Doing it yourself: managing without a subscription agent

Stockholm University Library share the experience of managing journal subscriptions without using a subscription agent - cost savings and improved speed of access, but significant staff time needed.

Since October 2015, Stockholm University Library has managed its journal subscriptions without using a subscription agent. Instead they renew directly with each publisher.

Speaking at the UKSG conference earlier this month, Stockholm’s Elin Palm and Lisa Lovén shared the experience of 'doing it themselves'.

Stockholm's library serves the needs of 70,000 students, 1,700 doctoral students, and 5,000 staff. The media acquisition budget is approximately €4.8m, with 94% going to eresources and 6% to print. Individual journal subscriptions account for 4% of the total budget. The library runs a policy of patron driven acquisition, with the speedy provision of resources being vital -- and no longer has subject librarians.

So why make the move to DIY subscriptions management? Palm and Lovén explained that there was a confluence of factors at work. The agreement with the library’s former agent had expired, and there was no national framework in place. The procurement process was time consuming, and there was in-house experience of dealing with publishers.  

But with existing agreements expiring, they needed to move quickly. Stockholm’s journal portfolio was flexible, with around 300 journals in addition to 140 institutional subscriptions. They started by creating an Excel spreadsheet of current subscriptions which was split between two members of staff – and then introduced another member of staff to the team given the number of publishers that needed to be contacted.

To keep track of the email-heavy process and lessen the dependence on individuals’ email in-boxes, they decided to use the university’s existing case management system. Overall, 371 case files were set up, each containing all the relevant information for each case, including details of invoicing.

Invoice processing proved to be one of the most challenging areas to deal with, as the new system moved away from a small number of summary e- invoices, to many individual ones in pdf format. This had a knock on effect on staff in the finance department as well as on library staff. Complications included the processing of payments via a range of methods, ranging from credit card payments to wire transfers, dealing with proof of payment and proforma invoices, and managing a process which in some cases needed several reminders to resolve.

In terms of costs, Palm and Lovén analysed 282 subscriptions and compared costs both with, and without, an agent. They estimate that the ‘DIY’ approach generated a €30,000 cost saving compared to what they would have paid to an agent for 2016. However, this needs to be set against the cost of money spent on more working hours for staff involved in the process.

They also looked in detail at speed of access, and found that the time from order to access was more than cut in half, with the fastest time reducing from 10 days to zero days as immediate access was granted. This proved to be very important for the Library Director, in line with the university’s explicit strategy of providing quick access to resources.  

Going forward, Palm and Lovén anticipate that in year two, the process will not be as time-consuming as routines will be established, publishers will already be in the finance system, and payment methods will be understood.

Their advice if you are considering the DIY approach? Make sure that you have your Library Director and Legal Counsel on board; talk to the finance unit early; be prepared to make credit card payments to some publishers; have a case management system in place; and make sure you have the time and the staff that are needed.