In 1981 I moved to New England, where my parents had grown up. For the first time in years, I had the chance lo visit my late grandmother, who remains famous within our family for her sharp tongue.
Years before she had been very kind to me as an undergraduate, sending $5 spending money occasionally, when she had little to spare. So I drove to South Boston, found her nursing home, parked, went in, and on up. I hadn't called, so the visit was a surprise, and when she realized who I was we had a warm moment of reunion.
We talked. She asked what I did. I said I was a reference librarian. What did that mean? Reference librarians, I said, answered questions and found information for people.
A pause as she considered that, then asked, "And you had to go to college for that Robby?"
A few years later I took my present job, and now it's harder than ever to explain whal it is I do.
"I love Yankee Magazine." We're not Yankee Magazine (although the magazine's mail regularly gets misdirected our way), we're Yankee Book Peddler. "Oh, you work for a bookstore, that must be interesting." Well no, not a bookstore. "Do you publish books'?" No, we don't publish books, we sell books, to academic libraries. "Then, you sell textbooks?' Well yes, textbooks, but every other kind of book too. And so on.
Even among those who do understand what we do, there isn't any one word that's used to describe our function. The not very descriptive, "book vendor," probably is used more often than any other word or phrase, but, "bookseller," "wholesaler," "jobber," and "distributor" all are in common use.
Scholars and other authors, when writing about the business of books, rarely write about distribution, or that process that brings a book from its publisher partway to its ultimate buyer--to the retail store--or in the case of libraries, partway to its ultimate readers. Maybe that's because when they have looked at book distribution, as writers of books themselves, what they found was too bleak to dwell upon.
James West, in his Amerlcan Authors and the Literary Marketplace since 1900 (1988), wrote, "The chief problem for the publisher of clothbound books in America during this century has been lack of an adequate distribution system." In 1982 a report of the Book Industry Study Group observed that "Distribution is a costly, frustraling and sensitive issue for every segment of the U.S. book industry." That same year, book industry gadfly Leonard Shatzkin, in his In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, concurred, remarking that "In general. the distribution of titles through the book trade is inefficient, costly, and wasteful."
To drop back two centuries, Robert Darnton, in his marvelous book. The Business of Enlightenment (1979), tells the story of Diderot's Encyclopedia. As Darnton's title hints, he wrote of the Encyclopedia as a business proposition, a product to be financed, manufactured, advertised, distributed, and sold. All of those functions were generally going on at once, in Darnton's history, and in far from orderly fashion. It was something of a miracle that the book came out at all. In eighteenth century France, a publisher required the favor of the king. Competitors might steal your text and bring out their own pirated editions. Your partners might swindle you. Your printers might walk out. Markets were uncertain, transportation difficult, the price of books high. Darnton neglects not even the ragpickers, who went house-to-house to gather the raw material to produce the paper needed to print the book, so that il could carry on the work of spreading the Enlightenment.
Book publishing and distribution is not quite so treacherous a business today, in our highly rationalized age. "Publishing" and "distribution," in fact, are different businesses altogether, not so two centuries ago. But, let me assure you that the business of book distribution, under late twentieth century circumstances, remains a difficult job. Distributors must keep track of some 40,000-50,000 new titles published each year in this country alone. While a relatively small number of publishers release a very high percentage of these titles, there are some 40,000-50,000 entities listed in the standard directories-the publishers-who may bring out a book at any moment, usually without notice, let alone fanfare. Each sets its own terms for doing business. The publishers come and go, and sometimes come back again. So do their books, which go in and out of print rapidly. Prices change. Titles change. Editions and bindings change. The very package in which a title is published might today be print or electronic, or both. Competitors, while perhaps not well positioned to swindle one another, or commit acts of piracy, are always lined up to discuss in librarians' offices how they can supply the exact books that you do, faster, cheaper, and better.
On bad days it must seem to every book vendor that it's the eighteenth century all over again. and that it's something of a miracle that distribution works as well as it does in 1996. Sometimes I like to think of myself as one of Darnton' s ragpickers, holding one of the unheralded, invisible jobs that are nonetheless essential if the books with our fingerprints on them would have whatever effect it is books have upon their readers in these last years of the twentieth century.
We book vendors exist today because it's proven economical for publishers not to have to do on their own much of the work involved in distributing their books; and because it's proven economical for libraries, likewise, not to rely upon publishers as direct distributors. It's our role to accept and embrace a large portion of the drudgery in the book business, to free publishers and librarians to do their true jobs, which isn't to move books around, but to create books, and to make them accessible.
So our role in the collection development partnerships that are the theme of this panel, is to be something of a silent partner. As closely as I have worked with Pat from time to time, I would hope that we are doing a good enough job for UNC Chapel Hill that she doesn't need to think too often about book distribution problems, so that she can think about Dr. Leloudis, and work closely with him to serve the students on this campus, who are the reason that all of us are here in the first place.
Let me talk, then, about some of the things that we do each day back in New Hampshire, silently, in a sense, to support our partners in the library and on the faculty at Chapel Hill.
Now Dr. Leloudis has spoken about the need to do more with primary sources, with foreign materials, and with digitization of course materials. But I think that he would agree that these things don't replace the need to have the right scholarly books in a library. And I'll make my case with the example of a particular book that I think he'd agree deserves a place on the shelf in as many libraries as possible, his own. I'm speaking of Dr. Leloudis's, Schoollng the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880-1920, just published by the University of North Carolina Press.
We placed an order for 75 copies of the book several months ago. When we place a prepublication order like that, it accomplishes a number of things. The publisher, first, is assured of a certain level of demand for the book right away, and of regaining some part of the cost of producing it when our check arrives, early in the book's life cycle.
Not only that, our order immediately becomes a little advertisement for the book. While UNC Press promotes the book through its catalogs, and mailings, and reps, we note the book's coming availability in our database, where any of our customers, via the Internet, can find out about it, and can place their own prepublication order if they wish. In fact we already record orders from four libraries for Dr. Leloudis's book, for a total of six copies (a total swelled by an order for three copies from the UNC libraries.) In the not too distant future, the database will routinely offer summaries and tables of contents. A little farther out, perhaps excerpts, and a look at the book jacket.
Most of those 75 copies, though, won't need to be ordered by libraries at all. We will send them out automatically, on approval, under individual profiles we've developed jointly with our customers. Some customers' profiles will instead specify that we send not the book itself, but a paper notification slip. Dozens of these little birth announcements will generate interest among our customers who did not receive the book automatically.
In the years to come, vendors will likely take the approval plan mechanism, now in its fourth decade of widespread use by academic libraries, along with their databases and the databases' offspring, the paper bibliographic announcements, in directions that will help the publishers to sell more American books abroad; while at home and abroad, perhaps to bring pertinent books quickly to the attention of individual readers, through profiles of individual readers' interests, as we now maintain profiles of library interests. American libraries will probably see their vendors expand the scope of titles covered, to include more titles of foreign origin, in support of the kind of international study described by Dr. Leloudis; and to include more titles from smaller publishers, the type of publishers whose books badly need the kind of distribution support already in place for a UNC Press, for example; and finally, to include more non-print formats, such as CD-ROMS today, and tomorrow, formats we can barely imagine.
Most recent news in the way of new partnerships between vendors and libraries has been on the technical services side, the ways in which we help librarians put the books they acquire onto their shelves in a hurry, with a minimum of work. And here, two other partners join us, the bibliographic utilities, such as OCLC, and the library automated system vendors, such as, in the case of Chapel Hill, Innovative Interfaces and DRA.
When our order for Schooling the New South reaches New Hampshire, we'll unpack the boxes, put those 75 copies, temporarily, on our own shelves, and process the book as quickly as we can, by comparing the book's characteristics to the specifications of our customers' approval plan profiles. Some of the libraries who receive the book from us will also receive an electronic acquisitions record, to speed their own processing of the book. Others will receive an actual cataloging record, to load directly into the online catalog. Some of these libraries will get that record directly from us. But in a few cases, we'll be an intermediary, notifying OCLC that the book is on its way to a library. OCLC will then deliver the record. A few libraries-and this number is growing quickly-will receive a shelf-ready book, with cataloging, spine label, security device, barcode, even the library's own ownership stamp. One can imagine Dr. Leloudis's book going directly from our cardboard box, into the hands of its first reader.
Developments like these are occurring with such speed, it's hard to keep up from one week to the next. And here's one a sure bet: they're not going to slow down. If anything, library technical services requirements will speed up, and demand an unprecedented quality of partnership among the libraries, their book vendors, their systems vendors, the utilities, and the publishers.
Delivering the books, just minding the store, for a book vendor, critical as that is to Pat and to Dr. Leloudis, will not ensure a company's survival today. Delivery of cataloging records enhanced with tables of contents, development of EDI capabilities so that electronic ordering becomes easy and routine everywhere, the provision of highly sophisticated management reports tracking a library's purchases, all are areas where everyone in the business is going to be very busy, starting right about now. for a very long time. In fact manipulating data about our books, beyond simply delivering them, is the area today where vendors are expending an enormous amount of the time and the talent at our disposal.
Farther out in time, the view is less clear. What will happen when Dr. Leloudis's book one day goes out of print? How will some library in years to come, needing a copy, acquire one without a great deal of trouble? Will book vendors take on the job of on-demand printing of titles no longer stocked by their publishers? Discussions and negotiations on the question have already taken place. Will vendors take a more active role in the marketing and promotion of particular books? The publishers would certainly welcome that kind of partnership. Would librarians? Will vendors work with publishers to develop more systematic predictors of library demand for individual titles? A well-oiled system could save both a substantial amount of money, in reducing the high cost of carrying inventory. If the job is done well enough, will the liberal returns policies in this corner of the book trade, something we all now take for granted, remain relevant? Maybe returns, the very foundation of the approval plan idea, will one day make us all smile, as a quaint custom of the past. How close will we come, under such a system, to on- demand publishing for low-demand titles? Will it take a system like to that to save the scholarly monograph, as a species, from extinction?
Actually I don't think so. I said that only because it's obligatory in a talk like this one in thc late nineteen nineties. In fact, I'll close in the very manner of a scholarly monograph, with a quotation, duly attributed. "The Professors complain that while your bookstore is furnished with books and editions they mean not to use, those they have desired are not sent," wrote a university official in 1825. "Dr. Blaetterman told me yesterday he had determined to write to London himself for the books . . . I mention these things to you, because it is for your advantage as well as ours they should be known to you." The university was the University of Virginia. The official writing to his bookseller, whom he had invited to set up shop in Charlottesville, was the former president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, someone who knew that it was important, even then, that he form a partnership with both his faculty, and his book vendor.