Books, Business Models, Commerce, Controversial Topics, Economics

Having Relations with the Library: A Guide for University Presses

A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle), is defined as a "false karass" (imagined community). That is, it is a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.

A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt
Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle), is defined as a “false karass”. That is, it is a group of people who outwardly
choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual
association is actually meaningless.

It’s quite fashionable nowadays to talk of collaboration between university presses and libraries.  Indeed, an increasing number of presses now report into the library.  Oddly, as far as I know the situation is never reversed–that is, no library reports into a press even when the press is as large or larger than the library (Oxford, Cambridge, and perhaps Chicago and Johns Hopkins).  It’s taken for granted that publishers, at least academic ones, and libraries have a great deal in common and that putting them together organizationally will yield multiple benefits–cost savings, say, or new products and services or even an entirely new business model.  The question I have is what exactly are such collaborations supposed to accomplish and whether cooperation between a library and a press is the best way to achieve that goal.

Outside the academy we hear of collaborations and joint ventures all the time.   I doubt that there is any more overused word in commerce than “partnership.”  A “partnership,” alas, is often a euphemism for an unequal relationship, perhaps one where organization A sells something to organization B or even when A acquires B.  You know you are not in a partnership when you get a memo to be in someone’s office at 8:00 the next morning.  Let’s choose our words carefully and not invoke partnerships and collaborations when in fact we mean simple vendor-customer relationships or a matter of one unit being subordinated to another.  When a library forms a partnership with a press, what exactly is involved?  What is the substance?  What value is being added by putting the entities together even if only for a limited time on a single project?

Let’s take an example from another area to help us study this problem abstractly.  Perhaps the CEOs of Microsoft and Federal Express meet on the golf course and, later, over drinks–over a lot of drinks–conclude that they should establish a strategic partnership.  They return home and put together teams to work together on the partnership.  The first proposal:  FedEx will standardize all its productivity software on Microsoft Office and its collaboration software on SharePoint.  Would that be a partnership?  No, it would simply be a vendor-customer relationship, with Microsoft serving as the vendor.

Proposal #2:  Microsoft will take on FedEx as its preferred organization to manage package delivery and logistics.  Is that a partnership?  No, it’s but another vendor-customer relationship, this time with FedEx as the vendor.  To get to a true partnership Microsoft and FedEx have to do something that they could not do before and that they cannot do with other organizations.

Proposal #3:  We at FedEx have developed our own logistics management software, which we bet would be useful to people in other industries that do not compete with us.  Let’s have Microsoft develop this software as a commercial product and market it.  We can then share in the profits.

This is a different story and it would indeed constitute a true partnership.  Each party is putting certain assets into the venture (domain knowledge of logistics on FedEx’s part, knowledge of software development and marketing on Microsoft’s end).  They share the risk and they share the rewards.

The fact is that when you look at any organization from the outside, all you really see is the brand.  Apple or Google or Procter & Gamble appear as huge edifices, but what goes on inside?  Partnerships are created by peeling back the brand and looking at all the operations.  Peel back the brand of a great research library, for example, and you see various functional areas:  collection development, metadata management, copyright expertise, preservation and restoration areas, and so on.  Peel back the brand of a university press and you see a collection of copyrights; a network of authors, reviewers, and distributors; a virtual print supply chain; and a series of workflows that begin with the original manuscript and end with the purchase of a book.  If there is a partnership to be forged here, it’s on the level of the functional areas.

So, for example, many presses are pleased to collaborate with libraries because libraries have expertise in hosting Web services.  Let’s think about that for a minute.  Do libraries uniquely possess those IT skills?  I doubt it.  Which leads to the next question:  If the press is getting IT services from the library, what other vendors were asked to bid on the project? Is the institution’s library the best IT shop in the county? Here we have an example of what is essentially a vendor relationship masquerading as a partnership.  The fact is that this is a mercantilist economy:  the press uses the library’s IT development staff because it is locked into the same system, the same institution.  The library is not asked to compete with other IT shops to get the press’s business.

Let’s look at an example in the other direction. A library is the lucky recipient of the papers of a great writer. These are unique documents. The library undertakes to digitize and edit the papers.  As there is no endowment to cover the ongoing maintenance of the collection, the library determines that the digital edition will be sold on a subscription basis to other libraries. The press is then recruited to oversee the publication of the work and the establishment of the appropriate commercial relationships. Is this a partnership?

Once again we have a fairly conventional economic arrangement.  In this instance the library acts as the author and the press as the publisher.  There is nothing wrong with this–indeed, I would like to see presses become much more active in the publication of digital editions of special collections–but it is not a new way to conduct business.  The question the library should be asking in this instance is not whether it needs a publisher to create a market for the digitized collection (the answer to that is almost certainly yes) but whether the university press is the best publisher to work with.  Authors shop around for the best publisher all the time:  should not libraries do the same?  Perhaps the library is better off going with a different publisher, even a commercial one. Relationships that are forged as part of mercantilist economies are often unhappy in their own way, as there is no competitive drive to find the very best organizations to work with.

The example of the digitized special collection could be made into a true partnership, however.  For example, the idea for the project could originate with the press. An editor might instruct the library on the collection’s market potential and help shape its development. In this instance the press is being competitive by adding editorial value. To do this, however, there is no need for the press to report to the library or vice versa. The arrangement can be handled with a simple memorandum. This is, in other words, an arrangement between two parties. No organizational change is necessary to put this project into effect.

Sometimes a press is made to report into the library for administrative reasons.  Most presses are small potatoes on a university campus; they cost the university almost nothing (the myth of bleeding university presses is sheer nonsense).  Suppose we have a more or less typical press with revenue of $5 million a year, which operates at a loss of $500,000. That is, the press earns most of its funding in the marketplace and is then subsidized by the parent for the remainder.  A half-million dollars is a blip in the budget of a research university, so rolling that department into the much larger budget of a library (perhaps $35 million each year, with almost no earned revenue) tidies things up. This is the very worst reason to make an organizational change, but it is common in both the not-for-profit and commercial spheres.  Every level in an organization should add value to the units below it. The point of a reporting relationship is not for the superior to “keep an eye” on the subordinate but for the superior to assist the subordinate in doing even better work.

Every way you look at the relationship between a press and a library, you come away with little or nothing to support an organizational marriage.  Presses are great things, libraries are great things, but they are not better things by virtue of having been put into the same organization.  So much of what each entity does is of no use to the other.  What, for example, is a library to make of a press’s internal management report that lists all trading accounts in terms of the days outstanding for receivables? Does a library even have to know what a receivable is?  Libraries can advise presses on library markets, metadata development, and the latest developments in identifiers (e.g., ISTC)–but here we must quickly ask, Are libraries the best advisors for these tasks?  Both libraries and presses are better off pursuing their own aims, cooperating when it is useful, working separately when it is not.  Surely it is not out of line to ask:  Why can’t we just be friends?

About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Having Relations with the Library: A Guide for University Presses

  1. Could you clariify what is meant by the phrase “report into”? Did you mean to say, “present a report on one’s sales data on” or something similar to that?

    Many thanks!

    Posted by Bill Cohen | Jul 16, 2013, 9:22 am
    • Sharing information is not the same thing as reporting into an organizational entity or an individual. You report into the person who holds you accountable for your actions. Typically this person reviews your performance and compensation.

      Posted by Joseph Esposito | Jul 16, 2013, 9:27 am
      • Apologies, I should not have suggested “sharing” at you note. I would just say “report to” and not “report into.” I had wondered if “report into” was a Canadianism!

        Posted by Bill Cohen | Jul 16, 2013, 9:32 am
  2. At Penn State the “partnership” preexisted the administrative relationship. The press and library jointly established the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing in the spring of 2005 in order to carry out a number of mutually beneficial projects. The library had received a Mellon grant to cooperate with Cornell’s library in extending the functionality of the DPubs open-source publishing software from journals to other types of works including monographs. That provided a useful platform on which to build the Romance Studies monograph series, which had once led a print only life but now moved to a combined OA/POD model similar to what the National Academies Press had pioneered. Other projects included the Metalmark series of public-domain books from the library’s Pennsylvania collection, which were digitized by library staff, six every season (selected by an advisory board including Penn State faculty), and made available in the same OA/POD way, thus supplementing the press’s own regional publishing efforts. Revenue from this series was split 50/50 between press and library. For reasons that went beyond the benefits of this collaboration, the press later became an administrative unit of the library in December 2005. The budgets of the press and library were kept separate, however. I agree with Joe that a simple partnership could work without there having to be an administrative relationship; indeed, this is what happened at the University of California, where the press cooperated closely for a while with the California Digital Library, without there being any administrative tie between the two. At some other universities, like MIT, there is an administrative relationship between press and library without there being much, if any, actual collaboration. The reasons for preferring one type of relationship to another have as much to do with the history and other internal complexities of a given university as they do with straightforward considerations of economic efficiency–and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jul 16, 2013, 11:14 am
  3. I was told by a university publisher that once upon a time, university presses were created to print disserations that were exchanged with libraries at other universities — i.e. a low-level partnership.

    More recently, as a user of (and complainer about) Google Books, it occurred to me that critical university press-type functions (copyright compliance issues aside) were missing. First, GB makes a mess out of cataloging details of editions, particularly multi-volume works and multiple works in a single binding. Second, GB leaves production quality assurance to readers, who may (or may not) notify GB of the need to re-scan some of the messes passed off as acceptable. Would a partnership with publishing professionals bring order out of this chaos? Oh, if only GB was wealthy enough to pay for quality.

    Posted by Albert Henderson | Jul 16, 2013, 11:21 am
  4. I wonder how much Mr. Esposito understands the higher education world, specifically at public universities. (I’m not saying it’s sane or logical, but it is central to many of the library-press relationships he’s criticizing.) His argument seems to expect principles of standard commercial business practice of non-profit mission-driven educational institutions. There are many reasons why presses report to libraries. In many cases these reasons are bad ones. In many other cases (such as ours at Georgia), this has been a splendid decision. We are still articulating all the reasons why we like working together in the same building, sharing conversations, strategizing, solving problems, talking about our commonalities, sharing resources. Because of the practical logistics of the campus physical environment, we would never have these opportunities if not for the current arrangement. There are many seemingly odd and improbable reporting arrangements at colleges and universities. Out of such combinations can often come strength. And in the state budget climate of the past ten years, stronger together is a positive tic on my Cost-Benefit Analysis worksheet.

    Posted by Lisa Bayer | Jul 17, 2013, 3:09 pm
  5. While a library-press partnership might be mercantilist if, say, the press is expected to pay the library for its IT services, I think a more common arrangement is for the library to be ordered to provide these services for free to the press so that the press doesn’t have to pay an outside vendor them. Similarly, the press would be ordered to establish commercial relationships to sell digitized papers so that the library doesn’t have to pay for them. While I don’t doubt that there are real costs involved (in staff time spent working on these projects that might have otherwise been given to a vendor), if management feels that there is extra staff capacity at the complementary organization, this can be a cost-effective way to reduce costs at the primary one.

    Posted by kshawkin | Jul 17, 2013, 3:37 pm

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