The abolition of the role of the "parasitical" middleman has often been promoted as one of the greatest benefits of the World Wide Web. The promise of closer ties between producers and consumers was considered to facilitate a vertically integrated marketplace. Where intermediaries provide little value, that is certainly true: The removal of those players in electronic commerce could provide impressive savings in both time and money.

The aim of this article, however, is to provide a snapshot of where the subscription agent fits into the electronic-publishing process, and how the subscription agent actively contributes to this industry. I work for a subscription agent, ISA Australia, and a majority of our clients are libraries, so I will focus on librarians, but you could read that to encompass information providers, technicians or whoever else might use the services of a subscription agent.

The Subscription Agent

Subscription agents primarily act as intermediaries between the purchasers and publishers of journals. Their work encompasses everything from currency exchange to invoicing. Most agents maintain databases of titles, title changes, ISSNs, prices, issues per annum — everything a purchaser might need to know to buy a subscription. That information is often made available on the World Wide Web, allowing prospective purchasers to search across journal details (e.g., keyword, title) to find information about even the most obscure titles. If a user recommends a title for the library's journal collection, the librarian can use such Web-based databases to get the necessary subscription information. These databases usually allow the librarian to send an electronic order if desired. (An example is ISA Australia's online database at [formerly]).

In a nutshell, what subscription agents offer to librarians and publishers in some ways resembles what the travel agents offer to tourists and tour operators. Instead of booking a trip, arranging accommodation and organizing tours into the furthest reaches of the world, a subscription agent will pay subscriptions, chase up missing issues and arrange refunds — regardless of currency or geographical location. Again, similar to the travel agents, it is a combination of trade discount (publisher) and service fees from clients that accounts for payment to the subscription agent. According to the Association of Subscription Agents, subscription agents:

  • Maintain up-to-date journal and price information, backed up by a comprehensive collection of reference material for tracing out-of-the-way titles. Provide a single source of information on serials consistent with the needs of customers.
  • Keep information on the availability and prices of electronic journals and provide advice on their licensing and access as required.
  • handle back issues (i.e. find and order previous issues of a journal title), microforms, electronic and other new media.
  • Provide clear, detailed invoices observing the customer's special requirements.
  • Process and order efficiently new subscriptions from the many thousands of possible suppliers.
  • Renew subscriptions in good time thereby avoiding breaks in the supply of serials.
  • Handle subscriptions on both an annual and an 'until forbidden' basis.
  • Respond effectively to claims for missing issues and other queries. Provide advance information about delays in publication, title changes, etc.
  • Aid customers as much as possible with their budgeting and finance management.
  • Provide management reports and/or advice in order to help the librarian to manage the collection.
  • Help automate the renewal procedure so as to reduce administration for both agent and publisher wherever practicable and economic to do so.
  • Pay the publisher in the appropriate currency and at the appropriate rate as declared in publishers' price lists or such other agreement as shall exist between Members and publishers.
  • Provide publishers with appropriate information on customers so as to enable the publisher both to deliver postal copies and make electronic journals available to the customer.

One of the first subscription agents was W.H. Everett and Sons, which was founded in the U.K. in 1793 and is still a significant player in the serials industry. Despite that company's longevity, the subscription-agent business is not an easy one. Many agents have closed their doors, merged or been taken over, especially in the last decade. The advent of electronic publishing is likely to do even more to shake up this industry.

Just as libraries and publishers are trying to cope with a dual publishing environment, so are subscription agents trying to accommodate both the print and electronic formats. The goal in this publishing environment is to provide products and services that integrate the electronic and printed information.

Without a Subscription Agent

To fully understand a subscription agent's services for electronic publications, it is helpful to have a brief look at the basics of what is involved when a librarian subscribes to an electronic journal.

Once a librarian becomes aware of full-text electronic availability, he or she must locate it on the World Wide Web then find, read, and understand the licensing arrangements as defined by the publisher. If the title is free (like The Journal of Electronic Publishing), access is a simple matter of recording the URL. If access requires payment, things get a little more complicated. Payment often depends on whether the library has a print subscription, the number of concurrent users, or the number of sites to be serviced by the library. Once those have been defined, payment (including currency exchange, if required) must be arranged.

To allow access to the publication, publishers usually require validation through either IP (Internet Protocol) address ranges, or user names and passwords. While IP addresses are relatively simple to accommodate, user names and passwords are more complex. Some librarians have the technical facilities to write scripts to overcome user name/password restrictions, but most need to make those details available to all the library's potential users. It is also often the librarian's task to ensure that the required plug-ins (e.g., Adobe's Acrobat Reader and Catchword's RealPage [formerly]) are made available at the appropriate computers.

Once access has been arranged, the librarian starts the arduous task of cataloguing the electronic titles and taking reasonable steps to keep users informed of the licensing requirements associated with copying, storing and printing the electronic articles.

The librarian must be prepared to keep up with title changes and publications that go out of business, as well as with changes in URLs — not to mention being prepared for a loss of service if either the library's or the publisher's Web server goes down. (Given these problems, librarians are understandably nettled when upper-management continually reminds them that electronic access will cut costs and make information access easier.)

With a Subscription Agent

Subscription agents can help make a librarian's dream of ease come true. Due to our technological infrastructure and skilled serials staff, not to mention the services and products we have developed to accommodate the requirements of full-text electronic journals, subscription agents are in a prime position to handle or assist in the vexing problems of electronic subscriptions.

A majority of subscription agencies' database information already reflects the changes brought about by electronic publication. In addition to traditional print journal data, our databases contain publisher and journal URLs as well as locations for licensing agreements and Web-access registration forms.

While services such as NewJour and the World Wide Web Virtual Library provide a valuable reference tool for electronic journals, many of the included titles provide only the Table of Contents or a description of the publication, as opposed to the full-text version. It is also commonplace for Web sites to move, and thus require new URLs. The agent's directory of full-text journals is usually validated and updated regularly, thus providing an accurate picture of online availability and up-to-date links.

"Subscription agents provide one-stop shopping for journals from around the world"

Good subscription agents provide details and infrastructure to facilitate access to electronic journals. Agents reduce the librarians' arduous task of deciphering numerous and varied licensing arrangements and overcoming access restrictions by explaining and negotiating agreements that are customized to the library. For example, an academic library that serves a few thousand users over several networked sites will require a licensing agreement substantially different from that of a medical library with less than a hundred users. As subscription agents, we are in a position to propose arrangements that meet the requirements of the library while still being sensitive to the concerns of the publisher.

Our experience with licensing also allows our service staff to assist clients in understanding the implications of licensing arrangements. Some licensing conditions are at best described as "non-workable" and continued support from the subscription agent may be exactly what the librarian needs to persuade the electronic publisher to rethink their terms. This ultimately results in a greater understanding of the issues concerning electronic journals and subsequently reduces misuse of the medium.

Subscription agents also use technology to aid librarians in their quest to furnish library patrons with timely and accurate information, even for print journals. Like many other agents, ISA Australia physically prepares print journals for library shelves. When journals are sent to our office for processing, we stamp them (with the date and/or library logo), insert security strips, reinforce the spines, attach routing slips and classification-number labels, and do whatever else is required to make journals ready for the libraries' shelves. As an add-on to that service, we now scan the table of contents of each journal and convert it to HTML (using OCR software). The table of contents pages are then indexed, batched for each library, and sent electronically to our clients' Intranets, to be accessed through a link from the library's home page. The pages we prepare include the library's logo as well as a link to return the user to the library's home page. To integrate that into the library's print collection, we also link the electronic table of contents to the library's article-request form. We call our service ISAscan [formerly].

Subscription agents have also invested quite heavily in technology and labor to develop gateway products—one of the most significant tools for full-text electronic document delivery. These are usually Web-based and offer users simplified access to full-text electronic journals. Most gateways will allow the user to search across either Table of Contents or full-text databases regardless of the format (i.e. PDF, HTML, RealPage, ASCII). Subscription agents are true middlemen in this process, collating the electronic journal under a single search engine, and tracking and monitoring the access allowed to the patrons of each client library.

Some electronic full-text gateways integrate the electronic journals with a library's print journals and alert the user when the title is also available in the library's serials collection in the print format.

The gateway providers maintain the database and usually host the electronic edition on their own servers.

While maybe only scratching the surface of the problem, this overcomes some of the issues involved with access as opposed to ownership, as the library continues to have access to the electronic articles, even if the publisher has gone out of business.

As things currently exist, cancelling a subscription to an electronic journal often means that the subscriber no longer has access to the articles he or she has paid for! Similarly, a new subscriber also has access to previous articles too. This somewhat simplistic approach to the contention of access vs ownership may be overcome in future with subscription agents playing a greater role in the archiving and regulation of access to previous issues of a journal title.

Such services are embellished with facilities that allow users to save searches and create user profiles whereby they are alerted by e-mail when a new document that matches their search criteria becomes available. Readers who are interested in full-text electronic journal gateways might like a free trial [formerly] of Information Quest [formerly]. Information Quest is operated and maintained by the United Kingdom's Dawson Information Services Group, one of the world's largest subscription agents.


As electronic publishing continues to develop, one would hope that the changes would take the requirements of librarians and library users into account. Even if these changes were to succeed in the simplification of the issues associated with electronic access, I still very much doubt that the role of the subscription agent will ever become obsolete.

Subscription agents provide value-added, one-stop shopping for obtaining journals from around the world. Their ability to alleviate the administrative workload of libraries has made them a reliable ally in traditional serials acquisition and an enterprising force in the broader serials environment.

In most cases, these skills are directly applicable to the electronic environment. While electronic publishing offers a great deal of potential in terms of ease of access and content, little (if any) of the actual administrative burden is removed. For that reason, subscription agents will continue to play an active and progressive role in the procurement of journals.

Andrew Knibbe may be reached by e-mail at


Readers looking for further information regarding the role of intermediaries in electronic publishing may wish to read Kenneth Arnold's "The Electronic Librarian Is a Verb / The Electronic Library Is Not a Sentence", Paul Harwood's "Still Claiming After all These Years — the Future Role of the Subscription Agent," [Editor's note: link removed August 2001 because article is no longer available], and Dr. Mohanbir Sawhney's "Meet the Metamediary" [formerly].

Andrew Knibbe is the Marketing and Projects officer for ISA Australia - an Australian subscription agent. In 1997, Andrew completed a Bachelor of Business Degree majoring in marketing. His role at ISA Australia includes the development and co-ordination of electronic journal services. You can contact him by email at

Links From This Article

Adobe's Acrobat Reader

Association of Subscription Agents

Catchword's RealPage [formerly

Information Quest [formerly]. Free trial page for Information Quest [formerly].

ISA Australia's online database [formerly], and ISAscan [formerly]