Leveraging Vendor Partnerships in Library Acquisitions
Being an acquisitions librarian means strategically communicating within and outside of one's organization. Formal organizational structures guide some of our work and communication; the savvy acquisitions librarian creates his/her own supplemental networks as well. Today I want to look specifically at an acquisitions librarian's role in vendor communications.
For the first 10 years or so of my work in library acquisitions, I developed the perspective that library vendors compete for libraries' business. For most of that time, I was in a vendor assignment role at work: I decided from whom we'd buy each firm ordered title. To me, vendors were the stores and libraries were the shoppers.
This went a little bit against the grain of one of my mentors' approach: she advocated for giving vendors a “fair mix” of orders back in the mid-'90s. By a “fair mix,” she meant that, when vendors sell some kinds of books, like bestsellers, supplying them to libraries is easy and vendors turn a tidy profit on this kind of sale. Other titles, like society publications, will require more effort on the part of the vendor to vend, because there's less demand for these titles and no discount built into the list price for the vendor. Achieving the “fair mix” means that several vendors would be used for a balance of profitable and less profitable purchases: the library would work to make sure that we didn't favor one vendor for easy orders and one for hard orders.
My mentor's idea has played out in the library marketplace more than my "smart shopper" approach. Vendors are not just suppliers of books. Libraries consider book vendors to be partners in collection development, in acquisitions and in cataloging now. Rather than shopping for the best bottom-line price on a title-by-title basis, we negotiate for a broad range of services from a vendor, including title identification, catalog records and physical processing of books. These services work best when the purchasing agent isn't weighing vendors against one another on a micro, title-by-title level. As these library-vendor partnerships expanded beyond just selling books and tracking library orders to a wider range of services, technical services staffing has been reduced in many libraries and that's where libraries are saving money as a result of the partnerships with vendors.
The other side of this is that there is less competition among library vendors for library business. The potential for cost savings at the point of purchase title-by-title is diminished and the partnership model is reinforced. The implicit threat that, if a vendor can't give us the best price for every book, we'll go somewhere else is undermined and facilitates trust between the partners.
The acquisitions librarian is pivotal in managing relationships among his or her colleagues, staff and the library's vendors. One point that hit home for me recently is that, just as the acquisitions librarian uses local input from colleagues to inform the vendor of the library's needs, the acquisitions librarian can also seek a vendor's perspective on and solicit suggestions for accomplishing the library's objectives. The very specific example I have is that, since the time that my colleague who managed approval plans (among many other things) died last year, our department has continued to manage approval plans, but without the succession planning that facilitates continuity of service. In some ways, we were prepared for the transition: I knew some basic communication strategies and implications of our position between collection development and vendor services. In other ways, we started from the ground up and have had to learn for ourselves some very basic mechanical aspects of approval plans: How often do we submit requests for changes to the plans to our vendors? As they come up? Monthly?
While no one has time to talk on the phone all day, phone conversations supplement as well as frame the barrage of email traffic that takes place between staff in our respective organizations constantly. When I called one of our vendors with some operational questions recently, we had a chance to reflect on changes in both of our organizations. Regular conversations strengthen the partnership. Some of the conversation topics are operational. The recent addition of another e-book platform to our suite of services, whose titles will be available through this vendor; expanding our use of approval plans to acquire e-books; and refining adjustments to another e-book platform were some of the topics we've discussed recently. Some of the topics are from an eagle eye view and a vendor's feedback is useful in knowing what is possible and how it meshes with library priorities: this information is critical to strategic planning.
If you're involved with acquisitions, collection development or cataloging at your library, what tips do you have for communication with vendors? Would you like to offer a caveat to anything I've said? Please let me know in the comments, which are both anonymous and moderated.