Silencing the Cynic

Traditionally, I am distrustful of business-types who primarily appear to be only interested in profit to the detriment of their customer and competition. Survival of the fittest may be reasonable to expect, but so is ethical behavior. I want to believe that there is more good in these deals than I think.

It doesn’t seem right to me to encourage publishers to prey on the scholarly clientele, many of whom are partially funded by public tax dollars (as with public schools or universities). Good business practices thrive from win-win situations, so the optimist in me hopes that there is more to the “Big Deal” business model for delivering digital academic content to libraries. What truly goes on behind the scenes?

Zac Rolnik’s article in the Serial Librarian in 2009 suggests that content selection has been taken away from the library (i.e. the bibliographer) and given to the Big Deal publisher, who has the power to pad the subscription with unsolicited content. These freebies are potentially wasteful, so it would seem better for libraries to choose what they want–if they could actually afford to do it this way. If I shush the cynic in me for a moment, I then consider that, since they have taken on the role of the bibliographer, it is in the publisher’s best interest to do a good job of matching content to the needs of the library because if not, at some point they risk losing the client. I would be interested in knowing HOW they approach this–what content gets selected for inclusion in a bundle and how does it vary from institution to institution?

Hopefully content does vary from institution to institution based on needs/focus, but we know that pricing definitely does. This is where I put my cynic cap back on. In 2012, Strieb and Blixrud discussed the rates of nondisclosure clauses in contracts between libraries and publishers. Knowing that libraries tend to believe in the idea that “information wants to be free” and are often subject to open records laws, it is curious to me that a publisher would ask them not to share the pricing they have agreed to, unless they are concerned with protecting a profit margin. It is a lot harder for a vendor to extract extra money out of a rookie negotiator if it is common knowledge what everyone else is paying.

To me, the refusal of three of the Big Seven publishers to sell e-books to libraries also points to greed. Why should they let libraries lend their e-books out if they can force more readers to purchase (instead of borrow) the books they want? Perhaps libraries aren’t going to get 5s across the board on their ALA Ebook Business Model Scorecards, but it would be nice if publishers would start negotiating in good faith with libraries soon.

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