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Courtesy of De Gruyter

Sixteen major university presses have signed with a Berlin-based scholarly publishing house, De Gruyter, as part of a new initiative to broker ebook sales between presses and university libraries.

The idea behind the University Press Library initiative is for the institutions to sell digital collections of their entire front lists of new titles to university libraries. Under this plan, a library could purchase Stanford University Press’s entire 2021 collection in digital format, for example.

Steve Fallon, De Gruyter’s vice president for the Americas and strategic partnerships, said the goal of the initiative is to generate a sustainable revenue stream for presses that can count on a library buying an electronic version of every single new title -- including academically important but lesser-used scholarly monographs, not just books in higher demand.

Libraries “are making socially conscious investments in these collections because it’s must-have content and as a result of that investment we’re now able to generate revenue for every single title published,” said Fallon. “Why that’s important is if you can get to a point where you have 500 libraries around the world that are supporting Stanford University Press front-list titles, that means that every time you publish a title, you know you’re going to have 500 sales. This is the goal you’re trying to get to.”

De Gruyter, a for-profit publisher that provides the ebook platform and the sales team, hasn’t yet reached 500 libraries, but the initiative has gained momentum quickly. Fallon said that De Gruyter is now working with 43 libraries that want to acquire entire collections from the marquee presses it represents. Participating presses are those at Columbia, Cornell, Fordham, Harvard, New York, Pennsylvania State, Princeton, Rutgers, Stanford and Yale Universities, as well as the presses at the Universities of California, Chicago, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Toronto and Texas.

The initiative comes at a time when many university presses face financial challenges or uncertainty about their future financial models. Even one of the richest universities in the U.S., Stanford, threatened in 2019 to cut the press's $1.7 million subsidy before backing down after the plan attracted widespread outrage from faculty.

The University Press Library initiative started as a pilot project in 2014 initially involving the Columbia, Harvard and Princeton presses and 10 academic libraries or library consortia representing a range of large, medium and small colleges and universities. The pilot ran for five years with a stated goal of creating "a sustainable business model for the acquisition of all relevant front-list university press monographs and trade titles with no restrictions in electronic format that meets the business and academic needs of the press and academic library."

The pilot sought to address a number of challenges. For the libraries it was that the presses were often making differing decisions on digital rights on a book-by-book basis, resulting in a confusing labyrinth of different digital platforms and digital rights rules for librarians to navigate. The presses were worried about inconsistent sales of ebooks and concerned that ebook sales would "cannibalize" print sales.

Publishers were reluctant to sell a single copy of a DRM-free ebook to a library -- a book that could be downloaded by a library's users an unlimited number of times -- potentially missing out on future print sales if that book was later adopted by a popular course.

Fallon said one outcome of the pilot was that the titles the publishers deemed more valuable in terms of their potential to generate print sales only had 10 percent higher usage than titles deemed less valuable.

“That meant they can’t possibly account for what is a course adoption title and what’s not in a digital environment,” he said.

Angela Carreño, who was head of collection development for New York University Libraries during the pilot, said this is an important issue from a library’s perspective.

“You have to picture university libraries that commit in a big way to the university presses, taking on a certain level of risk when they submit funds on a prepublication basis for low-use scholarly monographs,” said Carreño, who is now curator for Latin American and Caribbean studies. “It was pretty obvious to collections librarians that it was a crapshoot when the presses decided on a prepublication basis what course adoption [books] would be and those books were withheld from normal coverage. We wondered: Is there some kind of balance here? If libraries invest in the full front list, course adoption [books] should be here.”

Fallon reports that 12 of the 16 participating presses in the current iteration of the program make 100 percent of their ebooks available through the University Press Library initiative. For the four presses that restrict some agreed-upon titles, they range from 86 to 98 percent in terms of the percentage of digitally available titles that are available for purchase as part of the University Press Library collection.

Among the 12 presses that have participated in the University Press Library initiative for more than a year, Fallon said an average of 19 libraries subscribe to their collections. Each participating library purchases an average of 5.5 press collections. In addition to selling the press’s current year front list in a complete collection, De Gruyter also digitizes and sells the press's backlist titles.

Stanford University Press signed with De Gruyter last year. Alan Harvey, the press's director, said at an event organized by De Gruyter last week that over a period of eight months the company doubled its ebook sales to libraries.

"It’s been really amazing to see how well they’ve done. We really couldn’t be happier," said Harvey. "Looking at their data now, it still seems as if we're only tapping into a small part of what's possible, which makes me really hopeful that this will actually have legs."

"The way they've curated this group of publishers, this is as close to must-have content from university presses as you're going to get," said Dean Smith, who is now the director of Duke University Press and was involved in the initiative when he was at Cornell. "What De Gruyter has stressed from the beginning is they want as many if not all titles as possible. That's what libraries want, to say they have the front list from Harvard, they have the front list from Yale. Quality and completeness were two of their core values from the beginning."

Though Duke sells single titles through De Gruyter, Duke isn't one of the partnering presses in the University Press Library initiative because it has its own ebook platform and sales team. A key question is why can’t more university presses -- the bigger ones, at least -- do this themselves? Why can’t they develop their own digital book platforms (as some do) and sell their collections directly to libraries, rather than give a cut to a middleman?

Christie Henry, director of Princeton University Press, said the publisher does not currently have the capacity to sell its ebooks directly, whether to consumers or to institutions.

“This constantly needs to be reassessed and re-examined, but this is where we see the benefits of collaborative scale,” she said. “It’s not to say we don’t continue to explore the possibility of working directly with consumers, consumers being libraries or individuals, but it requires a different structure, a different sales structure, a different customer service structure, and the technology of a platform that can house the content and deliver it.”

Charles Watkinson, director of the University of Michigan Press and associate librarian for publishing for the University of Michigan Library, which also participated in the pilot, has mixed feelings about the initiative.

“De Gruyter has done an excellent job here,” he said, singling out Fallon for being able to accomplish something no one else has been able to in getting presses to work together and with libraries.

"A lot of credit is due to him, but ultimately he’s an employee of a privately owned company, which operates for the benefits of its owner and to create profit and the profit goes back to the private owners," Watkinson said.

Michigan has developed its own ebook platform and is selling its own collection directly to libraries, just as De Gruyter does on behalf of the university presses with which it contracts.

“I want to acknowledge where I’m coming from, which is I’m a competitor in the market with these De Gruyter packages. We’re trying to sell the University of Michigan packages to the same libraries that are interested in the De Gruyter package,” Watkinson said. “But even if I weren’t a competitor, I do have a nagging concern about the relationships between university presses and commercial publishers. I think there is a danger that as university presses we lose control over our primary format, and I think libraries also need to be concerned about who’s controlling the core infrastructure.”

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