written by Anthony Sinnott, Access and Procurement Development Manager, University of York ,

Image from annual earnings report on the @PublishersAssoc Twitter feed and shared by @LizzieGadd

The Publishers Association presents the increase in business and revenues reported in the image above as a positive achievement, which is absolutely reasonable considering their perspective. When looking into the data, though, I couldn’t help but view it as a butcher’s bill. From our side of the scholarly supply chain, this is the cost of doing business during a pandemic, a graphic representation of the additional resource our institutions have poured into keeping courses afloat in extraordinary circumstances.

What I was seeing was not the happy outcome of a thriving period of business, but the concrete reality of just how much we have been leaned on, by suppliers keen to cash in on an increased desperation for online content, to pay ever larger sums of money for textbook access.

This is why, from a Librarian perspective, this bountiful growth does not feel particularly joyful. Typically, growth of this scale comes as a consequence of something; an improved service, a fantastic new product, something bigger and better. In this case, it is hard to pin down what that could be? There are new platforms, but there have always been new platforms. There are new schemes but none that resonate as ground-breaking or particularly complete. There are new products but many of these seem to be repackaging older content. The conclusion drawn from this is, inevitably, that the growth we see here is down to necessity rather than desire. The Publishers Association are standing beneath a tree after a heavy gale and celebrating the bounty of leaves as if it were something they brought about.

If it’s not new and it’s not better, what have we paid for?

In a word, access. That’s what I suspect the large surge in digital profits are for. Not diversification. Not zeitgeist busting, blue sky aspiring, bleeding edge tech. Not breakout products or exciting new schemes. Not even horizon reaching content brimming with innovation. All we see on the market is just plain old access to the same exact things we have been trying to get hold of for years. Access in far greater numbers and with much expanded concurrency, to be sure, (the current world situation demands that as a minimum) but nothing world beating or out of the ordinary. Which is where the obvious questions start to form. It is imperative that we are able to learn the following information about these huge spikes in profit (which come from our institutions)

  • What of the 19% £440 million increase in digital has come from the following
    – User limited licences
    – Credit model licences
    – Subscribed licences across limited timescales
    – 1/1 ‘seat’ model licences
  • What % of the content sold was newly created digital representation and what was pre existing?
  • What is the breakdown of format types for ebooks involved in the growth of profits?

This is exactly the thing #ebooksos has campaigned about. Much of the narrative around publisher pricing for ebooks has involved a suspicion that print revenues have required protection. However, according to these figures, print revenues have rebounded and are holding, yet digital profits are still spiralling. This points to a broken market bereft of notions of value that are not completely arbitrary, set in favour of publishers & with risk entirely front loaded onto institutions.

I call for Publishers Association members to come to the table, to finally heed the requests of sector organisations like Jisc, SCONUL, and RLUK and commit to meaningful engagement. It may be too late for this, it might be that the authorities are required to step in, perhaps I am still too full of optimistic naivety about the whole thing. I guess I just think that, if you are lucky enough to receive the windfall that the publishing industry has had over the past 18 months, then you would be well served to consider how you might preserve that in the coming years and repair some of the relationships that have been damaged through years of neglect. Maybe that’s just me though?

Anthony Sinnott, Access and Procurement Development Manager, University of York , @librarianth 

Note: This piece is an expansion on an original thread written by Anthony on Twitter. Full thread here (https://twitter.com/librarianth/status/1517187261116428289?t=2aPxpc3gTl2LavqRQ1zcIA&s=19)


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