Back in the day, when demand-driven acquisitions (DDA) was still called patron-driven acquisitions (PDA), I worked on a project to determine how DDA would affect the university press community. I reported on that project in The Scholarly Kitchen and included a link to the full report. DDA, in my view, was going to pose some significant challenges to book publishers: it would delay some purchases (creating a cashflow problem), it would reduce the income from some books (by substituting short-term rentals for outright purchases), and it would result in the loss of many sales (for those books that appeared in the DDA part of a library’s collection, but never elicited any demand that would generate income).
Listening to the rumblings in university press circles, I have to assume that all this, the dystopian library situation, has come to pass. Many presses report that sales are down; some presses are considering withdrawing from DDA programs to stem the loss. It seems to me, though, that DDA is here to stay: withdrawing from these programs may simply mean that librarians may not buy many press books at all. A better question, I think, is how to work with the DDA situation to figure out how its obvious liabilities to publishers can be offset.
Before I go any further, let’s stipulate that whatever harm DDA is doing to publishers, librarians are not to blame. It is difficult for many publishers to understand this, but libraries do not exist for the benefit of publishers. When a library introduces a DDA system, it is not being done to impact publishers’ margins; it is being implemented to lower the costs of a library–and, not incidentally, to align the collections and purchases for those collections with the living research activity on campus. For all the invocations of “the academic community,” publishers and librarians play a zero-sum game. Librarians buy, publishers sell: no buyer ever wanted a price to be higher, no seller ever wanted a price to be lower. DDA may be hurting publishers precisely because librarians are doing their job.
Publishers have to do their job, too, of course, and that includes ensuring the financial well-being of their organizations. If DDA puts pressure on sales and margin, what can a publisher do to increase them?
We should begin with pricing. American university presses simply don’t charge enough for their books, something that becomes apparent when the prices of American presses are compared to their peers overseas. With DDA the invitation to increase prices is extended to all books that can support it. That means books that are carefully researched and impeccably edited: for such services publishers should not be shy about charging what a book is worth. We do not yet know how long DDA delays the use and subsequent rental or purchase of a book (since there has to be actual demand before any money changes hands), though ProQuest, with the leading DDA services, may now be in a position to make a data-grounded guess. But ProQuest is not likely to share that information with the publishers it works with in a form that would be useful for revising marketing programs, so publishers will have to develop this information on their own. At some point we will come to understand that the book that formerly would have been priced at $30 should now be priced at $40, and the book that was formerly $40 should now be $50. Publishers should be inching up their prices in the meantime.
A serious problem for some DDA services is that they allow for too much sampling. In some instances a user can view as much as 10% of a book before any kind of transaction takes place. Whoever came up with the 10% figure, I do not know, but it clearly does not work for scholarly books (it could work for a novel). A 400-page book on Czech history or the politics of the ancient Parthians or John Milton’s prosody may rarely be read from beginning to end by many people; readers are more likely to dip in here and there, perhaps reading one or two chapters: a scholarly monograph, in other words, very often displays properties we associate with reference books. The 10% sample for such a book comes to 40 pages, which likely represents the amount viewed by a substantial portion of the work’s total readership. A figure closer to 5 pages makes far more sense–the material is intended as a sample, after all, not as a substitute for reading and purchasing the book.
DDA could come to benefit publishers over time–and benefit libraries as well–if there were changes in certain library practices, but these changes are not yet on the horizon. A case in point is inter-library loan. ILL is very expensive for libraries, as they have to ship print books back and forth. A less costly (and faster) solution for libraries would be short-term rentals via DDA, which has the advantage (from a publisher’s point of view) of providing some revenue back to the publisher. Indeed, many publishers signed onto DDA programs with the expectation that ILL would eventually fade away. For a number of reasons ILL is not going away anytime soon, not the least being that not all books are available in DDA programs and some users of ILL prefer to work with print. On top of this is inertia and the understandable reluctance to redeploy or dismiss redundant staff. So now we have DDA programs, which shrink publishers’ revenues, living side-by-side with ILL, which increases libraries’ costs.
An even bigger win for libraries and publishers alike would be to extend DDA into a bookstore within the library catalogue, an idea which makes some librarians apoplectic. Without for a moment minimizing the challenges to get such a system to work, a service of this kind would provide revenue for publishers, referral fees to libraries, and broader access to more titles for library patrons. Here is how this would work:
Scenario #1: A library patron performs a search on the library catalogue. The search reveals a book that is appropriate for a particular research project; that book is already in the library’s collection. The book (whether in print or electronic form) is thus available to the patron–for print, by going to the library to pick it up; for an ebook, by clicking on the link.
Scenario #2: the patron searches for a book and discovers a record of what appears to be a useful book. The patron does not know that the library does not own the book; it is part of the DDA offering. The patron requests the book and the library is charged for it by the DDA vendor.
Scenario #3: the patron searches for a book and discovers a record of interest. But the record indicates that the book is not in the library’s collection. The patron is given the opportunity to purchase the book on his or her own account. The book is then delivered to the patron, whether in print or electronic form. The patron’s credit card is charged. The publisher and vendor are compensated for the sale, and the library receives a sales commission on the transaction.
DDA is something we are all familiar with, but don’t recognize it as such. It’s called a bookstore. All consumer sales are demand-driven. Institutional markets are different, however, in that librarians typically select books on behalf of their community. DDA in the library can benefit from insights gained in bookstores and can combine these insights with the curatorial skills of an information professional.
I anticipate that DDA is going to look somewhat different two years from now. Even as more and more libraries initiate or expand DDA programs, many publishers will consider scaling back their support or negotiate for better terms. If librarians want publishers to accommodate them, they may wish to take a hard look at their ILL operations and think about becoming a micro-Jeff Bezos on campus.