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?