In the comments section of a recent Scholarly Kitchen posting by Rick Anderson, a now-familiar point of controversy was raised: to what degree do university presses rely on libraries as customers for their books? It’s a commonplace assertion that, contrary to longstanding popular belief, libraries are not in fact the primary customers of university presses, and this assertion was made again in the comments. Rick expressed his belief that while this is true of university press publications generally, it’s probably not true of scholarly monographs specifically, and that the decrease in libraries’ share of university press purchases probably has mainly to do with the larger number of non-scholarly books being published by university presses.
Into the fray waded Dean Blobaum, Electronic Marketing Manager at the University of Chicago Press (UCP), who offered a test of Rick’s hypothesis. “Pick 10 (scholarly) monographs published by Chicago,” he said, “and I’ll tell you what percentage of the sales of those books is represented by their WorldCat holdings.” (For those unfamiliar with it, WorldCat is a collective library catalog reflecting the holdings of roughly 72,000 libraries around the world.)
It was a great idea, and Rick took Dean up on the challenge, selecting ten scholarly titles from the previous year’s UCP offerings and submitting the list to Dean for analysis. The result: 49% of the sales represented by those ten titles could be accounted for by library holdings registered in WorldCat.
Rick and Dean kept talking. We wondered how this number might change with a larger sample—recognizing both that the line between “scholarly” and “nonscholarly” can be blurry and that, due to the very large number of individuals in the world and the much smaller number of libraries, over time libraries would inevitably constitute a smaller and smaller percentage of sales for any particular title.
We decided to replicate the ten-title study using the whole output of UCP during the year 2012. This amounted to 326 books in total, in eight format categories and fifteen identified subjects. By examining the sales and library holdings data for all 326 books, we hoped to get a better idea of how library purchasing is distributed among subject areas and book types. Because detailed sales data has competitive value, we knew we would have to present it carefully. Dean consulted with executives at UCP and got permission to present the data publicly as long as it was made available only in format and subject aggregations.
Accordingly, Dean sent Rick a spreadsheet listing the 326 books published by UCP in 2012, along with bibliographic data. Using ISBN as a matchpoint, Rick looked up each title in WorldCat and recorded the number of holdings reflected there, then returned the list to Dean, who pulled the sales figures for each book and computed the percentage of sales represented by WorldCat holdings. The results can be seen in the two tables below, one of them organized by book format or type and the other by BISAC subject. Following the tables, commentary and analysis are provided by Dean (who will also explain the logic behind the data categories) and by Rick.
Table 1: Sales by Book Type
|Type||# Titles in Type||% sales in WorldCat|
Table 2: Sales of Scholarly Monographs by Subject
|Subject (BISAC)||# Titles in Subject||% sales in WorldCat|
|Art and Art History||9||41.87%|
|Economics and Business||11||37.72%|
|Law and Legal Studies||4||42.42%|
What is this data? The titles the University of Chicago Press published in 2012 were categorized by type (basically to separate out the purely scholarly books from other titles) and by subject (using the publishing industry’s BISAC classifications). For each of 326 titles, Rick provided the number of libraries holding that title as reported in WorldCat and I compared that number to each title’s unit sales-to-date. Both numbers, then, at least attempt to include all formats of the work – print formats and e-book formats.
The types are Annuals, Edited Collections (scholarly), In-house Reprints (paperback editions released in 2012 of books previously published by UCP in cloth), Scholarly Monographs, New Editions of works previously published, Out of House Reprints (paperbacks released in 2012 of books previously published elsewhere), Plus Monographs (monographs UCP saw as having a modest audience beyond the academy and gave a fullpage in our seasonal catalog), and Trade (books intended for bookseller stock and general readers).
The percent of sales held in libraries was calculated for each title and then the average percent was calculated by type of book and subject. However, to keep the focus on scholarship, the titles included in the Subject Totals were restricted to Monographs, Plus Monographs, and Edited Collections. The reason to exclude the other categories? Those other categories do not help get at the issue of scholarly monographs in libraries. Trade books will sell well beyond the library; Reprints are complicated by editions that might not be tied together in WorldCat (and our Out of House Reprints are typically trade anyway); Annuals have both ISBNs and ISSNs so the WorldCat data for those might be skewed; and New Editions are pretty much by definition not monographs.
Let’s offer one important caveat upfront: this is a small sample, one publisher’s books for one year. Other publishers’ mileage may vary. But what does this sample of data suggest about scholarly books from university presses in libraries? First, that libraries don’t have a monopoly on the monograph, but they are absolutely a vital piece of the dissemination of that scholarship.
It is interesting to me that the Plus Monograph category seems to behave quite a bit more like the Trade category than like the Monograph category. We expect, of course, that our Trade titles will sell more broadly, but I’m actually surprised that Monograph Plus has library representation closer to the Trade profile. It looks like our sense that “this is a more important monograph” doesn’t really translate to greater library representation, even if it does translate to higher sales overall.
The highest representation in libraries is in the book-focused disciplines: History, Literary Studies, and Philosophy. Our Science titles also have better library representation, perhaps reflecting that the core of our science list is in the history and philosophy of science. Our Music titles, likewise, are well-represented and our music titles are typically music history.
Does the relatively lower percentage of holdings in Art and Art History reflect the relatively higher prices of those books? Or the fact that they are beautifully illustrated objects that people like to own?
Does the data speak to issues of patron-driven or demand-driven acquisition? Individuals comprise more than half the market for the monograph; arguably there is a need that some libraries are not meeting. If a librarian thought like a marketer, the librarian would look at those sales to individuals and say: “I want those readers to use my library. How can I convert some of those book buyers into library users?” (On the other hand, if a librarian thought like an accountant, the librarian would say: “Every book an individual buys is one I don’t have to buy. More power to them!”)
Again, it’s important to bear in mind that we’re looking at one publisher’s books for one year – and a university press publisher, one which, like other university presses, is able to set prices for its books that do not put them out of reach of individual buyers. For that economy, we owe the support we get from our university, the lift from books we publish for a general or regional readership, the book reviewers who read and like those books, the students who purchase books assigned in courses, and the support of libraries who purchase the work of our authors.
From the beginning of this exercise, my primary question has been about those publications that can be categorized as scholarly monographs—I have never doubted that the more generalist and popular titles published by university presses are purchased more heavily by individuals than by libraries. My belief was that libraries (particularly academic libraries) constitute the primary market for true scholarly monographs. The data provided here suggest that I’ve been mistaken about that. While library holdings (as reflected in WorldCat) represent a very significant portion of scholarly monograph sales in total—nearly half—these data do not support my belief that library purchases constitute the majority of sales for scholarly monographs in the aggregate. Furthermore, they suggest that the common view that libraries account for only somewhere between 20 and 25% of total university press sales is right on: in 2012, WorldCat holdings represented 22.34% of UCP book sales.
Looking at the breakdown of sales to libraries by subject, the data become even more interesting. Because (as Dean explains above) this data set drills down specifically into the sales patterns for scholarly monographs, it suggests that in some subject areas library purchases do, in fact, constitute the majority of sales—notably, in two of the three most productive subjects listed (History and Literary Studies). This doesn’t do much to change the incorrectness of my original belief about the importance of library purchasing for scholarly monographs generally, but it’s certainly interesting.
Other results of this study confirm what I (and probably most of us) would have assumed to be the case: that annuals, reprints, and new editions sell to libraries in very small numbers (from my several years of experience as a bookseller to libraries, I would have guessed that fewer than 10% of those sales would be represented in WorldCat), and that non-library purchases of trade books would greatly outstrip sales to libraries. Even though these findings are unsurprising, I think it’s worthwhile to have the data.
There are, of course, some caveats about this data set. First of all, UCP is only one of many university presses, so the results here are only suggestive about larger patterns in the scholarly-book marketplace. Second, we are assuming that WorldCat offers comprehensive information about library holdings. That’s an assumption with which I’m pretty comfortable for the purposes of this study, but it’s worth making explicit. And it’s also worth noting that the term “monograph” is a squishy one; even if we replicated these data with 100 other university presses, there’s no guarantee that all would categorize their books by type in exactly the same way. This kind of study can only be so rigorous.