Working Directly with Publishers: Lessons Learned

Building relationships and collaborating are often the best approach

June 12, 2013


Not all publishers are created equal. It seems publishers are becoming the bad guys because many of the biggest companies have placed various restrictions on our use of their content. However, lumping all trade, reference, and scholarly publishers together is not fair to those who have been willing to work with librarians. Nor is it accurate to say that most publishers don’t value what we do for the nation’s book culture.

We need a dialog with publishers to find a way to do business together. At Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries (DCL), we talk directly to publishers to purchase their ebook files to place on our Adobe Content Server. We have the opportunity to hear their points of view and to gain a better understanding of the struggles they face in this new environment. Wen the Big Six made it clear to us they didn’t want to sell directly to individual libraries, some of the medium-sized and small presses were receptive to doing business with us.

The first lesson learned during our journey: Some publishers are innovative and willing to explore the idea of selling directly to libraries. They want a dialogue, and they want to understand what DCL is doing and how it would benefit them. At an initial meeting or phone call with a publisher, we explain that we want to buy their ebook files to put on our Adobe Content Server. We assign digital rights management (DRM) to each book so it can be checked out to our patrons only one at a time. We promote their books in our catalog and in our libraries, and we put a “buy now” link in our catalog. This latter feature gets their attention. Trade publishers are looking for more direct-to-consumer connections. Libraries can offer that with “buy now” links so a patron who doesn’t want to wait for a book that is already checked out can find and purchase it easily.

Our second lesson learned: Publishers are willing to give us a discount. That may come as a surprise to many in the library community, particularly with all the publicity regarding Random House raising prices. But we use the same philosophy we have used all along with print books: Because we are buying in bulk—often purchasing a publisher’s complete catalog on one purchase order—we ask them for 45% off retail price. And we often get it. Since the transaction with us is direct, with no distributor taking a cut or advertising budget needed, it makes good business sense for publishers to sell to libraries.

Our third lesson: We have something to learn from working with small- and medium-sized independent presses. For many years, collection development librarians paid little attention to independents as they made their selections. We read reviews, looked at the subject matter that our patrons wanted, and always bought as much as we could get of the big-name authors. At DCL, we’ve learned that there are many publishers whose main business is with libraries, especially children’s content presses. Not everyone is in the business of trade publication. Medium-sized reference and nonfiction publishers tend to understand public library processes and our mission. Trade houses concentrate more on the consumer market and are, therefore, less focused on selling to us. They rely instead on distributors and online book sales as well as neighborhood bookstores.

Independently owned bookstores were suffering until recently, which meant trade publishers and their distributors also took a hit. Because of the downturn in business, publishers are very careful about making any false steps in the digital environment. They don’t want a book-industry version of Napster. They want to protect their authors and their bottom line and are usually surprised to receive our two-page Statement of Common Understanding (SCU) (PDF file) rather than a full legal contract. The SCU explains in simple terms what DCL is doing. Of the many publishers we have on board, all but two used the SCU. The two who didn’t were the first publishers to do business with us even as we were designing the DCL Model and before we had considered how to efficiently manage the “agreements.”

Each ePub or PDF file we purchase is assigned DRM, which gives publishers comfort. Publishers are looking for ways to promote their authors without losing sales. We believe we help book sales and give authors exposure in our libraries. Some publishers we talk to want more data from us so they know how well their books are circulating, and we are willing to send them high-level numbers, but nothing that reveals individual patron preferences.

Our fourth lesson: The library process of selecting, purchasing, receiving, and cataloging a book is all very foreign to publishers. What is a MARC record? Why do we care about ISBNs? How will the library know when new ebooks are available for purchase? It takes a certain amount of hand-holding to introduce publishers to the process of library book acquisition in this environment. We send many emails back and forth to complete a transaction. Examples of what we’ve experienced include receiving 455 ePub files that don’t match the 432 cover images sent; receiving a list of titles for collection development that doesn’t include subject categories or prices; and receiving a publisher’s metadata file, but no ePubs.

Squaring away the metadata has been one of the biggest hurdles. We can categorize the publishers into three groups based on how easy or difficult it is for our catalogers to get metadata that can be “crosswalked” to MARC:

  • Publishers who are accustomed to working with libraries are the easiest. They include Lerner, Marshall Cavendish, Rosen, Crabtree, and ABDO. They tend to contract with MARC processing companies to send us MARC records. Our catalogers like those publishers because we receive, up front, good metadata based on traditional cataloging standards. As a result, the time required to get the records into Horizon and then into our VuFind discovery layer is short.
  • Then there are the publishers that provide us ONIX files. One of our catalogers said, “We have learned more than once that all ONIX files are not created equal.” Cataloging staff members have built crosswalks from ONIX to MARC. They make adjustments to the crosswalk to account for different publishers’ use of ONIX and are generally able to automate this process.
  • Our least preferred category? Publishers that provide Excel spreadsheet data. I asked Nancy Kall, DCL senior cataloger, to explain the process when we receive data in this format. “While the translate function we make use of is good, it is very tedious to set up and change, and sometimes we are thrown a curve in the spreadsheet that we aren’t aware of until we look at the generated MARC records,” she said. “We are then faced with the choice of either adjusting the translator function, manually adjusting the spreadsheet metadata, or manually making adjustments to the output MARC records, which is doable if a large number of titles aren’t involved.”

Libraries of all types that want more e-content for their patrons should try to walk in our publisher partners’ shoes. Gain a better understanding of their process and goals. Coming to the table wearing an adversarial hat will not move us forward in negotiations to get more great content. Knowing what is important to the other party and communicating with them about our goals will help fulfill the mission of both libraries and publishers. We’ve had this relationship for a long time. Moving into the virtual environment doesn’t mean we can’t continue to find common ground.

At DCL, we enjoy working with publishers that are willing to try new things and to learn from the process. The future looks bright.

ROCHELLE LOGAN is associate director of support services at Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries.


Nondisclosure Clauses

By Mary Minow and Angeline Nalepa

A nondisclosure or confidentiality clause sometimes appears in digital licenses for e-content. Should you sign?

Such a clause may stop the library from sharing the price paid, as well as the terms of the license itself, including how content is accessed, used, or monitored.

Think twice before signing. State and local sunshine laws may require public institutions to disclose this information to the public on request. If that applies to you, it is essential to tell the vendor you cannot sign unless that clause is deleted.

For the rest of us, it is still a bad idea. Nondisclosure clauses hinder the ability of librarians to openly discuss prices and terms and may help keep unfair business practices in place.

The Association of Research Libraries passed a resolution in 2009 to discourage member libraries from signing such agreements, either individually or through consortia. Cornell University Library has taken a strong position that it will not enter into vendor contracts that require nondisclosure of pricing or other information that does not constitute a trade secret.

The International Coalition of Library Consortia issued a statement against nondisclosure clauses back in 2004.

Do not confuse the term “confidentiality” with patron privacy. The term may refer to either, so read the fine print.

Libraries should ensure the license has a clause protecting users’ personal information to an extent equal to or greater than that imposed by state privacy law or library policy. [Examples are offered in Tomas Lipinski’s The Librarian’s Legal Companion for Licensing Information Resources and Services (ALA, 2013).]

Libraries need transparency to be able to promote fair pricing, fair access, and development of digital collections that are valuable to their users and mindful of budgets.

Let’s not forget Pete Seeger’s old chestnut, “Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don’t.”

MARY MINOW is the Follett Chair at Dominican University and a member of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group. ANGELINE NALEPA is a librarian at South Suburban College in South Holland, Illinois.



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