Five Things That University Presses Should Know About Working With Libraries
By Leila W. Salisbury
Last fall, I was a university-press representative on a panel at the Charleston Conference, an annual gathering of academic librarians, vendors, and a handful of publishers. At dinner I sat next to a library dean from a midsized state university. She had previously worked in collection development at the University of California, overseeing a $10-million annual budget. She commented that she had never had dinner with a publisher before. Vendors, yes, but publishers, no. That seemed odd—and dangerous—particularly in the interconnected academic world.
Why aren’t we university presses talking with libraries?
Libraries should matter to us. They are our campus partners, and they are most likely to support our mission as curators and disseminators of scholarship. If we can’t take the time to find out what libraries need and how to deliver and sell content to them effectively, how can we hope to continue to convince administrators that we are good stewards of the resources given to us?
To be sure, several presses are already working with their libraries on digital publishing projects like archiving electronic copies of backlisted books, but that is just a beginning. In 2010 the Association of American University Presses re-established its Library Relations Committee, an important step toward increasing communication. But a committee can’t entirely replace direct dialogue. So, in a spirit of investigation, this spring I began interviewing academic librarians and library vendors about topics they thought presses and libraries should be talking about now.
There are no easy answers, but five issues in our dealings with libraries have significant import for the health of university presses:
Collection development is different than it was five years ago. Or even six months ago. As all too many reports have indicated, library buying patterns have changed significantly and will continue to do so. Library acquisitions have been deeply affected by budget cuts, spiraling costs of journals, and the increased availability of monographs in electronic form. In addition to traditional monograph-approval plans, in which libraries automatically receive either books or descriptive bibliographic “slips” (forms describing books and their contents) that meet their institutional profiles, they can now mix and match cloth or paper, print and electronic editions. They may choose plans that allow them to request e-books, but if the electronic edition is not simultaneously available with the print edition at publication date, they may have the vendor send the print edition, or skip that book altogether and move on to the next book available electronically.
In other words, as Julia Blixrud, assistant executive director of scholarly communication at the Association of Research Libraries, told me, libraries are in the process of defining purchasing models that suit their individual needs. For university presses, this may mean further reductions in print sales as more libraries migrate to electronic monographs. Now is the moment to explore print and electronic bundling and to push for early availability of electronic content.
PDA will not go away. One of the significant developments in library acquisitions that affect university presses is the rise of patron-driven-access programs. Attendees at last year’s conference were shocked to learn of such programs, and the angst-ridden buzz was that PDA would further threaten the survival of already-struggling presses.
In PDA programs, vendors make anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands of book records (consisting of bibliographic information, table of contents, and descriptive text) available to patrons through a library’s catalog. Users can then preview the electronic contents of a book in much the same way they would go to the stacks and flip through a monograph to see if it contains information they need. A patron attempting to download, print, or copy any of the book would trigger an automatic library purchase, but in many cases, up to 10 pages may be viewed before a purchase is triggered. That feature alarms many publishers, who fear wide browsing of material and few resulting purchases.
Nevertheless, despite the apparent peril of patron-driven access, there is also promise: Through such programs, scholars and students can preview a wider selection of books through their library systems than they could when they had access only to the books on the shelves. Libraries often write much broader profiles of their patrons and their preferences for their PDA programs than for their book-approval plans. And in a traditional approval plan, the purchasing slip for a book requires human action and can get stuck on the desk of an overworked acquisitions librarian or faculty member who is sent the slip for review.
Michael C. Levine-Clark, collections librarian at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library, is an advocate of patron-driven access because he believes it allows libraries to build significantly better collections. “PDA done right solves the problem we’ve always had,” he told me. According to recent user studies, he noted, up to 40 percent of libraries’ monograph collections never circulate, and only 20 percent of books are used four or more times. “That’s 80 percent of books in a collection being used three or fewer times,” he said. At the same time, he went on, his library buys only a tiny portion of what his users need. Last year it processed nearly 16,000 requests to borrow books from other libraries, a substantial burden; he sees patron-driven access as a potential solution to many problems.
And so do other librarians. The Charleston Conference had no fewer than nine panels with “PDA” in the title. Judith Russell, dean of university libraries at the University of Florida, was “surprised and delighted by the results” of her institution’s PDA experiment. “Patrons were good about choosing things for themselves that would also be of interest to other patrons,” she said.
Patron-driven access is still a work in progress, and many of the libraries that participated in trial programs reported at the conference that they had spent a year’s worth of allocated funds within two to three months. PDA very likely won’t entirely replace approval plans, but as administrators both within and outside libraries look more closely at what is purchased, usage statistics will not be ignored. PDA, or some variation of it, is here to stay.
The current “big deal” may not be. Content packages, or what are often called “the big deal,” have long been another staple of library purchases. Large quantities of scholarly information are packaged together at a great discount, at least as compared with the sum of the individual prices of each book or journal within the package. But now that users have the option to search vast amounts of content, libraries are thinking about selectivity. Vendors have heard the message, and they are developing new profiling technologies to allow end users to get better access to just the content they want. Levine-Clark, of Denver, predicts that “PDA can educate libraries on patterns of purchase that will make them smarter about package and approval deals.” Future packages will probably be shaped by actual use rather than simply existing as large amounts of content offered at a discount.
At the very moment in which libraries are re-evaluating the desirability of packages, however, at least three major aggregations of electronic university-press content are in development or expanding (a partnership of Project MUSE and the University Press e-Book Consortium; Oxford Scholarship Online; and Books at J-STOR). The key to the success of such programs may be the extent to which they can be customized. Libraries may want to pay for only what they actually use, and they will want format flexibility, with content viewable on a wide range of devices.
In this age of the electronic, many libraries also want to bundle their print and electronic purchasing. Michael Zeoli, director of global consortia sales at YBP Library Services, a collection-development company, worries that keeping the sale of print and e-books separate will further erode sales. Zeoli told me that through approval plans, print sales of university-press titles are still robust. If libraries don’t yet have a good system for avoiding the duplicate purchases of electronic material (through different aggregations), then they may choose to block university-press titles altogether from auto-ship approval plans and will buy print titles only when they are specifically requested. At his library, Levine-Clark wants the option to get both print and electronic editions of certain titles, because he needs the flexibility of acquiring the right format for the right library patron. Libraries have different needs, and the new “big deals” will need to be highly flexible in order to lure buyers.
Libraries are not all the same. In formulating strategies for effectively selling to libraries, it pays to remember that different types of libraries may have vastly different institutional profiles and acquisitions goals. A library serving an undergraduate liberal-arts institution may place many purchasing decisions directly in faculty hands, while a library at a research university is more likely to rely on approval plans, databases, and content-aggregation deals. Getting books into the physical or virtual stacks at those two types of libraries requires very different marketing strategies. The first calls for an emphasis on direct marketing to faculty (through traditional print pieces as well as e-mail, e-mail-list announcements, blogs, etc.), while the second calls for brand marketing and working closely with vendors to make sure a press’s content is in the right vendor programs and aggregations. Short-term loans, in which a library pays a percentage of the price to get access to a title for a set period of time, may also be poised to grow in popularity. Such programs can sometimes be more cost effective than traditional interlibrary loans, and they are a way to bridge gaps in a collection and meet immediate user needs.
Libraries may not be the same, but they are natural collaborators, and they are increasingly forming consortia. These consortia, which may comprise public and private institutions (as is the case with the University of Florida libraries and their partners), allow acquisitions budgets to stretch further. As electronic content eliminates the challenges of transporting physical materials, university presses will need to formulate sales models that account for the fact that one purchase or license, rather than the sale of several books, may now serve multiple institutions. Accordingly, sales models and marketing must be as diverse and as fluid as the needs of our content users are. That is a challenging prospect, certainly, but our customers can’t afford to care about our fears or limitations. Which brings me to my final point.
It’s OK to be a business. We have, in large measure, taken our markets and our constituencies for granted. Anna Bullard, director of publisher acquisitions and relations at ebrary, an e-book provider, who worked for more than a decade for university presses, said that libraries were still buying books and e-books, but that commercial academic publishers were getting a bigger piece of the pie. They were early and rapid adopters of e-book technology and content and have invested and innovated in that area. They make sure their e-books are available at the same time as print (or even before), work closely with vendors, and market heavily to libraries and end users. “Libraries need to show administrators value for money and usage statistics, and university presses will have to reckon with that,” Bullard said in an interview.
Increasingly, university presses themselves are being asked by those same administrators to show the value of the investment that campuses make in their presses. Why are we so uncomfortable thinking of ourselves as businesses? We plunge headfirst into the commercial world of regional publishing, and some of us engage in trade publishing, but somehow we are reluctant to look at scholarly content for library customers in a commercial context, and we are still figuring out how to charge enough to adequately support our publishing operations. We may be advancing research on a particular topic or changing the nature of the discourse in a field—that is the reason most of us are drawn to our work—but at the end of the day, we sell goods and collect revenue for those sales. Both content and customer must rule.
University presses will always excel at developing, shaping, and editing scholarly content. But to be viable and to do the work we were brought into existence to do, we have to accept that we are businesses and act accordingly. If we remain unaware of the needs of our end users, or of the nuances of the channels through which our scholarly content travels, how can we hope to develop the systems and policies that will allow us to thrive?
Embracing a business model that allows us to compete with commercial publishers doesn’t have to mean sacrificing our principles. Develop and publish the superior content that libraries and scholars must have. Figure out the access they need, and develop a business model to pay for that work. The landscape has changed, and it will continue to change. Let libraries be our ready-made resource for monitoring and understanding that change, and let us embrace them as allies as we continue to reinvent the business of scholarship.
Leila W. Salisbury is director of the University Press of Mississippi.