One Size Doesn't Fit All

The following is a guest-post from UPM Director Leila Salisbury. This article, the first in what will be a regular series, appeared in the April issue of Against the Grain. Against the Grain is a great journal for those interested in how academic libraries think and operate and how vendors shape their strategies to work within the changing landscape of scholarly communication.

As a woman who is 6’2”, I am very familiar with the reality that one size does not fit all. (A recent dip into old college photo albums confirms that in the days before online shopping made finding special sizes easier, I apparently never owned a single pair of pants that was long enough.) Though I am finally comfortable with this concept in my personal life, it took me a bit longer to understand how to apply it in my work as a scholarly publisher.

Before becoming a press director, I worked on the marketing side of publishing, and for years I operated under the erroneous belief that there was one way to sell books to academic libraries and that libraries all wanted and needed the same things. In joining the University Press of Mississippi in 2008, I was quickly set right on this point. Mississippi is a consortium press, so in the first few months on the job the editors and I traveled to our eight state campuses to meet faculty and administrators and talk about the work of the Press. Based on the suggestion of the state’s library association director, I also made appointments to meet the library deans.

What an education in a very short period of time. After three meetings, I realized that in many ways, librarians view scholarly publishing as a mysterious process with equally mysterious business models behind it, and I saw that as a publisher (who should know better), I was unaware of a number of the significant changes taking place within academic libraries. Though my academic background is in English and I don’t possess an MBA, it did seem obvious to me that this way of conducting our joint work—making decisions without the benefit of a great deal of mutual understanding of business practices and needs—could be greatly improved.
Publishers, even within the classification of academic publishers, operate in many different ways and under different publishing models. Commercial academic publishers are a class to themselves, the force behind much of journals publishing, textbooks, and new electronic content aggregations. There are Open Access publishers and academic societies who publish their own journals and other materials. And then there are the university presses. Even within this group, there is an incredible range of press size, income, and operating strategies.

University presses are most often alike in the fact that their editorial work is grounded in the peer review process, and yet what they publish—and how—can vary widely. Monographs to regional trade titles and everything in between appear on their lists, and book pricing, formats (hardcover, paperback, or simultaneous), and ebook models and pricing (when the ebooks are even available, that is) are all over the map. The Association of American University Presses offers a number of excellent meetings and professional development and networking opportunities annually where best practices are discussed, but member presses formulate their own business plans according to the expectations of their own host institutions, funding formulas, available technology resources and partners, and guidance from editorial and advisory boards. What works beautifully for one press may be unrealistic or even undesirable for another.

As I learned and am still learning, the same is often true of academic libraries. Within Mississippi, the academic libraries serve campuses ranging in enrollment from just under 3,000 students to more than 20,000. Some of these campuses have distance learning programs or multiple campuses, though all of them seem to be finding that increasingly their students want to access materials online and that these students feel more comfortable texting a question to a reference librarian rather than asking in person, even when that student is sitting at a table within sight of the reference desk.

Though this will come as a surprise to none, money is often the chief differentiator between libraries, dramatically affecting the services they offer and the collections they develop. Before beginning this column, I emailed a few of my library contacts to ask how students were accessing material and how/if budgets were shifting to accommodate changes in student and faculty needs and preferences. In my own conversations and work over the past four years, I had become aware that university presses frequently formulate strategy and pricing based on the operations of ARL libraries. While I do not in any way mean to minimize these institutions as important customers and campus partners, it struck me that there are many, many libraries in this country that fall outside this group—far greater in number than those within the ARL classification—and I wondered if we as publishers were meeting their needs well.

When I reached out a few weeks ago, one dean sent a thought-provoking response to my question about how libraries were handling the issue of resources in electronic format: “I think you’ll find two primary camps trying to address this transition: the haves and the have nots.” I had also asked him what he thought about the new monograph aggregations being launched this year and next, and he noted that while he thought the students and faculty on his campus would benefit from such subscriptions, he avoided “new ongoing annual expenses like the plague.”

He concluded, “Perhaps you could consider the mindset of the two camps as you write articles and alternate the discussion of strategies for those with ample resources looking to aggressively build their collections/access and others who are looking to creatively economize until more stable funding materializes.” His suggestion stuck with me, providing both the inspiration for this piece and a framework for future columns.

Both the haves and the have nots want to grow their collections with electronic scholarship and to serve their faculty and students well. According to their means, however, each library will go about this process differently. Large libraries will likely acquire monograph aggregations and find room in the budget for annual subscription fees, while smaller libraries may look for programs offering one-time purchases that offer perpetual access.

Publishers, take note. Like these libraries, we have been (to use this dean’s phrase) “creatively economizing” like mad since the 2008 crash, doing more with less. An essential part of the “doing more” should be ensuring that we offer our quality scholarly content through many avenues and in many forms and formats. One size, or one access model, does not fit all. Publishers have the opportunity to deliver scholarship in more ways than ever before: in traditional print, in digital form, as part of an aggregation, on a short-term loan, in whole, or in part . . . there are many possibilities. Those that we serve—readers and libraries—don’t fit a single mold or model, and accordingly we must be flexible and savvy enough to develop and take advantage of the programs that meet the needs and budgets of both haves and have nots.