Publishers, Vendors, and Libraries in 2014

Report from the PVLR Interest Group Meeting

January 27, 2014

“What drives acquisitions in 2014?” is the teaser for the 2014 Publisher/Vendor/Library Relations Interest Group at the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting. A panel with one representative apiece from publishing, book jobbers, and libraries painted a picture of forces at play, including relationships represented by each side of the publisher/vendor/library triangle.

Julie Swann of Northern Arizona University started the conversation by outlining the benefits of ebooks to a library with a flat materials budget. In her medium-sized academic library, the call of free MARC records, no need for physical processing or shelf space, and immediate availability make ebooks a very attractive option. She lamented the inability for NAU to run its own usage reports on ebooks, however.

Alex Holzman of Temple University Press noted that ebook sales have been about 15% of the university press’s business, while print sales have been on the decline. Given that university presses’ primary customers are students in courses that have adopted the presses’ book titles, unlimited simultaneous access ebook models are very hard on the presses’ budgets. (This is a succinct explanation of why an ebook may be for sale with unlimited simultaneous users one day, but not the next: it was adopted for college courses.) Sales of course-adoption titles is crucial to the business of a university press. However, more students share textbooks or buy from online discount websites rather than university bookstores, reducing the cash flow back into universities and, due to percentage-based royalties, to publishers as well. As a result, university presses have to raise their book prices, fewer students can afford the books, and so on.

Temple University Press’s reorganization, in which it reports to the library instead of the provost, positions the press to be more aligned with scholarly communications, to leverage library talent, and to reflect a new reality in library/publisher relations. Holzman offered a preliminary vision of libraries and university presses collaborating to make scholarly writing affordable from both perspectives, which he called “Knowledge Unlatched on steroids.” If libraries and university presses can increase their collaboration, they can evolve out of the traditional proprietor-customer model toward a “sort of paid open access” model.

Michael Zeoli of YBP Library Services outlined the impact on publishers of demand-driven acquisitions (DDA)—in which a library pays only for books (typically ebooks) that its patrons use—and the short-term-loan (STL) sales model that goes hand-in-hand with DDA. He shared sample sales sheets by which YBP reports the state of libraries’ business with YBP, that indicate a continuing decline in print sales, rapid uptake of DDA titles, and popularity of STLs. The low payout of STLs (10%–15% of a title’s list price per loan) is of great concern to many publishers.

The success of the DDA model depends on long-tail sales resulting from ebook content that is provided “free,” but for which a library is charged beginning with a patron’s first use and ending with enough usage that the library purchases the ebook outright, typically after three STLs.

In her opening talk, Julie mentioned that NAU’s cost per use of a DDA title is around $14, whereas for print books it is approximately $50, though print and ebook usage comparisons are difficult to assess in a meaningful, comparative way. Publishers are also noticing a decline in per-title revenue with DDA: Their approval plan sales are down about 15% this past year and the decline is accelerating. Ebook approval sales are up, ebook orders are holding fairly steady, and DDA records delivered to libraries are a huge growth area.

In the ensuing Q&A session, Holzman was asked to expand upon “Knowledge Unlatched on steroids.” For example, he said, a publisher sets its “first copy” cost at $20,000. If 100 libraries subscribe to own that first copy, it’s $200 per book; if 1,000 sign up, it's $20. Why not have some kind of universal access to all monographs from American Association of University Presses publishers? For this to be sustainable, participation would need to extend beyond ARL institutions, maybe even internationally.

STEPHEN M. BROOKS is head, monographic services, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Email him at stephen_brooks[at]

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