Libraries sign a lot of contracts to get access to content. A LOT. Think of your household and multiply by it by a thousand or more. The bigger the library the more contracts they sign.
Because we do this with so many publishers, organizations, societies, etc. there are other companies set up to manage all these subscriptions, standing orders of book series, and the like. We call them "subscription agents." These agents are so important that they usually give the biggest parties at the largest library conferences. And we all know that's the true barometer of clout in a profession.
The American Chemical Society, or ACS (there they are again) recently sent out information on next year's journal subsciption costs to libraries. Now, you may have guessed from earlier posts of mine that the ACS can be a little conservative with regards to publishing. Well, they are conservative with respect to ownership of content, copyright, and open access, but with repsect to licenses and pricing they seem to be quite different.
One good example of this is our library agreement with ACS journals. We pay annual costs for both the new content (called the ACS web editions) and the archive (the Legacy Archive.) This two-tier pricing scheme has been in effect for some time. There are other societies that have access to journals set-up differently (one price for all content, or no archive is available) but most commercial publishers have a similar two-tier system in place. One example of this is JSTOR in the humanities and social sciences.
Another option publishers have is to bundle journals together into packages. Since ACS journals are in high demand, most larger academic libraries have an all titles (or All Publications) package. This is convenient because when a new title is released you don't have to start a new individual subcription.
All well and good - these systems have been in place for some time and usually eliminate unncessary paperwork in renewing subscriptions. Long story short is our state-wide agreement with the ACS ended, and we had to negotiate with them to renew our subscriptions. In our case, the price increase was manageable (maybe 5%). Some of the possible reasons for the price increase, which were explained to me from our ACS rep, are as follows:
1) Many places received an early payment discount in the past, which was not factored into the base price for next year. So the base price was raised. While this is odd, it wouldn't surprise me if ACS was in fact doing this and/or it wasn't clear on the invoice. I would recommend libraries check their previous invoices to see if this is reason for part of their increase.
2) ACS added two new titles to the web editions package, so this subsciption was raised accordingly. This seems to fair to me and in line with previous increases.
3) The ACS legacy archives costs increased for many schools, and in some cases the cost doubled. In our case this didn't happen but if a school was in a consortial arrangement this may be the reason why the bill is so much higher.
So there you have it. I don't think this is an evil plan from the ACS but rather an opportunistic way to redefine the parameters of the contract without breaking them. When you sign a contract, as long as the terms are obeyed there's little recourse.
I have seen so many confusing pricing deals from the ACS that after this renewal was settled I moved on. I didn't realize until later that some libraries are seeing very large increases, 20% or more. There's more discussion of this on friendfeed.
I predict we will see more of this pricing instability, especially as newer publishing models develop and mature. Unfortunately this is an area, as we've seen with the Nature situation earlier this year, where information it's not possible to openly share this information. So speak up, tell your stories, and make some noise when there's a big price increase. Tell faculty why journals are being cancelled. In most cases it's not because of content but other reasons. I predict this increase will cause some libraries to cancel some ACS subscriptions, because the increases will be too large for them to sustain and the increase is coming late in the year, when it's harder to absorb a larger hit.