Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Bob Nardini, continuing on from yesterday’s post which can be found here. Bob is Vice President, Library Services at ProQuest Books. In 1985, a few years out of library school at the University of Toronto, he began to work in academic bookselling and has been involved with library book collections ever since. Bob is based in ProQuest’s office in La Vergne, Tennessee, outside of Nashville.
If librarians had largely moved on, if patrons were oblivious, and faculty quieted years ago, this didn’t mean the end of debate over book selection, one never wholly owned by librarians. Another participant, from the start of approval plans in the 1960s, had been booksellers, who advocated for approval plans not only in their sales calls, but often in the library literature and at conferences.
In the 2000s, ebook company representatives began to speak up in these same ways. A high point was the 2011 publication of the book, Patron-Driven Acquisitions: History and Best Practices. Published by De Gruyter Saur, the book was edited by David Swords, then of Ebook Library (EBL), the company that more than any other brought demand driven acquisition (DDA) into academic libraries. Over half the book’s twelve chapters were written by librarians; the other half by vendors or consultants, two by Swords himself, and one by EBL’s president at the time, Kari Paulson. Paulson has been the most active member of the vendor community promoting DDA. “What follows,” she wrote of EBL’s work with customers and partners, “is the story of a collaboration whose effects are now being felt in academic…libraries around the world.”
The “effects” were not confined to libraries. A reason approval plans succeeded was that they’d regularized library spending, focusing it on new books and spreading spend across the calendar, lessening the need for undisciplined draining of the budget near the end of a fiscal year. Library acquisitions departments liked this, and so did publishers, who enjoyed predictable sales patterns. So could book vendors, and some began to emphasize approval plans in their services. Inventory, logistics, and revenue all could be planned around weekly and seasonal approval plan cycles.
This could not be achieved so easily, however, when libraries began implementing DDA. Partly that was due to the nature of ebooks, whose family resemblance to their print cousins, in logistics and other ways, is distant. But part was due to the nature of DDA, where spend on new books is not guaranteed. Spend will occur, but often later in the lives of books. If, after 2008, DDA was a lifesaver for libraries, at the same time DDA disrupted the patterns some publishers and booksellers had not only grown used to, but had used to organize their business.
“Print and e-book orders deferred to DDA and STL,” wrote Michael Zeoli of YBP in 2013 (“STL” refers to short-term loans, a type of DDA), “pose the most significant immediate threat to sustainability for publishers and vendors.” YBP (today GOBI Library Solutions), historically a print approval plan vendor, was acquired in 2015 by EBSCO, whose CEO Tim Collins remarked in a 2016 Scholarly Kitchen interview, “We can see why book publishers worked with these models as they wanted to support their customers. But, if these models result in budget reductions, which result in publishers not being able to fulfill their mission…we don’t see them being sustainable…Business models need to work for both customers and vendors in order for them to be sustainable.” The next year, No Shelf Required blogger Mirela Roncevic, for whom EBSCO has been a sometime sponsor, advised, “It is important to note … that much of these arguments in favor of incorporating DDA into the library Approval Plan is what is making the DDA models unsustainable for many publishers.”
Librarians have also raised the question of sustainability, referring less often, though, to the ecosystem of academic publishing and bookselling than to their own sustainability, undermined for years even before the financial crash. “Facing a 72% cut in our monographic acquisitions budget in FY13-14,” the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, with a materials budget already flat for four years running, “examined print monographs’ circulation data and discovered the hard truth that the ‘just-in-case’ acquisition model is neither sustainable nor serving our users well.” Sounds like DDA was a response to budget reductions at Arlington, not the cause. “Although some of the books may yet circulate,” a Brigham Young University librarian’s unhopeful report in 2012, “relying solely on traditional methods is a poor use of the library’s resources.” Six years later this librarian noted the “relatively low usage” of ebooks acquired on approval, and BYU’s strategy to re-examine its already shrunken approval plan. Academic libraries across North America might have filed reports echoing those of BYU and Arlington.
Here I should stop to say that I’m not a disinterested reporter. I worked for over twenty years at YBP and had as much to do with the growth of the approval plan business as anyone did. I began my career in the 1980s, when even large research libraries had not fully embraced the idea. I advocated for approval plans in library visits, worked with librarians to create and manage hundreds of profiles, at times helped make the case for approval plans to members of the academic faculty. I spoke about approval plans, wrote about approval plans, even wrote an encyclopedia article about approval plans.
Today I’m a colleague of Kari Paulson at ProQuest, where I continue to work with approval plans, but more often with DDA. I would still advocate for an approval plan, whenever it was the best approach for a library. I wish that were more often the case. Predictable shipments, week in, week out, what company doesn’t like that? If libraries would only return to operating this way, when usage of books was low on everyone’s list of concerns, life would be easier for all of us. Too bad that’s as wishful as to hope airlines will go back to the way they ran when I started flying about to work on approval plans.
Paulson, Roncevic, and Zeoli have been noticeably outspoken over library book selection – with very different perspectives. It would be hard to imagine Paulson, whose company developed DDA independently of approval plans, agreeing with Roncevic’s comment, for example, that if approval vendors had not incorporated the model into library profiles, “DDA would probably have become a significantly more challenging model for academic libraries.” For the first time in the long history of debate over book selection, among the most active participants are booksellers with differing points of view.
Who’s against sustainability? Nobody, of course. But ecosystems in the natural world aren’t static, and neither is the ecosystem for academic books, one altogether changed after 2008. “A unique aspect of our information ecosystem,” Zeoli writes, “is the essential relationship between a not-for-profit enterprise and the vendors and many publishers who must eke out a profit from the services they supply in support of the scholarly mission…It would behoove us to look beyond…our fiefdoms, and consider how an opportunity can be cultivated to serve all parties in a more productive and effective way.”
Decisions that ignore the interests of others won’t be enduring, true enough. But I would no more expect to see a library sacrifice its own interest in favor of the ecosystem’s — however to determine that — than I would expect to witness in the members of the wooded ecosystem behind my house. Did Houston librarians consider the interests of booksellers and publishers in their decision? Maybe they did, I don’t know. It does seem they took care to explain to Dr. Zaretsky why they chose their new course, one surely based upon the library’s own conclusions about budget, space, and patron behavior.
Nor would I expect publishers to stand still and wait for approval plans to come back to where they once were. DDA was a library and bookseller response to the new ecosystem, and publishers have adjusted by revising terms and by trying new DDA models; and by examining their marketing and sales programs, their metadata and its impact on discovery, even the composition of their lists. It’s as clear to publishers as to anyone else that after 2008, everything changed. In contrast to life in the woods, we humans are lucky, in that when we pursue our interests, we aren’t constrained to textbook Darwinism and can gauge how our own decisions will interplay with the interests of others.
The Right Books?
Roncevic provided an extended defense of approval plans in a 2017 posting entitled, “The Approval Plan: A Sorting Hat that Discovers the Right Books for the Right Libraries.” Librarians, by working on an approval plan with their vendor, she wrote, were engaged in “thoughtful curation rather than on the immediate — and perhaps momentary — demand of the user.” The key was process itself, the “librarian-driven acquisition method” of an approval plan “which anticipates the future needs of researchers” by delivering “the right books.”
Roncevic is correct about thoughtful curation, since focused thought does go into the process; and right too about relevant books, since the ones shipped will be relevant to the subjects defined. On anticipating the future needs of researchers, though, she begins to stretch, and in claiming “the right books,” stretches beyond any limits to her case — at least for those libraries for whom usage is a significant consideration. Aren’t quite a few books, if curated but never touched, the wrong ones? If we know by now that libraries will see no usage at all for an uncomfortable percentage, why are they the right books? To Roncevic, the answer, again, is in the process itself. “If everyone does their part,” she says, describing a magical ecosystem, “what comes out is almost guaranteed to be highly relevant content for academic libraries and the communities they serve.”
No doubt relevant somewhere; but locally, not guaranteed to be. Again, though, look at the process: “An approval plan cannot be compared to other much-discussed acquisition models,” Roncevic writes. “Instead, it should be looked at as a discovery mechanism that can accommodate various acquisition models. For example, acquisitions models like DDA…can be part of your library’s approval plan; the details and criteria within an approval plan profile are the elements that feed and run an acquisition model.” Approval plans are “the primary support tool for DDA,” she says. Approval plans, in fact, are supported by profiles, not the other way around. Profiles always produced fewer automatic “approval” selections than they did discretionary “slip” recommendations. If an approval plan is redefined this way, as its underlying profile, then a problem is solved: redemption through redefinition.
This would be something like a distributor in the film industry or the owner of a cable company, watching audiences shift from the structured, centralized experience of a cineplex or a cable package to more individualized ways of watching movies. You could try to refer to theaters or cable as primary support tools for Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Maybe, if we’d never lived through the theater and cable eras, we’d never have had these platforms. Maybe you could preserve some vocabulary, at least. Maybe that would slow things down, as if little had changed.
Approval plans and DDA can be integrated — Roncevic is again correct — but they are no more the same thing than lining up for popcorn at the theater versus hitting the pause button to head to the fridge when you felt like it; or paying for dozens of channels you never watch versus only for what you do watch. DDA programs are about usage, and ebook companies put much of their platform development toward building models, tools, and controls that librarians customize to make sure their budget is transformed into usage. Approval plans will spend the budget too, but they’ve never been about usage and they offer nothing to manage the DDA pools that profiles can produce.
Instead, Roncevic insists, echoing arguments from long ago against approval plans, approval plans are about “the right books.” Books, no doubt, to grace a New Book shelf. New Book shelves, for better or worse, aren’t as prominent as they once were, even in libraries who still have one. Users will find them, if that’s what they’re looking for. Some movie lovers, too, will look for the carefully curated film at an art house theater, or will enjoy cable channel surfing. But most would as soon pick their own movies to watch, when and where they wanted to. If that’s disrupted the industry, it’s not the audience who seems to mind.