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Journals, Magazines and Serials, oh my!

A while back Robert Darnton wrote The Library: Three Jeremiads which details the ever rising costs of subscriptions (among other things). I have worked for a serials vendor and have watched the rising costs with alarm and chagrin. The charges are not just increasing for libraries but also for serials vendors.

Libraries pay the most for subscriptions. This is not hyperbole, it is fact. The cheapest rates go for what is called “reception room”. These are subscriptions sold to doctors’ offices, etc. Why the cheapest? The idea is you have a ever-turning rate of people seeing your magazine for a short time. It is similar to a ‘teaser’ issue – it will get the individual subscribers interested and willing to purchase their own subscription. Next up are the individual subscriptions – these are generally the titles you purchase for your home or office but just for your use.  At the top rung are the libraries – they pay the most for subscriptions. The idea here is that because the library has it anyone who can enter that library has access which means the individual will not order an individual subscription – instead the library copy will be used.

If you are in a public library and you have a (relatively) cheap rate for popular titles such as People Weekly or Entertainment Weekly, etc. then the vendor is probably charging you ‘reception room’ rates. More than likely the words “reception room” appear on your label – or the mailing address contains the name of an individual or does not include the word “library”.  Vendors are not allowed to do this – the costs are dictated by the publisher. If the publisher discovers you are a library but are not paying library rates, they might stop your subscription. They may also block that vendor from future orders. They might not but the possibility does exist (and there are precedents).

Again, the publisher dictates the cost to the vendor. The publisher dictates the terms of subscription (sometimes you can get a 9 month order, sometimes you must do at least 1 year, sometimes you can order 2 years, etc.). The publisher may offer the vendor a break on the cost – that is, the list price is $100 but the vendor pays only $80.  This is more often with popular titles (such as ones you’d find on in a newsstand or bookstore or grocery store checkout) and less popular (if at all) with scholarly or STM (Science, Technology, Medicine) titles. Thus the vendor may offer the public library or school library a discount whereas academic libraries or special libraries will often have a service charge. This is why the vendor will ask for a list of the library titles to bid upon – the vendor has to determine if there is any profit in the work for them or what they may have to charge.

Every year the publishers raise rates. That is, the cost to the library increases and the discount (if any) to the vendor decreases. Every year libraries have to make hard decisions on ordering. Every year the library cuts titles, the vendor has to determine if the discount/service charge will change. 

I do understand costs. I do understand making a profit.  But really, 10 to 20 percent EVERY YEAR? Surely the costs of printing (electronically or actual paper) doesn’t so far exceed the average consumer price index increase for each year. I can’t help but wonder what the future is going to bring to us. My hope is the projects such as  Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE) or Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), beautifully explained by Robert Darnton in The Library: Three Jeremiads, succeed.

Oh – and yes, I am talking mostly about print titles here. What? You say print is dead? Really? Pfft (this is a more polite term than my live reaction to such statements). I’ve discussed this before, many times: Books are DEAD, 3 bedroom house and two cars in the garage,
e-Book sales, hype and reality and am more than willing to rant again. Grrrr.

  1. January 26, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    As this post touches upon, and as Darnton specifically mentions with colonial Latin America, how often does it happen when a library cuts so many titles that it can no longer offer a particular subject, and how often do these subjects get cut across the board at different libraries? I think my biggest fear is that libraries will determine what subjects are en vogue for a particular year and cut based on the trend rather than making those hard decisions independent from everyone else.

    • January 26, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      Eh, I think it is more what the university determines is ‘en vogue’ since the library generally follows the curriculum of the university and, more often, the vocal demands of the professors. Sadly, it does become a popularity contest though – if statistics show some titles are not being used, they are first on the chopping block. Libraries have long since ceased multiple subscriptions and the latest trend is “if is available electronically, cut the print THEN if it is available in a database, cut the electronic subscription”.
      In public and school, it becomes very much a popularity contest – what is used? what is dusty?
      I know at our medical school, we choose cuts based on (1) what is used, (2) how many other libraries hold that title [based on OCLC and/or Medline holdings], (3) is it available electronically in a database we already subscribe to?. We sent the lists to the departments and they came back with their recommendations. We included statistics as well as costs (esp. a ‘cost per use’). But still, we had to cut hard.
      Oh – and accreditation was also factor. We had to maintain a certain standard to maintain acreditation. This is true in many types of libraries.

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