July 23, 2014

With Axis 360, Baker & Taylor Establishes a Foothold in the Ebook Distribution Market

(Library Journal will be presenting a series of articles that takes an indepth look at some of the ebook platforms that are now in the marketplace. The first in the series is Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360.)


Baker & Taylor (B&T) is one of the oldest print book distributors, but it only recently entered the ebook market with its own fully fledged digital media platform, Axis 360. Since its launch in June 2011, the platform has gained some traction, with 107 libraries having signed contracts as of March 5 (38 sites are live).

Axis 360 clients range from small libraries, such as the single-branch Santa Fe Springs City Library, CA, to large systems, like the 46-branch King County Library System (KCLS) in Issaquah, WA (Library Journal’s 2011 Library of the Year). And it has also managed to cut across sectors, attracting a number of K-12 schools, including the 75 sites of the Hillsborough County Public Schools system in Tampa, FL, which signed on at the end of February.

OverDrive dominates ebook distribution for public libraries, but B&T, based in Charlotte, NC, saw an opportunity in this market because the company felt a cogent argument could be made for libraries to use a highly regarded print book distributor, with deep ties to the library market, for its digital content as well.

And the argument may be resonating in a field that is thirsty for alternatives.

“We’ve talked briefly with Baker & Taylor about their new product and are eager to learn more. We certainly will be looking at it at PLA,” said Anne Silvers Lee, chief of the materials management division at the Free Library of Philadelphia, referring to the Public Library Association conference being held in Philadelphia next week. The Free Library already offers OverDrive, Ebooks on EBSCOhost, and last week went live with Freading. “We are actively investigating other ebook options, including different pricing models,” she said.

The Axis 360 value proposition hinges on four overarching selling points:

  • the integration of its collection development services so that physical and digital formats can be selected in a single workflow;
  • the ability to build standalone digital collections without consortial involvement;
  • the Blio ereader app;
  • and new communication protocols with integrated library system (ILS) providers.

The coupling of these four points, along with B&T’s history in the library market, represents a “sweet spot,” according to Michael Bills, the company’s director of sales, digital products, and he said the company is aiming high.

“At this stage, as we are building our content and adding file formats, we may be viewed as complementary, but ultimately we will be a full-range digital provider and we expect to capture more and more of the digital market,” he said.

An integrated workflow
Bills said the bundling of physical and digital orders and their delivery via B&T’s well-established Title Source 3 tool is perhaps the most important selling point.

“Library’s collection development needs are best served when all material types and all formats can be discovered and acquired in one place, all at one time,” Bills said.

Kurt Brenneman, a senior market analyst for Cambridge, MA-based Outsell Inc., who follows the library market, said this was a smart approach given the competitive landscape.

“I think that’s a very powerful feature, rather than having to deal with separate platforms for ebooks,” Brenneman said. “It’s really important and gives [B&T] a little bit of an advantage over some of the other platforms out there.”

The screen shot below shows what a librarian would see in Title Source 3 for Paolini’s Inheritance.  The librarian can choose the proper quantities for both the new hardcover and the ebook, and order both formats in one step.

KCLS launched Axis 360 at the end of January. So far, the library has acquired about 2000 titles for Axis 360. Alene Moroni, the library’s selection and order manager, found the integrated acquisition workflow appealing.

“This feature has a lot of potential for KCLS’s future selecting and purchasing of downloadable content and physical material,” she said.

Joyce Ryan, a librarian at Santa Fe Springs, said the integrated ordering process helped sell her.

“It makes things a lot easier and saves me a lot of time,” she said.

Content offerings
Axis 360, which operates off B&T’s servers, offers about 230,000 titles to libraries through 198 publishers on a one-book, one-user model. About 112,000 of the titles have been converted for use on the Blio ereader app that is part of the Axis 360 service.

But even though the collection includes popular trade titles from Random House, HarperCollins, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it may need to grow and diversify more if it is going to compete successfully with OverDrive.

“We’ve looked at B&T’s Axis 360 platform and continue to monitor its progress,” said Gina Millsap, the director of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, KS. Millsap signed a contract with OverDrive at the end of last year. “The issue is the availability of popular content, like fiction best sellers, which library users are demanding and using in ever-increasing numbers. At this point, OverDrive is the sole source, so the decision was pretty straightforward,” she said.

A similar sentiment about OverDrive’s strength was in evidence at The New York Public Library.

“Many of us are looking forward to the moment when there are more robust competitors,” said Micah May, the NYPL’s director of strategy. “We recently did a very thorough review of all ebook book providers and feel like for the moment OverDrive is still by far the most robust offering,” he said to an audience at the Tools of Change conference last month in New York City (May was not speaking specifically about Axis 360).

On March 2, B&T signed a distribution agreement with Smashwords that will bring an additional 100,000 independently published ebooks, representing 37,000 indie authors and small presses, into the Axis 360 offerings. The deal will offer works across every genre, according to Bob Nelson, president of B&T’s Digital Group.

“There is a really exciting opportunity for readers to discover the best in up-and-coming and independent authors,” Nelson said.

And Bills said that B&T, given its established ties with the publishing houses on the print side, was in a unique position to advocate for greater electronic content availability for libraries.

“We have a lot of meetings with the Big Six, and the fact that we can sit down and have these talks frequently is another part of why B&T makes sense in this marketplace,” Bills said. “We’ve worked with them forever, and we are in a position that other providers don’t have the benefit of,” he said.

Sonja Plummer-Morgan, director of the Mark & Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle, ME, liked the acquisition workflow, and she said B&T was headed in the right direction on content.

“The collection is growing. Like every other vendor, the problem they are having is with the publishers,” Plummer-Morgan said. “But they are trying to access as many titles as they can.”

Opportunity with smaller libraries
B&T courted smaller libraries because the company noticed many of them were relying on consortial arrangements to afford startup costs of ebook platforms but that, once in the consortium, they sometimes felt they were not getting equal access to content.

“There were internal frictions we heard about,” said Bills. “This consortia approach to providing access poses challenges in group collection development and competition for resources across libraries,” he said.

For example, the Delaware District County Library (DCDL) in Delaware, OH, has been a member for several years of the Ohio EBook Project, a statewide consortium that offers an OverDrive platform. DCDL’s ebook demand has been skyrocketing, going up 153 percent last year (up 240 percent in December alone), and it was clear that demand was outstripping supply as DCDL had to share the consortial resources with other members, resulting in long hold lists.

So, DCDL launched Axis 360 in February, and leased access to about 600 additional titles that the library staff chose and which are available to DCDL patrons only.

“While we fully support the Ohio Ebook Project and OverDrive, we wanted to add some titles that weren’t necessarily available,” said Mary Jane Santos, the director.

“Principally, it expands the number of titles we have access to. It’s like cable TV versus Netflix,” said Plummer-Morgan, the director in Presque-Isle, Maine. “We can select our titles with Axis 360, and it gives us greater control over what our users want,” she said.

Plummer-Morgan’s library, which began offering Axis 360 in February, also belongs to the InfoNet consortium, which, like the Ohio Ebook Project, offers OverDrive’s Advantage service. This service similarly allows members of a consortium to add popular titles exclusively for their library’s patrons. But it presupposes membership in a consortium.

David Burleigh, a spokesperson for OverDrive, said the Advantage program offers libraries “the best of both worlds.”

B&T has been pricing Axis 360 to small libraries in a range that is low enough to allow them to bypass consortial arrangements and still have access to an ebook platform. For example, in Presque-Isle, Plummer-Morgan had to pay a $500 platform fee and agree to a minimum order of $1000.

In the case of the Santa Fe Springs City Library, B&T offered a lower price than OverDrive, according to Hilary Keith, the director.

“OverDrive was prohibitively expensive,” Keith said. “It wasn’t manageable.”

OverDrive required a $4000 platform fee and a commitment to purchase $4000 in content, but B&T required a $1000 startup fee, and $1500 of content, Keith said.

It was the same selling point at Putnam County Library, in Greencastle, IN, where the staff had been watching the development of Axis 360 closely, according to Alice Greenburg, the director, and found the system less cumbersome and more economical.

“OverDrive is very expensive and Axis 360 was significantly lower in cost,” Greenburg said. The platform fee was $2000 for Axis 360 versus $3000 for OverDrive.

Interface, formats, and Blio
Titles are activated on Axis 360 as soon as an order has been placed, and the books are displayed on a “Magic Wall” of 36 rotating titles, a feature most librarians contacted for this article graded highly.

“It was really easy to use compared to OverDrive. It’s very intuitive, easy to navigate, and we loved the way the platform looks,” said Jasmina Jusic, an adult services librarian at the Park City Library, UT, whose comment reflected the general sentiment.

However, the platform still requires time for staff and patron training, librarians said, and Presque Isle’s Plummer-Morgan said the interface fell short for patrons accustomed to the consumer marketplace.

“There’s work to be done with the interface,” she said.

A video (below) prepared by King County shows how the interface and the registration process work, and the New Milford Public Library in Connecticut also has posted a useful illustration of the checkout procedure. King County also posted an Axis 360 privacy statement and the end user license agreement (note both documents scroll).

Other librarians were attracted to the Blio ereader app that patrons can download as part of the service. In King County, they have focused their acquisitions on travel, instructional nonfiction (e.g., cookbooks), and picture books because Blio excels in displaying such content.

“Blio offers a significantly upgraded experience for illustration-oriented ebooks over EPUB or even PDF,” said David Wasserman, the online services coordinator, virtual library services, for King County. The content reproduces and resizes effectively on tablets and even smartphone viewing screens, he said.

“Our Axis 360 collection reflects this strength,” he said, adding that he saw Axis 360 as a complement to the library’s OverDrive service.

B&T converts the EPUB and PDF files that publishers send in to Microsoft’s .XPS format, and then proprietary tagging is added, which enables all the capabilities that Blio is capable of, Bills said. The files are wrapped in Microsoft’s PlayReady DRM. Bills said that the company plans to incorporate PDF and EPUB delivery via Adobe Content Server  (ACS) by the end of April.

The files are directly delivered via the cloud to devices that have the Blio app. At least initially, content delivered via ACS will follow the existing procedure, but Bills said the company is working to integrate cloud delivery there as well.

Blio was created as a joint venture between Kurzweil Technologies (headed by Ray Kurzweil) and the National Federation of the Blind, so it meets accessibility requirements for the sight impaired and blind. It also numbers among its features full-color content, hyperlinks, text-to-speech capabilities, exportable notes, and embedded videos.

The books will run on any Windows PC and on iOS and Android mobile devices. B&T, which is majority owned by Castle Harlan Partners IV, L.P., said Axis 360 will soon be compatible with Nook, Kobo, Sony, Mac OSX; the company is in talks with Amazon for Kindle compatibility.

The platform also provides digital audiobooks and includes a reviews module that shares patrons’ reviews and star ratings for libraries using Axis 360.

[Library Journal has a business relationship with B&T to provide reviews for Title Source.]

“Right now it doesn’t offer downloads to Kindle or Nook, and we hope that evolves soon because we know people miss that,” said Santos, the director of DCDL in Ohio.

Negotiating with ILS vendors
Finally, B&T has been negotiating with various ILS vendors, such as Innovative Interfaces and SirsiDynix, to achieve greater integration between a library’s operating system and third-party vendor platforms.

The major goals are to allow the library to extract usage statistics and create a unified report for both physical and digital circulation from the ILS and to allow catalogs to show the availability of a title. Presently, B&T provides MARC records and the catalog contains a link next to a title for the Blio book, and a patron has to click the link and be redirected to the vendor’s platform to determine availability.

At PLA next week, OverDrive is planning to report on a similar effort, which will make available new API web services to provide direct access to OverDrive’s digital media services.  These APIs will be available for integration with a library’s ILS, discovery and mobile service vendors, according to Burleigh, the OverDrive spokesperson.

Librarians will be watching and testing the waters.

“We are pleased about how B&T set up Axis 360, we’re pleased with the titles and the cost. But like any new service we want to see how it goes,” said Santos.

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Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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