I was on the phone with my Elsevier rep last year. He was giving me the standard spiel about the tremendous value that ScienceDirect was bringing to my institution, in an attempt to talk me out of stepping away from the big deal. Finally, I interrupted. "It's not that you're wrong," I said. "It's just that this isn't relevant to the situation I'm in."
"Look," I continued. "If Lynn and I go down to Jim & Nick's for dinner, we might spend $50 and have a really good meal. If we go to Hot n' Hot, I might spend $200 for an exceptional experience. I might feel that the $200 actually represents a better value overall, but if all I've got to spend on dinner is $20, the comparison is irrelevant. The point is, I'm just not willing to spend what you're asking, no matter how valuable you tell me the content is."
He still seemed pretty surprised some weeks later when he finally got our order and we'd done exactly what we said we were going to do.
Librarians in general have not been terribly good negotiators. Too often, what passes for negotiating is to plead poverty and beg for the percentage increase to come down a couple of points. A good sales rep knows this, and past evidence demonstrates that, with very few exceptions, librarians will always plead that they can't afford it, but somehow they always come up with the money.
This year, in the face of an economic downturn more severe than working librarians have ever known, the pleas of poverty have gotten louder. And some publishers have responded by announcing price freezes. Whether or not those publishers hope to be able to recoup in future years by instituting compensating price increases remains unknown.
Librarians have expressed gratitude to those publishers, but an exchange on liblicense-l this week highlights the question of the degree to which that gratitude will be translated into action. Will librarians "reward" publishers that freeze their prices and "punish" those that come up with price increases, even if those increases stay within the normal ranges that we've come to expect? Or will librarians do what they've always done and eventually make their decisions based on what they believe they can't do without, regardless of the pricing structure? Joe Esposito speculates that if the latter is true,
So if I'm a gutsy publisher, who believes that my content is the stuff that libraries can't do without, this may be a golden opportunity to further weaken the competition.
Whether that turns out to be a good gamble or not depends on what librarians do over the next couple of months as they make decisions for 2010. The major commercial publishers have done a very good job of betting that when push comes to shove, librarians will always come around, no matter how much they fuss.
As far back as my first AAHSL meeting in 1987, I've been listening to librarians say that publishers have got to change their pricing practices because the current system is simply not sustainable. And yet, librarians have done a very good job of sustaining it.
I wonder if that will turn out to be the case again this year.