Monday, July 27, 2015

eBook Economics: Accounting for Loss

We purchased our first eBooks in 2002. We bought a collection of 3,407 academic eBooks from company called NetLibrary for which we paid only $2,400 - an average of 70¢ per book! That same year we purchased twenty-two individual reference titles directly from a publisher for $50 each.  The next year we purchased another large collection of academic eBooks for $2,700 at an average of $1.18 per title. We have continued to purchase eBooks primarily in bulk when affordable packages of relevant topics became available to us. (But the costs have not remained this low over the years.)

Besides purchasing, we have subscribed to eBook services providing our students access to a growing (and changing) collection. For instance, in 2004 we began a subscription to eBrary which, at that time, included 20,000 eBooks on a wide array of academic subjects. Now that subscription alone includes about 127,230 titles. Add the 7,500 eBooks purchased from other sources and they outnumber the print books on the shelves. In 2010 when I last wrote about the economics of eBooks, we had “nearly as many” eBook titles as print books on the shelves. A lot has changed in eBook economics since then.

While the acquisition of eBooks has become commonplace for libraries, there continue to be questions about how to value and account for them as institutional assets. A real life example of how eBooks are different from print inventories has recently come up for us.

This word cloud was created with Wordle (
About mid-April our Systems and Technical Services Librarian, Jennifer Rich, discovered that she could not open one of our eBooks. After some troubleshooting, she contacted the vendor who manages that collection for us. While technical support worked on the issue, Jennifer discovered several other books that, even though our catalog indicates that we own them, were inaccessible to us. Upon further investigation, it seemed that all of the books she was having trouble with were part of one of the earliest packages that we purchased. Then the technical support informed her that the reason we don’t have access is that the company has no evidence of our purchasing that eBook collection. Suddenly, 2,297 eBooks were lost!

Three factors conspire against our ability to show proof of our purchase. First of all, the company we bought it from in 2003 sold its virtual assets to another vendor a few years ago. Many of our collections were acquired buy this very reputable library service vendor with whom we already had a long standing relationship. They have since enhanced their eBook interface and expanded their eBook department. All good! But perhaps our file was lost in the transition. Secondly, the HIU business office has changed accounting systems since we made the purchase. And third, since it was so long ago, we no longer have a paper trail to follow. The best we could do was to send the vendor a screenshot of an archived electronic record indicating that we had made a payment to the original company. (This issue remains unresolved as of this date.)

I could almost hear our university controller saying, “I was afraid of this!” I have learned from many deep conversations with him that these kinds of things are sticky issues for auditors. How do we count these virtual items as institutional assets? Because of the way we purchased them in bulk, are they worth the same as the purchase price or, do they, like print books, decrease in value over time? Yes, we can report the bargain purchase price of these eBooks, but print books are not valued by their purchase price but by an estimated market value. We figured that insurance against loss could not be figured the same way for digital items not held on our locally owned servers. But what is the estimated market value of an 12-year-old eBook?  

Because eBook subscriptions are subject to change and we cannot rely on specific titles being available next month we prefer ownership “forever.” Of course, we know that even with reliable financial files virtual forever is not the same as it is in the physical realm. Yet, consider this. We don’t keep all print books forever anyway. We routinely weed out obsolete materials to keep the collection fresh and relevant to our curriculum. Truth be known, if the 12-year-old eBooks currently under investigation were print books in the stacks, some of them would have been removed by now – particularly those on topics such as ten-year-old strategies for e-commerce. But the idea of weeding electronic books had not even entered my mind until now.

Economically speaking, we have nearly grown accustomed to the idea that eBooks are different from print books in terms of how they are purchased and assessed. Now that we were faced with a sudden loss of 2,297 eBooks, how does my next conversation with our controller begin? It's National Ice Cream Month. Maybe I will start with a scoop of his favorite flavor and go from there.


There are several ways to search for eBooks in the Darling Library Collection. Here are some frequently asked questions (and answers) as well as video tutorials to help you (HIU login is required for access):


Robin Hartman is Director of Library Services at Hope International University. She is curious about how the organization and communication of information shapes society and is committed to equipping students to impact the world for Christ.

No comments: