Economic Aspects of Mounting a Full-Text Database vs. Selling Subscriptions

Susan Knapp

American Psychological Association

Paper presented to the ICSU Press Workshop, Keble College, Oxford, UK, 31 March to 2 April 1998


In the late fall of 1996, the strategic question facing the American Psychological Association (APA) Journals Program was how to develop the 35 APA primary journals for an electronic product in 1998.

[Journal List - see]

Most of the publishers developing electronic versions of print journals seemed to favor a subscription model, in which subscribers would pay for annual access to a year, perhaps two of a single journal title. This model makes sense -- if you are a publisher trying to protect the print journal revenue stream.

The reader/user, however, is interested in content -- wherever it may appear -- and that content may appear in a variety of source journals.

For APA, a database made sense and was do-able for us because we publish only in one field and because we had a critical mass of journals in one field.

Sometimes, when publishers talk about electronic journals and revenue, it seems that they are only concerned about the library community. For certain journals (e.g., Brain Research) and for certain kinds of products (e.g., secondary sources), that may be reasonable.

As a membership organization, however, individuals are just as important to us as the library community. This is true not only philosophically, but also financially -- 32% of our subscription revenue comes from individual subscriptions.

APA Members and Affiliates - 1998

Members, Fellows, and Associates


Student Affiliates


International Affiliates


High School Teacher Affiliates




155,000 individuals will be heard, and we would ignore what they want in the electronic environment at our peril.

So, when we talk about libraries, we remember that libraries serve their patrons and in an electronic world, the patrons do not have to come through the doors in order to access one printed journal issue. They potentially have access to everything at the same time anyplace in the networked world served by the library. In the print world, selling a journal to a library never much affected print sales to individuals; in the electronic world, it could affect individual subscription renewals significantly.

APA already knew from providing Psychological Abstracts in print, online, tape leases, and CD-ROMs that electronic products largely replace print versions for the library community. What we didn't know was whether the same might hold true for individuals for a database of journal articles.

In 1998, therefore, APA chose to debut its full-text journal article access services ONLY with its members and only with members who already subscribed to at least one print journal. We wanted to both test out the full-text service and to see how access to electronic versions might affect print sales. We would use our membership in a beta test of the web site and for research on individual subscription behavior.

Without much fanfare, we included electronic services on the APA Member Journal Order Form in the fall of 1997.

Member Journal Order Form


(Note: If you have ordered at least one APA publication, you may purchase
1998 electronic access to one of the below databases; Journal Credit
not applicable to Electronic Product orders)




Current PsycINFO $ 39.00  
PsycINFO Complete (111 years) $ 49.00  
APA Full-Text Journ $ 49.00  
APA Full-Text Journals, + PsycINFO Complete $ 89.00  

The results to date have been interesting.


Electronic vs Print Subscriptions
Eligible Pool of Subscribers (December 1997)
28,185 Paid Members subscribing to one or more journals
Electronic Product Subscribers (March 1998)
28,185 Paid Members subscribing to one or more journals
3256	11.5% of eligible subscribers
Current PsycINFO            207
Full Text Only	            756
Full Text + PsycINFO 111   1687
PsycINFO 111 years	    606
Value $227,364

For one thing, our low-key approach to announcing the availability of full-text services was successful -- only 11.5% of the eligible pool has subscribed. Probably the only time you will hear a publisher be grateful for being unsuccessful. We did not know how much traffic we would be able to handle -- this was a fine number with which to start off our beta testing of the site.

When we looked at those 3200 subscribers, we found an interesting pattern in paper journal subscriptions.

APA Electronic Subscriber Renewals


1997 Subscribed to 14,094 paper journals (Value $412,989)

1998 Subscribed to 13,380 paper journals (Value $390.575)

Added 3256 electronic subscriptions (Value $227,364)


1377 Subscribers (42.3%) -- no change in paper journal subscriptions - price increase (value $ + 19,476)

1370 Subscribers dropped a total of 2069 journals (value $ - 100,845)

1029 Subscribers added 1355 journals (value $ + 58,955)

3256 Subscribers to electronic products (value $ + 227,364)

Total Added Value: $ + 204,950

* * *

Even with journal price increases, there was approximately a 10% loss on revenue for journals in the print format.

With the electronic access added in, total revenue increased by 50% over paper.

Overall, the value of the paper subscriptions dropped by 10%.

However, 42.3% did not change their paper subscriptions at all and just added electronic access on top of their paper subscriptions.

The other 58% both added and dropped paper journals.

With a net result of an increase in revenue of 50% over the previous year for this population.

Good news. Will this hold true next year?

Not likely.

For one thing, we are going to raise the price of the electronic products. We will still probably increase the number of people buying electronic access, but that will probably mean more paper journals dropped.

The good news is that it does appear likely that we will be able to maintain our bottom line revenue stream, that there will not be a wild subscription/access revenue fluctuation from year to year. It will take a while for the 11.5% to increase dramatically. Now, "a while" in the technological world may mean only 3 or 4 years, but that's enough for us to make the kind of adjustments we will need to make.

The other good news is that when we look at the regular usage of other, related electronic resources by our individual student members, their usage is about 250% greater than that of our regular members for these services. The next generation is coming along and, not surprisingly, they want and use electronic products.

Unfortunately, out next task is to figure out exactly how we can market the database to the library community. Tough decisions will need to be made in that arena. We'll let you know how that turns out at the next ICSU meeting in 1999.

Last updated : 06 July 1998
Copyright 1998 ICSU Press and individual authors. All rights reserved