have to wait for the title to come back into the circulation system. Quite recently with the encouragement of Harper Collins libraries are now experimenting with a different access mode: cost per circulation (CPC) means that each time a book is lent there will be a small fixed fee paid to the publishers account, and this gives the library additional flexibility — waiting times are not necessary and a single title can be lent concurrently as much as it is requied by the membership. The problem and the challenge for librarians is that usage may run through the budget — if many more users than anticipated start accessing a title in the collection. Nor have we yet seem how such charges can be fairly calculated.
These methods of licensing access to digital content, represent an attempt to mirror traditional processes with print books: either the cost of the single print book which will be serially ‘lent’ via a waiting list; or a focus on the lending transaction which the library systems have always used to measure the effectiveness of their own private distribution system. It is only through such relatively recent inventions as Public Lending Right (PLR) that publishers have gained insight into the extent of lending for reading. These licensing approaches are familiar to publishers and librarians because they are skeuomorphic, very analogous to well understood procedures with physical books; but for that reason they do not fully exploit the potential for digital media.
There are alternative models for licensing digital content, and in the world of universities and research institutions: site licensing has become the preferred model for distributing and licensing access to digital content. For universities the costs of such licensing arrangements can be quite high, but the system is highly predictable as a budgetary expense, because site licenses are usually sold and renewed on the basis of annual subscriptions.
Another major advantage of a site licensing system for providing access to digital content is that the administration of the license and the delivery of the content should be much simpler. There is no need to build a system for tracking and recalling loaned material, there is no need to build a ‘shadow’ charging system that counts and regulates circulation movements. Once the configuration of the subscribing institution is mapped via its IP addresses, all usage from that network is waved through. Finally, such a service does not penalise and should encourage maximum usage — neither the subscribing institution nor the individual user picks up a cost directly attributable to using the resource a lot. For all these reasons Exact Editions favours a site licensing model when it comes to delivering content to institutions.
While our list is by no means conclusive or definitive, there is one other increasingly popular form of licensing for digital content: Open Access. There should be no doubt that for many forms of content (perhaps most especially publicly funded scientific research) open access will usually be the most effective and appropriate form of licensing. There is however one clear challenge for Open Access publishing — ‘openness’ can lead to uncertainty and in some circumstances to unreliability. Quality control for Open Access books and resources is likely to become an increasingly tricky and problematic area. Not just the quality and reliability of each unique OA title (formally published works are also often of dubious quality), but the quality and reliability of individual instances of those works. If there is no guaranteed source for a published work, and no guarantee of delivered quality, there is likely to be a growing difficulty in maintaining quality.