Monday 10 June 2024

Institutional Market Blues (and Grays)

ALPSP Blog by Course Tutor, Michael Zeoli, Director, Publisher Partner Program, De Gruyter Publishing.

“If you drop a book into the toilet, you can fish it out, dry it off and read that book.  But if you drop your Kindle in the toilet, you’re pretty well done.”  Stephen King

To say that the advent of the internet and personal computers have disrupted the worlds of content distribution is a dull commonplace. Disruption has, in fact, become the only constant. A simplified timeline of the appearance of a few well-known disruptors looks something like this:

Three decades on, we are still just at the beginning. Is it possible to find a ‘North Star’ to help guide our distribution decisions in a turbulent institutional market? We’d like to share a few high-level observations – for context – and then offer some specific considerations for publishers.


The diagram below is a highly simplified image of the evolution of a significant portion of the institutional market distribution eco-system. More recently, Open Access and AI large language models have presented further disruption in a rapidly changing landscape.

Even as late as 2008 or 2009, when print distributors to libraries began to integrate the digital newcomers, e.g., Netlibrary, ebrary, EBL, MyiLibrary, the vision persisted that libraries would just replace the print artifact with a digital facsimile in a one-to-one transfer of both the content and the budget allocation. How na├»ve!  Technology that powered Amazon and eBay and Napster would eventually overtake the quaint way in which academic libraries acquired books and their patrons consumed them!  Currently, for any given new university press title, there are often 14 access options available to libraries on a single vendor platform to select from (hardcover, paperback, 1-User, 3-User, Non-Linear Lending, Unlimited-User, etc.), and each under a variety of purchase options (auto-ship approval, slip notification/library order, Demand/Patron-Driven Acquisitions-DDA/PDA, Evidence-Based Acquisitions-EBA, etc.). Multiply that by multiple vendors and by 70,000 or more English-language scholarly books published annually, and the enormous challenge of discovery in libraries is frighteningly clear.

Technology-driven content access models and purchase models have upended not just traditional book distribution, but also fundamentally forced libraries, vendors, and publishers to dramatically re-imagine book distribution, accessibility, and the methods and meaning of library collection strategies. It is also revelatory that the epithet collection development is now commonly collection strategy.

With this thumbnail sketch of the challenges in the institutional marketplace, what are some of the key questions we should be asking our vendors – the middlemen with libraries – and what are key points for the publisher in terms of understanding commercial options and deciding how to manage them?

First, what to do with vendor reports and what questions are worth seeking responses to at annual meetings?
  • What are the current market trends?
  • How is the competitive landscape changing?  
  • Which models are effective or damaging and how can we improve our participation?  
  • How is pricing helping or hurting sales?  
  • What are successful peer presses doing differently?
  • How does the nature of your publishing impact on the effectiveness of access and purchase models?
And lastly, caveat emptor!  The way in which vendors present their numbers and couch discussions is also part of their competitive strategy in a fraught environment.  Some numbers may be hidden within a larger number or be presented in skewed ways or may not be presented at all.

Two points to bear in mind: 
  1. The market is a closed system, that is library budgets are fixed, so an increase in sales in one channel will likely reflect a loss in another channel.  This does not mean that loss in one will equal growth in another – one system will likely produce better results than another, but what is important to understand is that your partners are competing for the same customers, often using similar tools.

  2. Vendor access models and purchase models must be understood and managed attentively.  ‘Letting 1000 flowers bloom’ or supporting a ‘level playing field’ are not strategies and not successful means of managing commercial success in today’s market.
What data should you have to use vendor reports for analysis?

There are five essential datapoints needed from a vendor in a sales analysis for academic library book sales:
  1. Number of *new titles* the vendor received from the publisher in each time period (a 15% increase in sales is wonderful, but was it caused simply by a 15% increase in new titles or was there something else at play?)

  2. Rate of simultaneous ebook availability for the new print titles handled. Were print or ebooks sales impacted simply by availability? Was there a glitch in getting eContent delivered and loaded – or perhaps a significant portion of titles were deliberately unavailable in digital format? Did this play a role in an increase or decline of ebook sales?  Did print make up for a decline (never does!).

  3. Aggregator sales in *units* as well as by and revenue *by purchase model*, i.e. DDA, EBA, etc.

  4. Average sales price-per-title for print, ebooks, and by aggregator

  5. Five-year trend for all data points (comparison over a long period provides indispensable context – comparing just one year over another does not give you a very good idea of how a publisher is trending).

  6. Usage data is increasingly important.  Vendors vary in how much they will share with publishers.

To make decisions regarding pricing for the various ebook access models, a table such as the one below helps organize your options and decisions across multiple vendors. Bear in mind too, that since vendors use different models – or prioritize different models – and that sometimes models with the same name work differently on different vendor platforms, the idea of a ‘level playing field’ may not actually be the right strategy. Kim Williams at Princeton University Press calls her alternative strategy ‘curated partnerships’.  How does your ‘current pricing’ looks across your primary vendors?  Filling in that information in a table like this one will provide clarity that everything is as it should be – or not.



In similar fashion, to make decisions regarding various ebook access models, a table such as the one below may be helpful in organizing decisions across multiple vendors.



We hope you’ll consider joining Kim Williams and I later this month in our two-part ALPSP virtual training course. The focus of this will be building institutional sales strategies in connection with publisher aspirations and specializations, and Open Access will not be a focus. The ideas suggested in this brief piece will be explored in more depth with the goal of helping you to identify tools and methods to analyze and develop your commercial strategies in the institutional market(s). 

The ALPSP training course: 'Building Strategies for Managing Partnerships and Institutional eBook Sales' takes place on 24 and 25 June 2024. ALPSP is currently offering a summer discount of 20% off this course. Find out more.


About the author

Michael Zeoli, Director, Publisher Partner Program, De Gruyter Publishing

Michael has worked in scholarly publishing and academic libraries for more than two decades. He began his career with academic libraries as a supervisor in the Acquisitions Department at the University of Chicago Regenstein Library. He occupied many roles at YBP Library Services (now GOBI Library Solutions) where, as Vice President of Publisher Relations, he was responsible for consulting with publishers on academic library digital and print book sales and the purchase models offered by vendors and aggregators. Michael is currently Director, Publisher Partner Program at De Gruyter and has provided consulting to many scholarly publishers.