By John Sherer

Last month, I attended the Charlotte Initiative Open Conference. This Mellon-funded project brought together publishers, librarians, and technology providers to explore a reconsideration of the transactional models between publishers and libraries for eBooks. To quote the initiative, “Our starting premise is that permanent acquisitions of eBooks requires these licensing terms:

  • Provision of irrevocable perpetual access and archival rights.
  • Allowance for unlimited simultaneous users.
  • Freedom from any Digital Rights Management (DRM), including (but not limited to) use of proprietary formats, restricted access to content, or time-limited access terms.”

I was invited to be on the project’s advisory board two years ago and I’ll admit the premise seemed like quite a stretch at that time. In a climate where the rhetoric of accountability is paired with market-optimizing tools like DDA and EBA, the idea that libraries will only buy our most successful books and then insist on broad usage terms like the Charlotte Principles just felt like a non-starter. As John Unsworth mentioned in his conference keynote, publishers operate in the world of risk and libraries have historically helped academic publishers mitigate risk by building deep monograph collections. Predatory publishers figured out how to game this system, forcing libraries to use “accountability” as a reason to reduce monograph purchases despite the arrival of digital platforms making them less expensive and more accessible than ever. As a director at a public university press, I can attest to the acute pain that strategy has had on mission-driven non-profit publishers and on the humanities and social science disciplines we support. More on that in a moment.

Let’s first step back to the world we thought we lived in six to eight years ago in monograph publishing. At that moment, the business appeared to be migrating swiftly to digital. We were going to be the music business with content being downloaded and stored in clouds, bookstores (and libraries?) going away, publishers being disintermediated and the few remaining ones would consolidate. So to protect our businesses, publishers sought new digital rules to duplicate our familiar analog models. Instead of selling a physical book, we’d sell an eBook. Using the prism of the old order to imagine the new one is a classic trap during a paradigm shift. In the case of monograph publishing, this approach ignored the reality that digital versions of our books want to be “of the web” and need to be discoverable, shareable, and reused in ways that previous generations would have marveled. Instead, publishers insisted on clumsy barriers aiming to create artificial scarcity and delimit access.

The good news is that the marketplace has stabilized significantly since then. Print has shown a surprising durability while digital formats are becoming the key to discoverability. To be clear, print sales for monographs are still inexorably declining, but that is a persisting trend that goes back decades and to pin it on the arrival of digital formats ignores that historical reality. At the same time we’re getting a glimpse into the future as there are a number of OA experiments underway now that will provide data on the long-term impact on print revenue when digital editions are widely available.

So now back to the Charlotte Initiative Principles and trying to find a better way. What I like about the principles is they empower librarians to be excellent dissemination and preservation partners. But for publishers to be able to offer terms like this, we need librarians to get back in the game of sharing risk. I will never forget one of my first bosses in publishing naively asking, “Why don’t we just publish the big books?” Small books make big books possible and if you strive for a marketplace of only big books you’ll get no books. The new purchasing models embraced by libraries are resulting in the strategy of trying to only buy the big books. This will end badly for publishers, authors, and librarians.

In his discussion of risk, Unsworth thoughtfully offered the distinction between university presses and commercial presses (I’ve worked in both). Commercial publishers look to offload risk to increase potential profits. University presses need insurance against risk to succeed in their mission of publishing valuable scholarship. AAUP president Darrin Pratt has recently offered several thoughtful blog posts quantifying the value and efficiency UPs exhibit in doing this. We like accountability too. But frequently lost in the mix is how UPs add value in filtering, clarifying, and amplifying scholarship. Librarians and academic institutions should be supporting that activity as a service and not as an output of products. In doing so, these libraries and institutions would receive the vast output of university press scholarship. They would strengthen the non-profit presses who can help address other defects in scholarly publishing. They would support the advancement of humanities and social science fields. And they would demonstrate the value of long form writing, reading, and learning in an ungraceful age of fake news, 140-character-distillations, and incipient anti-intellectualism.


Comments (1)

  1. John rightly calls for a broader sharing of the risks of scholarly publishing. That was a call made as long ago as 1979 when the National Enquiry into Scholarly Communication recommended, among other things, that universities that do not support presses do more to share the burden of the cost of running the system. That has, alas, not come about yet. Instead, some universities, like SMU in 2010 and Duquesne in 2017, are closing their presses and becoming free riders on the system supported by the some 85 universities in the US that do have presses. One way of sharing the burden more broadly might be to impose a submission fee on authors of manuscripts from universities that do not support presses. They get this service for free now, but why should they benefit at the cost of the presses to which they submit their monographs? As for accountability, I would hope librarians would make a greater effort to warn faculty against sending their ebook files to pirate sites like LibGen.

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