The gods of serendipity blessed me recently and brought to my attention an outstanding document prepared by members of the staff of the Cornell University Library. The committee was chaired by Kizer Walker; I am thus calling the document the Walker Report, though that phrase never appears in the study. This is an internal document, but librarians being librarians, it is posted on a publicly accessible Web site.
Yes, I got permission from Walker to post the link.
The document summarizes a study of book circulation at Cornell. It is carefully done, data-rich, and full of surprises. It also is inadvertently amusing — knowing that the data could easily be misinterpreted, it manages to slip in a cautionary note (“Don’t jump to conclusions”) every couple paragraphs. This is weird; one would hope (vainly, apparently) that in a university people would feel confident about expressing their views and meeting with intelligent reception. Heh. In any event, anyone interested in scholarly communications should take a look at this. It would be great if similar studies were conducted elsewhere, and better yet if the data were aggregated and mined for patterns.
The aim of the Walker Report is to get a better handle on how books actually circulate in order to plan collections better. Are there too many books? Too few? Perhaps there are too many in some disciplines, not enough in others? How could this information be used to build plans for migrating toward patron-driven acquisition (PDA), which potentially could lower libraries’ costs — or, better yet, align collections with usage such that library funds are most efficiently spent? I speculated about PDA a couple years ago, though I had not yet stumbled upon the term (I called it “purchasing on demand”). My interest was in how PDA would affect the overall value chain. PDA might save money for librarians, but could create headaches for library vendors (e.g., Yankee Book Peddler) and the publishers themselves, some of whom would not survive yet another reduction in unit sales for monographs. Publishers are going to want to look very closely at the Walker Report, as it is beginning a process that will ultimately reform their industry.
Before I go any further, I want to be on record that I don’t view the circulation of scholarly materials as a popularity contest. It’s wonderful that some books circulate often, but a book that circulates rarely, and even books that circulate not at all, have value. That value is not necessarily captured in commercial terms. A book on the shelf can sit there just in case, and just in case is a good reason. And the very writing of a book creates value independently of its reception, as the writing process inevitably bring others into the author’s orbit and trains a professional. The ultimate measure of a book is not where it stands on the bestseller list, but where it stands in the web of relationships among scholars, their profession, and their institutions.
The nagging question, however, is that at a time when every expenditure is being scrutinized so closely, will simple circulation counts come to drive not only specific purchases but libraries’ overall materials budgets?
Some highlights from the report — but, please, the real merits of the study are in the details. For all books published since 1990 that are now in the Cornell collection, 55% have never circulated one time. Is that a big number or a small number? It depends. But Cornell has collections in many languages; for English, the number drops to 39%. Presumably given more time (that is, more than the 20-year period of the study), the rate of circulation would rise, but another interesting item is that circulation tends to level off after 12 years. This prompts me to ask for a show of hands: How many publishers in the room prepare sales forecasts before acquiring a book with a 12-year horizon in mind? With PDA, you will have to.
An interesting aspect of the analysis is the “snapshot” methodology, in which circulation records are examined for all the books that are out on any single day. Librarians will be able to make more of the snapshots than I can, but I was intrigued to learn that when a snapshot was taken, the average undergraduate each had one book in circulation.
Of course, circulation varies by discipline (philosophy gets very good grades) and presumably by publisher and author as well, though those last two fields were not captured in the report. But they will be in future iterations. Publishers should consider this: the bright light of computer-assisted quantitative analysis is being brought to bear on their brands. Which brands will benefit from this? Which will suffer? And how many book publishers budget money for brand marketing as journals publishers do?
Scholarly book publishing is becoming more like journals publishing every day. Books are going digital; journals are already there. Books are now being sold in aggregations; journals have been sold that way for some time. Books are going to be sold by subscription; subscription is the prevailing form of marketing for journals. And books are going to be subject to various metrics (pageviews, downloads, whatever) to determine whether they belong in a library’s collection; journals have been living with that situation for some time. Indeed, one way to look at the growth of interest by publishers in digital book aggregations is as a way of fending off the implications of PDA and quantitative measurements of publishers’ brands — a weaker title can hide in a collection of better titles, just as second-tier journals retain their circulation because they are protected by the sheltering embrace of a Big Deal.
The next battle for scholarly book publishers thus is not in getting their books into digital form — that’s a given; that’s the last war. The next battle is brand-building after the sale has been made. This is aftermarketing, and it’s going to require new tactics and resources. Publisher X is going to be thinking about driving up usage and circulation statistics for books that are already in library collections. Good stats will increase the likelihood that a library will purchase the publisher’s next book, and the next after that, and so on. Simply by exposing the data, beginning at Cornell with the Walker Report, like the butterfly that flaps its wings on the other side of the world, a series of changes is initiated leading to the emergence of the importance of publishers’ brands. Yes, it’s a lot easier to play this game if you start with a strong brand to begin with.