Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Library Monopsony for Monographic eBook Acquisition?

A River in the Sky: A Novel (Amelia Peabody Mysteries)In its antitrust lawsuit filed against OCLC on July 29 SkyRiver and Innovative Interfaces, Inc. (III) take the point of view that OCLC, a "purported member-based cooperative of libraries" is trying to monopolize the market for integrated library services.

If you're interested in the lawsuit, I recommend reading posts by two of my favorite Karens. Karen Coyle writes intelligently from an annoyed-at-OCLC viewpoint here, here and here, while Karen Schneider writes here with a deep familiarity with the library world's vendors.

What I find remarkable is the fact of the lawsuit itself. Here we have Innovative, one of the world's most successful library systems companies, claiming that OCLC, a creation of libraries themselves, is competing unfairly. It is no coincidence that the lawsuit was filed just two weeks after the announcement of a high profile launch of OCLC's "Web-Scale Management" system at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. OCLC's new service is clearly threatening to Innovative. While the lawsuit is ostensibly about OCLC's anti-competitive behavior in the cataloging market, it is motivated by OCLC's entrance as a potential competitor in Innovative's core library management system market.

I don't have much to say about the merits of the lawsuit. I am not a lawyer. I'm not even a librarian. But in general, I think it would be A Good Thing if libraries would find MORE ways to exert their market power. As far as I've seen, libraries usually act like marketplace doormats (enlightened readers of this blog excluded of course). The recent dust-up between Nature Publishing and the University of California would be a dog-bites-man story in almost any other industry.

One of my favorite words is "monopsony". It's one that every library director in the world should come to know, along with the related word "oligopsony". Everyone knows "monopoly", which is when a product or service is available from only one seller. In the SkyRiver lawsuit, it is alleged that OCLC has a monopoly on the provision of cataloging services to libraries. An oligopoly is when a monopoly is shared by a small number of sellers acting as if they were one. A monopsony is the converse of a monopoly, and occurs when a product or service has only one buyer. Sellers in such a market are at the mercy of the buyer. Although it's not often that purchasers amass such market power, it is at the heart of the success of large retailers and manufacturers such as Walmart and Dell. Their power as purchasers allows them to drive down supplier prices.

The ideal time to exert market power of any flavor is at a technological "tipping point". OCLC became a cataloging powerhouse in the 80's by taking advantage of the shift to computerized library catalogs, and its exertion of market power is so feared today because of the current technology shift towards cloud computing.

It's frustrating to a number of us in the library business that libraries are mostly sitting on the sidelines while technology is tipping towards ebooks. There is a very real possibility that the ability of libraries to lend books will not survive this transformation. The big publishers don't see libraries as a big part of their market; some publishers are openly hostile towards libraries.

That's not to say that libraries don't have significant market power in significant segments of the book  market. In these segments, I believe libraries could exert their collective power and reshape markets to their enduring benefit.

Consider the business of publishing scholarly monographs. Although some of these books find their way to readers through Amazon, the fact is that most of these books are bought by academic libraries. If academic libraries flexed their purchasing muscles, they could ensure the existence of a library-friendly ebook sales channel for these materials.

Here's the problem. Publishers of scholarly monographs have to spend real money to produce high-quality books. Today, they fund this activity by selling the books to libraries. The shift to eBooks presents new possibilities. If the production of scholarly monographs was funded directly by libraries, then perhaps the funded monographs could be made available to everyone, not just libraries that have chosen to purchase a book. The benefits would be universal access to the scholarship in question and the elimination of expensive and cumbersome DRM platforms.

Once In A Lifetime (2005 Remastered Album Version )If you think this sounds suspiciously like open-access publishing, you are  correct. Even before the creation of the World-Wide Web, many scientists used the internet to exchange technical articles, and many believed that the entire journal publishing industry would shift to an internet-enabled open-access business model. Yet, 20 years after the creation of the Web, the economics of scholarly journal publishing is roughly the same as it ever was. Is there a difference between ebook publishing and journal publishing? I believe there may be.

Let's set aside current reality for a moment and consider how libraries might accomplish the funding of ebook creation and distribution. I imagine the creation of an ebook acquisition collective. Libraries joining the collective would spend a specified fraction of their book acquisition budget through the group. The collective would offer to buy ebook rights from monograph publishers, with the understanding that the selected ebooks would be made available on an open-access basis. Collective members would decide which books to acquire. Access to this decision-making power would be a strong reason for libraries to maintain their membership; for example, the collective might favor works written by faculty members of participating institutions.

The incentives for publishers to offer books to the collective would be strong; they would get a financial payoff immediately instead of waiting years for the books to sell; a shift to demand-driven purchasing by libraries would have the opposite result. Many publishers would move timidly at first, offering only backlist titles or books that have poor commercial prospects. But publishers have to follow the money, and if the money spent by the collective grew to be large enough, publishers would have little choice but to participate.

The market for any individual scholarly monograph is not very large. For example, Princeton University Press publishes about 200 new books every year, at a cost of about $10 million. So as a very rough average, it needs about $50,000 to produce a book. University publishers that focus more closely on scholarly works produce books for significantly less. The University Press of Colorado, for example, produces 30-35 books a year at a cost of about $550,000, or less than $20,000 per book.At $20,000 per book, an acquisition collective could acquire a significant number of books.

The incentives for library participation are less certain. As libraries face budget pressure, many will be tempted to benefit from access to the acquired titles without contributing their share of funding. The most effective counter-incentive may be prestige. An effective ebook purchasing cooperative would try to maximize the prestige and publicity for the books it chooses to acquire.  This is a factor that has not worked so well for open-access journals, which are almost uniformly of lower prestige than traditionally published journals. A library can't fail to subscribe to a top journal because the faculty will insist on it; a well-marketed purchasing cooperative might provide the same sort of access to prestige as a top journal.

Given the current concern about monopolies in the library world, you might be wondering whether the sort of purchasing cooperative I describe here would be legal. While monopsonies can run into antitrust issues similar to those of monopolies, it's much rarer to for this to occur. That's because its quite easy for a purchasing cooperative to avoid antitrust violations. For example, any purchaser that represents 35% or less of a market can generally assume that its actions aren't impacted by anti-trust. If a library purchasing cooperative found itself getting too big, it could easily limit a member's contribution to 35% of its book acquisition budget. (For background on how antitrust affects group purchasing, see "Antitrust and Group Purchasing", by Michael A. Lindsay, in Antitrust 23 (3), Summer 2009. PDF, 220KB)

Libraries spend quite a bit of money on books. According to ARL Statistics, the 124 ARL libraries spent $330 million on monographs in 2008 at an average price of $55.44. If they spent 10% of this amount through an ebook cooperative, they could purchase ebook rights for 1,650 books at $20,000 each. These ebooks would really be owned by libraries, not merely rented, the way ebooks are handled in libraries today. A collective with monopsony power (or a group of collectives with ologopsony power) could force lower pricing and give strong incentives for cost-efficient publishers. Both monopolies and monopsonies can be perfectly legal if fairly obtained- copyrights and patents are good examples of monopolies created and rewarded by society.

It's interesting to compare this vision for the future with the recently announced University Press eBook Consortium, which has won a modest planning grant from the Mellon Foundation. This group imagines building a university-press-branded delivery platform for its ebook offerings and expects to launch with "over 2000 new titles and 23,000 older titles in subject-area collections, as well as a complete collection offer." The subscription business model will presumably be imported from the scholarly journal business, which is to exert the monopoly power of copyright to optimize revenue. Libraries need to think seriously about the e-journal subscription model, whether it has worked out well for them, and whether they should try something different.

If you think that an ebook acquisition collective is a good idea for libraries, please leave a comment, and spread the word. Lenders of the world, unite!

Note: SkyRiver also alleges that OCLC used its "tax-free profits" to buy up library industry companies to extend its monopolies.  One of those companies was the one that I founded. You may feel better knowing that in my case at least, a large chunk of that "tax-free" money went straight to the Internal Revenue Service!
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  1. "[Prestige] is a factor that has not worked so well for open-access journals, which are almost uniformly of lower prestige than traditionally published journals."

    Just to say that this probably varies between different scholarly fields. In my own field of palaeontology, the open access journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica (http://app.pan.pl/) is as prestigious as all but maybe one other palaeo journal; and more broadly, the PLoS family of science journals seem to be ramping up their prestige very rapidly (at least seen from within the palaeo community).

  2. You should look at a recent post on public libraries and e-book expenditures by Heather McCormack of Library Journal: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2010/an-optimist-pessimists-guide-to-avoiding-ebook-armageddon/

    In a note to her (which refers to the antipathy of publishers for libraries), I said (and she re-tweeted) "if primary dist outlet (bkstores) recognize val of working closely w/pub libs, shouldn’t publishers?"

    I know a little about public libraries and their purchasing patterns, and a lot less about academic libraries. But I think that some of the arguments are the same.