Understanding publishers: a librarian’s perspective

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Like many academic librarians involved in purchasing content for their libraries, I have had my share of lengthy negotiations with publishers over the years. As we attempt to launch e-book pilots and develop a new acquisition model as part of the Books Right Here Right Now project, it can sometimes feel that publishers are unwilling or unable to understand our needs and those of our students.

However, one outcome of spending so much time talking to publishers – in person and by email – is that I feel I now have a better understanding of their world. While librarians often bemoan the lack of understanding (whether real or perceived) from publishers, we may be equally guilty of not understanding the environment that publishers are operating in, or naive in our negotiating stance.

The following key points are worth keeping in mind:

Publishers need to return a profit and the margins they want or need to make will form the basis of their negotiations. Unlike libraries, they are not a service but a business and the bottom line is paramount. While there is always room for manoeuvre and sometimes librarians may not push hard enough, unrealistic pricing requests from libraries are doomed to failure.

Publishers have to balance a series of relationships, not just the one with the library. In the context of textbooks and e-books, academic libraries may be major customers but there are two other key relationships that have a bearing on negotiations –

  • Authors have expectations about the royalties from sales of their books -this can have an impact on the pricing of books and also on the granting of digital rights for particular titles.
  • Bookshops – particularly those on university campuses – work very closely with publishers to maximise the sales of textbooks. This symbiotic relationship between the publisher and the bookshop, while subject to other market pressures, can still have an influence on negotiated deals between publishers and libraries.

Seamless access to e-books is still some way off. Despite major advances in technology, the provision of e-books to large cohorts of students through a single, problem-free interface is not yet available. Publishers and intermediaries are working hard to find solutions but librarians need to be realistic in our expectations and understanding of what is currently possible.

Libraries and publishers need each other. While we come to the table with different aims, an understanding of each other’s perspectives and differences is vital to a successful outcome. Now, let the negotiations begin!

Dominic Broadhurst, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Nicola Corboy via photopin cc

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