Six Characteristics of Successful Press-Library Collaboration

This presentation by Richard Brown was part of a panel, "Mixing Oil and Water: Recipes for Press-Library Collaboration" at the 2011 Charleston Conference.

I have been interested in publishing collaborations between research libraries and scholarly presses for some time—though self-interest is a more appropriate characterization. Several years ago Georgetown's University Librarian, Artemis Kirk, and I decided we ought to post a couple dozen Georgetown University Press monographs on the library's digital repository, Digital Georgetown. That seemed to us to be a worthy and worthwhile intersection of aims: initially the library wanted content for its repository in the field of linguistics, which is a significant field of research at the university; the press wanted to give some of our deep backlist titles renewed visibility. Further, the library wanted to generate interest in the repository itself, ramping up holdings, while the press wanted to generate potential interest in sales via a "buy" button on each title, one that led readers back to the press's website—though given the esoteric nature of these titles we did not expect significant revenue. In the context of a strong relationship between a university library and a university press, this was and remains a modest and interesting collaboration.

I am using the term interest intentionally and repeatedly at the outset—six times thus far—because I have become convinced that any meaningful collaboration between research libraries and scholarly presses must begin by holding the promise of satisfying self-interests. That is not the way we typically characterize our motivations, but recall that the linguistic root of the noun "interest" is "to concern" and also "in between." And that seems entirely appropriate.

Publishing collaborations motivated by guilt, or designed to satisfy the dean or the provost, or responding to a vague sense of community or university or moral obligation that we should climb on board and invest staff time and dollars because everyone else seems to be doing it, will very likely not result in effective, sustainable collaborations.

About a month ago, I informally surveyed directors of the AAUP about their collaborations with their libraries. I asked directors to tell me two things: first, what kinds of publishing collaborations worked, and why; and second, how they measured success. I received a small but reasonable number of responses, in the rest of my time I want to summarize the main themes or characteristics of what undergirds these collaborations. I will not explore specific collaborations themselves, of which there are many fascinating and inspiring examples, but only the framework for making those collaborations successful.

One wise press director summed it up: "Collaboration is hard," she wrote. "We do not see the world through the same lens as librarians." She is right, I think, but that does not mean research libraries and scholarly presses cannot acknowledge these different lenses and work together to put some of their aims and interests into a common focus.

Some of these characteristics that emerged from the survey represent what are simply good business practices, applicable to any kind of organization in any kind of industry. The phrase "business practices" may grate some ears in this setting, I know, but in my mind they are utterly essential for fruitful collaboration.

From the survey—again, this was informal and unscientific—I identified five primary characteristics:

The first and most obvious is communication, and I mean communication at every step of the way, both written and oral. The first step here is identifying primary contacts and spokespersons at the library and at the presses, and making those individuals accountable for regular interaction and information exchange and updates. It is unfortunate to hear how rarely that occurs. One press director mentioned an ambitious open access journals plan involving the library and the press initiated two years ago. There has been one meeting since that time, and no communication whatsoever in the past four months. And you can guess the likely outcome of that collaboration.

The second characteristic is related to the first: the need for both the library and the press to articulate expectations at the outset of the collaboration—and at regular intervals. That is to say, what does each party want to get out of this relationship? This is another way of articulating interests. Do our interests overlap? Or, as time passes, are we seeing those interests drift apart? Being clear about how our expectations will be met, exactly what will constitute a satisfactory outcome, is a critical component of success.

The third characteristic is identifying the audience. In making publishing decisions press committees will often ask, "Who cares?" If a press cannot answer that question, it should not be publishing that book or that journal or that data set, regardless of specific financial projections. The same should hold for library-press collaborations: being clear about intended readership. A related issue is the need to define constituencies, to ensure librarians and publishers really mean the same thing when we are talking about readers. When we refer to the "university community," for instance, who exactly do we have in mind? Scholars or students or administrators of alums? Or some of those, or all of those? The term "community" is too vague; it does not really help us when we think about who will benefit from our collaboration.

Fourth, financial projections. These are often challenging, given how libraries and presses approach accounting and budgets, but they are a fundamental ingredient of any serious publishing collaboration. We need some sort of cost projection, one that includes staff time, and, if applicable, projected revenues, and we must make those transparent and understandable to both sides. And if libraries and presses are investing money and staff, they will also need to assess and acknowledge opportunity costs: activities that each side will forego because of the collaboration. We all have limited budgets and limited (and overworked) staff, with limited hours in the day, and all activities have more costs that we often admit. These need to be recognized, made plain, and accepted as reasonable before the collaboration gets fully underway. Of course costs always change; reprojections are appropriate and necessary.

The fifth characteristic is schedules. Library-press collaborations ought to be obsessed with schedules, but the responses I received in my survey indicated that this is often not the case. In fact, and without assigning blame to one party or the other, there is typically a great deal of uncertainty about next steps. Laying out milestones—what needs to happen when, and who is responsible—is an essential starting point for any kind of collaboration. Of course schedules, like financials, can change. They must adapt. So revisiting and adjusting timelines, timelines that accommodate reality and not overly ambitious dreams, is always a part of the equation.

Those are the five characteristics that emerged from my survey, but I want to add a sixth: know when to quit. Have an exit strategy. Recognize when to shake hands, civilly, and acknowledge that the collaboration was a noble experiment, that it is just not coming together, that what we are doing is no longer in our interest. If there is no real plan and no real action, let it go and move onto other activities. Some collaborations fail, but this does not mean that they should not have been undertaken; something can always be learned. Better to cut the cord and get out of a bad relationship than to allow it to linger and fester—and maybe poison any future possibility of working together on other collaborations. Sometimes our different lenses prevent our goals from coming into focus, and we should accept that.

So on that cheery note, let me conclude by saying this: research libraries and scholarly presses have lots of good reasons to collaborate. There are many, many effective collaborations in our midst and I have no doubt they will increase in the years ahead. But these collaborations must reflect our interests; they cannot be forced. As I have mentioned, they should be characterized by communication, shared expectations, an identified audience, financials, schedules, and knowing when to stop. The presence of those characteristics will not guarantee success, but in the end they will give us a better opportunity to achieve it.

Richard Brown
Director, Georgetown University Press