Friday, February 20, 2009

What libraries' buying patterns mean for you

If you're an academic author, you're familiar with the same old problem: the university press prices your book at $90 or $100 and releases it in hardback only, to profit as much as possible from academic libraries. Many of you have shaken your fists in frustration while telling me that your publisher "won't listen" when you beg for a more affordable price. Elsewhere in this blog I've explored alternatives (negotiating a special, lower cover price only for your students at your academic bookstore, for example -- something some presses will do if they want you badly enough, as long as they are protected by the assurance that you won't open these sales to others), but the process of educating academic authors about university press financial realities is always with us.

Now along comes a report from the Association of Research Libraries about what may change in acquisitions during the economic downturn. Libraries are facing acquisitions budget cutbacks that may be permanent. You may not have known it, but some publishers have structured book prices differently depending on the size and budget of the library. From the report: Large libraries have also been subject to a novel form of inflation pressure as some publishers have implemented new pricing models, such as tiered pricing, that shift revenue generation to larger institutions that are required to absorb significant price increases to compensate for discounting to other customers. Publishers implementing changes in pricing models that provide discounts to small customers by balancing them with increases to larger customers will be especially likely to force large institutions into cancellation decisions.

Whoa, that's deep. The upshot is that the report calls for university presses to consider cutting prices. But don't pop the champagne just yet. After many university press visits, I've become convinced that the price structures have their place -- the margins are so thin at so many places that if they couldn't get this guaranteed money from research library acquisitions, some books couldn't be published at all.

Any trainwreck usually results in the little guy getting thrown into a cowfield somewhere, and guess who that is? Yep, the author. If the engine (research libraries) cut back, and the middle cars (university presses) lower prices, the caboose (those academic authors who have niche audiences) may just find themselves fishtailing wildly and hurled from the tracks.

It's my job to look out for all of my academic authors, but especially the caboose. I'll make recommendations as I can (how about "Look out!"). But this key recommendation has always been true -- be bold, and write a book with a measurable audience. You don't have to turn yourself into a trade author and you shouldn't, but now more than ever it is important that academic authors ponder along with their future editors about who the book serves and why -- what makes it essential. And if you're getting feedback from editor after editor that your book looks fascinating but just doesn't have a demonstrable audience, listen to that and think about what you as an author can do to help. Then come talk to me, and we'll try to sort through this together.

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