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The smaller publisher faces a tough challenge…

I was recently invited by my friend Ann Okerson to speak at the ICOLC conference in scenic Albany, NY. It was an interesting event for me (I am always interested when I am talking), as library consortia are such an important aspect of the current ecosystem of scholarly communications. I will be putting together an edited transcript of my presentation in due course, but for now I am making the slides available, with the hope of soliciting feedback.

My thesis is simply that libraries have implemented a number of totally rational policies over the years that have inadvertently led to the marginalization of small publishers, not-for-profit professional societies included. This leads small publishers to seek the embrace of larger publishers, which have better access to the budgets of libraries and consortia. This is undoubtedly the opposite of what libraries intend, but the trend is clear: consolidation in favor of the largest companies.

I would be interested to hear of ideas for how to disrupt this trend.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

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10 Thoughts on "Putting Publishers’ Views of Libraries into Context"

Our journal went through what you describe, but I’d like to add a couple of key points. First, users were starting to switch from personal to library subscriptions even before the digital revolution – See Carol Tenopir’s work ( Secondly, the technology played a huge part: Setting up digital access to 1,000 Wiley or Elsevier, etc. journals required the same amount of work for a librarian as setting up a single independent journal. One could see the writing on the wall as early as 2000.

I don’t think it was so much that the libraries implemented acquisition policies as it was the libraries took advantage of publisher offers. The top STM publishers hit the streets with very attractive offers for both e-journals and now for eBooks which libraries and consortia have indeed accepted and of course the net effect is that smaller publishers are left at a significant disadvantage. The business of acquisitions has changed and will continue to change. Consider the subscription agent, who in 2000 handled 98% of the STM publishers subscriptions revenue but by 2015 that percentage has dropped to near 40% for total subscription revenue.

This is an incredibly important and often overlooked point Dan. If we go back to 2000, the playing field was much more level in terms of global institutional sales because the same economies of scale were available to all publishers, larger or small, via subscription agents. An institutional sales force was not a competitive advantage because everyone could simply use a subscription agent. With the advent of the big deal and direct negotiations with libraries and library consortia, all of a sudden a global institutional sales force is a rather handy thing to have a significant competitive advantage. Swets and Rowe Com are collateral damage from the Big Deal, as are, to Joe’s point, smaller independent society publishers.

University presses, generally speaking, are immune to takeover by commercial publishers. Journals they publish, of course, may be raided by commercial publishers if they are not owned by the presses themselves, and we have seen many examples of this happening. Presses have responded to consolidation in the commercial sector by joining together themselves in consortia like Project Muse, which has been quite successful. Muse, of course, was a joint project of a press and library, so had immediate sympathetic support from academic libraries that commercial publishers generally lack.

Many libraries see their consortial big deals as a baseline. They plan on maintaining these large packages and see what else they can squeeze into the budget. It’s certainly easier to cancel a single journal or a small package compared to a big deal. A lot of analysis and consideration of alternatives goes into the cancellation of a package from publishers like Wiley or Springer. However, I think this trend has gone so far that more libraries are indeed canceling big deals. This could raise the possibility of subscribing to smaller publishers’ offerings again, but it’s more likely that the funds will be gobbled up by other increases or redirected to document delivery services.

I am reminded of people bemoaning the demise of the small family farm. Economies of scale are usually a good thing. According to STM the number of journals now found in libraries has increased dramatically over the last decade, despite flat budgets. Surely this is a good thing.

As a recently semi-retired university collections librarian and and manager of a library based publishing operation (Sydney University Press and OJS titles) I have seen both sides of this issue. The push towards greater consolidation for acquisitions purposes is strong given economic and managed access benefits to large swathes of academic publications. Recent consolidations in the industry (Ebsco of YBP; and ProQuest of Coutts-Ingrams) provide further examples that may begin to alarm many librarians who worry about oligopoly trends across the whole industry.
I have also seen editors of small publications sign up to larger publishers or aggregators without understanding the consequences of the ‘benefits’. There are also, however, examples of resistance, most recently the resignation of the Editor and many of the editorial committee of the Australian Medical Journal after the journal sold distribution to Elsevier. Other examples I have experience of are Society publishers moving to open publishing models, via platforms such as OJS, the Open Journal System, because they regard wide and unrestricted access more important than being part of a publishing conglomerate.
There are disruptive forces at play, and while they do not fit into the consolidation model, many librarians are aware of the importance of other forms of publication – hence the rise of library based publishing here in Australia and through initiatives in the US such as the Library Publishing Coalition.

Yep, small publishers get left out. We sold off our 12 journals 2 years ago because of the amount of investment required to compete was beyond our reach.

One thing that libraries did 15 years ago to counter trend toward the “big deals” was to work directly with small scholarly societies to provide an academy-based platform, of sorts, on which to publish their journals electronically. BioOone ( launched its aggregated database of 40 society journals in biology and ecology with 40 titles and now publishes more than 180. We hoped at the time that this might be a business model that could be replicated in other disciplines but it never happened; I think because the move toward OA was gaining traction at the same time.

  • Adrian Alexander, University of Tulsa (former Exec Director, Greater Western Library Alliance)
  • May 14, 2015, 3:46 PM

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