The university press and library sales




Last month, the Scholarly Kitchen published a post on the decreasing percentage of overall university press sales represented by academic libraries, coauthored by Rick Anderson and UCP’s Dean Blobaum. The post was actually a response-to-a-response piece, picking up on a discussion first initiated by “University Presses under Fire,” a controversial write-up in the Nation which prognosticated future scenarios for scholarly publishing based on a shifting-if-unpredictable current climate. Anderson, responding in an initial post at the Scholarly Kitchen, furthered questions raised by the Nation:

In other words, there’s no question that university presses face a real and probably existential challenge. But the challenge is deeper than any posed by a changing environment and it is more complicated than any posed by uncertain institutional funding. To a significant degree it lies in the fact that, unlike most publishers, university presses provide a vital, high-demand service to authors and a marginal, low-demand one to most readers.

Needless to say, this generated activity in the comments section, where Anderson eventually posed the following hypothesis:

It’s a commonplace assertion that, contrary to longstanding popular belief, libraries are not in fact the primary customers of university presses [and this assertion was made again in the comments]. . . . While this is true of university press publications generally, it’s probably not true of scholarly monographs specifically, and that the decrease in libraries’ share of university press purchases probably has mainly to do with the larger number of non-scholarly books being published by university presses.

In stepped Blobaum, who offered to test Anderson’s hypothesis with real-numbers data from the University of Chicago Press, and the two vetted 10 scholarly monographs against WorldCat holdings and sales data. The result? “49% of the sales represented by those ten titles could be accounted for by library holdings registered in WorldCat.”

You can read the rest of the post to see how that percentage holds up when expanded to a larger data set (UCP’s 2012 offerings, organized and disclosed by format and subject only). It was enough for Anderson to conclude the following:

Other results of this study confirm what I (and probably most of us) would have assumed to be the case: that annuals, reprints, and new editions sell to libraries in very small numbers (from my several years of experience as a bookseller to libraries, I would have guessed that fewer than 10% of those sales would be represented in WorldCat), and that non-library purchases of trade books would greatly outstrip sales to libraries. Even though these findings are unsurprising, I think it’s worthwhile to have the data.

In light of this, we’ll close with a shorthand to Blobaum’s takeaway:

Again, it’s important to bear in mind that we’re looking at one publisher’s books for one year—and a university press publisher, one which, like other university presses, is able to set prices for its books that do not put them out of reach of individual buyers. For that economy, we owe the support we get from our university, the lift from books we publish for a general or regional readership, the book reviewers who read and like those books, the students who purchase books assigned in courses, and the support of libraries who purchase the work of our authors.

Read the full article here.