Emerging Tech: To Be or Not to Be? — Should University Presses Partner with Commercial Publishers? De Gruyter has the Answer!

by | Nov 30, 2021 | 0 comments

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Against the Grain Vol. 33#5

Column Editors:  Deni Auclai  (Editorial Director, Humanities and Social Sciences Journals and U.S. Partnerships, De Gruyter) and John Corkery (Client Engagement Director, LibLynx)   www.liblynx.com

German publisher De Gruyter has made a splash in the U.S. with its University Press Library (UPL) program, supported by a brand-new platform built by 67 Bricks and launched in February of 2021.  Although I recently joined De Gruyter in the journals division, I didn’t know a lot about the UPL program and wanted to learn more, including how the data-focused platform will increase its value exponentially.  To that end, I spoke with Steve Fallon, Vice President, Americas and Strategic Partnerships.

Deni Auclair:  First, tell me a bit about De Gruyter.  I know it’s one of the oldest publishers, best known for its Humanities and Social Sciences content.  Is there anything else we should know about it?

Steve Fallon:  We have a unique origin that started with the publishing of our first book in 1749 when our small bookstore in Berlin was granted the royal privilege to print books by King Frederick II of Prussia.  It wasn’t until 1919 that we became Walter De Gruyter Verlag when three renowned publishing houses merged to become one company.  We’ve made significant contributions to the German literary canon over the past 270 years with works by the Brothers Grimm, Schiller, Schlegel, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Kant.

In the late 2000s, the company made the strategic decision to become more international through organic publishing, partnerships and acquisitions.  Today, we publish 105 OA journals, 353 subscription journals and over 1,500 books per year, predominantly in English language.  Through our partnership program with university presses and small international publishers, we distribute an additional 2,500+ new titles per year.  It has been quite an evolution from our roots publishing only in German. 

Last year, because of COVID, we did a free access campaign with over 1,800 libraries globally — the overwhelming response to that campaign was users were surprised regarding the amount of content we published and distributed.  If you include the archive for De Gruyter and our partners, we will have over 100,000 titles on degruyter.com by the end of 2022. 

DA:  This column is meant to be about technology, but I’m curious, can you tell me more about the partnership program?  How was it started?  How does it work?  That is, what is the business model and who do you partner with?

SF:  In 2010 our presence in the Americas was described to me as “sleepy and dusty.”  I think that assessment was apt.  Recently, our vendors have been surprised to find out that we are celebrating our 50th year in the U.S. in December!  It wasn’t until 2011, when we moved the U.S. office from New York to Boston, that we made a strategic decision to become more international. As partnership is in our DNA, we were looking for a new book distributor and asked Triliteral, a vendor owned by three presses, Harvard, MIT, and Yale, to do our warehousing, distribution, and fulfillment.  At that point, we saw an opportunity to provide digital distribution as a service to university presses like Triliteral provided print distribution for De Gruyter. 

Harvard University Press expressed interest, with the goal of expanding their digital presence outside the U.S.  In 2012 we signed them as our first university press publishing partner.  It wasn’t long before we saw larger distribution opportunities for HUP domestically through their gaps in the academic library acquisition landscape.  We strategized that if HUP supported our business model, we could generate new and sustainable revenue streams for the press. 

In 2012, presses were wary of print cannibalization from eBooks and libraries faced challenges due to Digital Rights Management restrictions.  Harvard was less restrictive in 2012 and by the end of 2013 we had 81 unique libraries buying their front list content with our new offer.  However, like most other university presses in 2014, HUP started restricting the use of their front list content and by the end of the year the collection became too restrictive to sell as a front list collection and we went from 81 to 0 libraries.  That situation came to a head at Charleston in 2014 and became the clarion call for all stakeholders.

I have to say, Harvard University Press answered the call and Susan Donnelly, then the Sales and Marketing Director, deserves a ton of credit for what happened next.  Together, with two new presses that joined our program (Columbia and Princeton), librarians from ten academic libraries and LYRASIS, we created a pilot project to address the serious challenges when it comes to university press front list eBook acquisition for presses and libraries. 

Five years later, the pilot grew to include five more presses (8) and ten more libraries (20).  By 2019 we had enough data that showed there is very little difference in usage between press-assigned restricted-use and non-restricted-use titles.  Therefore, the data showed that the three presses in our pilot were suppressing additional digital revenue streams.  The pilot project became The University Press Library (UPL) and we launched it where it all began at Charleston in 2019. 

University presses without their own platform rely on third parties for hosting, distribution, and fulfilment of eBooks.  Many aggregators provide similar business models representing their content through single title sales, aggregated collections, and demand-driven models.  While the models and global reach from aggregators is critical to the global acquisition ecosystem for all libraries and presses, our partners were missing out on an opportunity to be individually represented to academic libraries that wanted to own the complete digital collection.  This is the gap that UPL can fill.  We don’t consider ourselves an aggregator because we are primarily a scholarly publisher.  And as a publisher we partner with other publishers to provide individual global representation on our research platform.  Our business models are based on the content from each brand, not the collection of brands. 

DA:  Can you tell us a little more about your partners?

SF:  Our pilot project made it clear that a collaborative approach through partnerships with presses, libraries and consortia may take a little longer to accomplish your goals, yet it is critical to make an impact and inflict change.  We have consortia and libraries that have invested many years in our UPL program.  They understand the challenges and have demonstrated a commitment to making this work.  Remember, we are a publishing house, not an aggregator.  As such, our systems are set up to publish books and journals, not distribute third-party content.  Our library and consortia partners have been patient and supportive with us through our digital transformation. 

Our UPL partners include (in order of signing):  Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Penn, Toronto , Cornell, Yale.  We also have Rutgers, Chicago, Stanford, California, NYU, Fordham, and Duke.  Last year we signed Texas and Penn State, and this year we will add Edinburgh, Central European and Lynne Reinner Publishing by the time this interview is published. 

DA: Now to the tech part: Tell me how does the new platform help enable the services you provide these presses?

SF:  Transparency, transparency and then more transparency.  First, we did not own the technology or the data on our old platform.  Now that has changed with our new platform built by De Gruyter’s new and innovative Platform and Technology team based in Berlin in collaboration with the award-winning software company, 67 Bricks based in Oxford.  We launched the platform in February 2021 and since then the results have been fantastic:  our number of users are up 10% consistently due to our SEO efforts, our page views are up 16%, and most importantly, the platform is 500% faster than before.  These are impressive numbers considering that we launched a “minimum viable product” and thereby, are taking a gradual approach to our platform development. 

Second, remember, our partners do not own their own platform, therefore having direct access to the user data on third-party platforms is limited.  I was struck when I learned from the pilot that many libraries knew more about the performance of press content online than the presses themselves.  As a service provider we can do better, and our new platform can provide our press partners with direct and unrestricted access to this information.  Full disclosure:  this development hasn’t happened yet, but it will happen and be done collaboratively with our publisher partners.  

Another thing that struck me is how limited our partners are to assessing their own content on a research platform.  What site can our university press partners use where they can view, search and investigate their complete digital output (DG exclusively digitized out of print content for eleven UP partners) at the chapter level in a bespoke environment of just their eBooks?   This summer we launched microsites on degruyter.com where our UPL partners now have access to their own homepage that contains their own content.  

DA:  When it comes to your platform digital transformation, what is the benchmark that you are holding yourself up to?

SF:  Data transparency:  we are updating our distribution agreements to include the rights for our partners to have access and ownership of the data from our platform in real-time through dashboards, so now, when 1,800 libraries are accessing an individual press’s content, they will know what eBooks researchers are downloading at what institutions.  Taking into account the metadata behind each eBook, presses will also have data on book series, book types, subject areas and more.  That could be transformative for our presses because historically they make decisions about digital rights management at the title level, determining if a title should be a single- or multi- or unlimited-user model, based on print data.  Now, they can make informed decisions based on data from a digital environment. 

DA:  You mentioned that you are not set up like an aggregator, what do you not have? What are your challenges? 

SF:  Historically, our systems have been set up to publish books and journals, not to distribute content.  We have to do a lot of manual adjustments to support digital distribution.  Digital transformation allows us to align the publishing side of our business with the distribution/service side in an effort to build operational efficiencies in both publishing and distribution. 

DA:  MIT Press and CEUP have come up with business models that address the issues of low-use scholarly monographs via open access.  Do you think that is the future?

SF:  From my vantage point, sustainability for the “low use scholarly-monograph” is mission critical for all stakeholders.  I have great appreciation for the attention these scholarly presses are bringing to the issue and admire both of them and Michigan for their transparency, collaboration with stakeholders and innovative approach.  Taking a closer look and in my opinion, the common denominator between these models is they require a number of libraries to make an ongoing investment through collection acquisition to become sustainable.  I don’t know if it is the future, but it appears to me libraries around the globe will tell us either way.  In the meantime, I’ll be watching and rooting for them!  

I must say I would be remiss if I did not address the similarities between these OA models and our UPL.  As of this interview, the UPL does not have an open access component, yet the business models are very similar since they involve libraries acquiring ongoing collections.  These commitments are critical for press predictability and sustainability.  How the UPL model differs is important.  As I stated earlier, the UPL is about the complete digital record that includes all titles:  monographs, trade, reference works, textbooks etc. and not just the low-use scholarly monographs

DA:  Thanks, Steve.  It sounds like the UPL, as well as the new platform, will continue to be exciting as De Gruyter continues to add partners.  I’m sure everyone will look forward to hearing more about both!  

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