Libraries and publishers: doomed to understand each other

Bibliotecas y editores

One of the most curious and weird paradoxes of the relationship between publishing and libraries is the existing lack of mutual understanding. At a time in which numerous markets are clearly receding ―where not in an accelerating crisis as in the case of Spain― and in which publishers imperiously need to sell and libraries need to purchase ―mainly digitally―, they do not seem to understand each other in what would be a win-win relationship. The problem is that the victim of this anomaly is no other than the reader.

Historically, libraries have been a natural channel for all publishers; it was perfectly understood that it was a public service that had to be strengthened and supported for both the formation of democratic societies and the access to culture by the most disadvantaged layers of social fabric. In the case of Spain, 43% of the population is a member of a library, which is equivalent to 20 million Spaniards.

Until recently, the sales of the publishing industry through this channel were certainly high, but the emergence of digital technology has unleashed an atavistic fear among many publishers when it comes to marketing digital products in libraries. Publishers lack defined marketing models for libraries and these, in turn, have not determined clear acquisition models for borrowing this type of material which truly convince the industry. This, of course, implies a slowdown in the creation of a powerful, structured digital market.

A brief analysis of the Spanish publishing sector shows a drop of nearly 32% in its sales volume between 2008 and 2014; a decline of nearly 1 billion euros in those years, which carries the industry back into the figures of the mid-nineties. In parallel, although the decreases in libraries’ acquisition budget have reached 60%, digital purchase by both public and university libraries has grown in excess of one hundred percent. In many cases, these purchases are occurring in the form of content packages under subscription systems.

turnover figure of domestic trade

A situation like the one described herein urges publishers and libraries to reach an agreement on digital borrowing, at least at national level. This requires publishers to define highly diversified marketing models and libraries to demand a sustainable borrowing model in the short, medium, and long terms. But here emerges one of the major problems of this paradox: Where can a library consult if a book is available for purchase and borrowing? Under what characteristics and modalities of acquisition is it marketed? Perpetuity, temporary license, borrowing, concurrence, non-concurrence? So far, this cannot be consulted anywhere. Therefore a very interesting commercial possibility arises for the industry itself: to launch a national content aggregator for libraries, i.e., a library for libraries. If each country organizes content aggregation for libraries, the next step will be to link these aggregators together to offer content anywhere in the world. This idea is being initially embraced by independent small publishers, rather than by big publishing groups. The latter are trying desperately and at all costs to protect their current business ―that of paper―, but this overprotection is the end of the future.

The incorporation of library channels to digital purchase would have a highly positive effect on the development of a structured, broad ranging digital market, hence the importance of reaching an agreement as soon as possible. In a world where contents evolve precipitously towards digital technology, it is obvious that the publishing industry must reconsider the ecosystem to which this disruptive turn is taking it. In the current book trade between Spain and Latin America, there is an undoubtedly important trade gap that creates a highly negative trade balance for Latin American countries; however, digital commerce can result in the considerable reduction of this gap. Trade between both sides of the Atlantic will be digital: not atoms but bits will travel, and the offer that could be made available to the reader can reach hitherto unknown proportions. Latin America produced in 2013 about 194,000 titles, of which 21% are digital, and the provisional figures for 2014 show that production has been 188,000 titles. The problem is, commercially speaking, that these books are not made available to the reader in Spanish outside the borders of the country and, of course, are not available to libraries. If we add the production of Spain and Portugal to the figure of Latin American production, the result will be 305,000 titles with 23% of digital production. This content tsunami clearly shows the need to design digital marketing ecosystems for both retailing and libraries, so that the reading public can find the most attractive and interesting contents regardless of borders and countries, language being a common substrate to the choice of content.

If we concisely analyze the user-reader connection, we will observe that, with more than 30% of the world population using smart phones by the end of 2015, we can come to think that the user is permanently connected and ready to access knowledge in a mobile and ubiquitous way, which means that the library will be in the user’s cellphone and that the industry’s content offer has to assess this assumption critically.

In my opinion, laying the foundation for a digital market as globalized as possible is required and, therefore, establishing dialogue between publishers and libraries is essential. Agreements, consensus, and dialogue can benefit the industry and also libraries, whose role as an instrument in the democratic formation of societies is crucial. Spanish readers need it and are expecting it.

Manuel Gil

Manuel Gil has a Master’s Degree in Business Management and Marketing from the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid. He currently combines consulting work in the field of books and activities as a lecturer and professor of various master’s programs in publishing, both in Spain and Latin America. He is coauthor of El nuevo paradigma del sector del libro, Manual de Edición. Guía para editores, autores, correctores y diagramadores, El paradigma digital y sostenible del libro and author of Prueba, experimenta y aprende: Marketing para librerías, in addition to being coeditor of the journal Texturas and managing the blog Antinomiaslibros.