“Negotiation seems like dancing the Tango, two steps forward, two steps back and suddenly three surprising steps forward.”
— Margot Wallström
Smart, well-intentioned people often have good reasons for saying stupid things. Who hasn’t been swept up in an election, worried that there will be terrible consequences if we put the wrong person in the White House? In our passion to make sure we elect a president we don’t find repugnant, we occasionally say something stupid, either in favor of our chosen candidate or in opposition to the candidate we despise. In order to bolster a political or economic or moral position, we make accusations we cannot rationally defend, we misrepresent facts, we dissemble.
This doesn’t make us bad people. We’re doing what normal, smart, well-intentioned people often do when something we care about is at stake. Sometimes the stakes are global, other times they’re professional. For us, especially lately, it seems as if there have been an awful lot of issues related to libraries that have been both emotional and divisive. For me, over the past few months, in public interactions with library vendors, I feel as though I have been one of the many librarians on the receiving end of accusations, misrepresented facts, and dissembling. And I worry that I have contributed to our vendors feeling the same way.
My public tangoing with vendors has centered around two topics. In January, at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in San Diego, I was the sole public librarian at a private, Library Journal-hosted round table discussion on the future of integrated library systems. Much of this discussion, which was moderated by David Rapp, was published in Library Journal on April 1. In February, after OverDrive announced HarperCollins’ decision to have ebooks it licenses to libraries “self-destruct” after twenty-six uses, my friend Gabriel Farrell and I made a website that makes it easy to find out whether HarperCollins has reverted back to its original ebook agreement with libraries. It also lets people who are boycotting HarperCollins because of its self-destructing ebook policy know when the boycott is over.
The driving factor underlying our relationships with library vendors, including ILS vendors and HarperCollins, is intellectual freedom and the copyright limitations that enable it to function: fair use and first sale. Without the ability to offer information to our neighbors, students, or faculty members, a library’s value is irreparably compromised. If we negotiate away our constituents’ opportunities for intellectual freedom, if we do not control our own data, if we are not stewards of our constituents’ information, we are abdicating our responsibility.
I don’t know if I’m capable of thinking or writing about intellectual freedom without seeming didactic and sentimental. Which may make me a more passionate librarian, but if that passion goes unchecked it can inhibit my ability to think or negotiate rationally—and it’s no fun to negotiate with a zealot. For me, the key is to step back from any zealotry welling inside me and remember who it is we’re working with, what their incentives are, and what intermediate steps are likely to result in an ultimate outcome that provides the greatest overall benefit.
Vendors as People
When I started library school, I believed everyone wanted the same jobs I did. I figured the most talented librarians would cluster around the best libraries, which I assumed would be the large research libraries that either were themselves famous institutions, like New York Public Library or the Library of Congress, or were affiliated with rich, prestigious institutions, like Harvard or Princeton. If I couldn’t get a job at what I soon learned to think of as a top-ranked research (ARL) library, I wanted to work at a lower ranked ARL or an elite smaller university or college library. After that, I hoped I might find a job at a prestigious public library, or a major corporation or elite law firm’s library. Last on my list was working for a vendor. I assumed that was where the students who couldn’t get real library jobs ended up.
Once I learned what really happens, how the activities of librarianship are actually accomplished, I had to adjust my thinking, both about how library talent distributes itself and about the word “librarian.” First, the word “librarian.” Personally, I now use the word to describe anyone who works in a library, anyone who works specifically or primarily for the benefit of libraries, or anyone who has a degree in librarianship. Many of the best librarians I’ve met don’t (or don’t yet) have library degrees, don’t work solely for libraries, or aren’t employed by libraries directly.1 Librarians are people whose work benefits library users, and I think of the best librarians as the people whose work provides these users with the greatest benefit.
A lot of the best librarians work for vendors, which stands to reason: often that’s where the most money is, both for compensation and for innovation. In addition, because most vendors are not limited geographically, these librarians are able to do work that benefits more users than any individual library.
Of course, even for librarians who work at what we traditionally think of as libraries, it’s foolish to assume the name of the employer tells you much about the librarian. It becomes obvious when talking to librarians that many of us are not particularly motivated by personal compensation or overall library budgets. But even when we are, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much: salaries are pretty compressed—the highs aren’t all that high and the lows aren’t all that low—and there seems to be an awful lot of variation even within that relatively narrow band. The best librarians seem to keep moving through employers until they find a place where they feel comfortable and useful. And when they stop feeling that way, or when another place seems likely to provide greater comfort or more interesting or exciting ways to benefit library users, they move on.
tl;dr: there’s no us and no them. In general, library-based librarians should assume the vendors they’re negotiating with are every bit as good at librarianship as they are, and very possibly a lot better. Also, assume that you’re both motivated by the same thing: figuring out the best way to serve library users.
Vendors as Companies
Vendors do a lot of good for library users, and in ways individual libraries usually cannot manage without assistance. They enable libraries to outsource many of their technology needs, pooling their resources to come up with better software than just about any library is capable of writing on its own. The same is true for abstracting and indexing serials, cataloging monographs, managing collections and acquisitions, and many other core library activities. These firms, operating in a market economy, allow librarians to use pricing and profit incentives to allocate resources in ways that balance the often divergent needs of the vast and heterogeneous population of library users. As librarians, we have access to a second economic model as well, and for some tasks the centrally managed planning provided by cooperatives seems to be the most efficient way to to allocate resources. We are fortunate to have both options.
Vendors also enable libraries to engage in activities that might be difficult to undertake without their existence. For instance, vendors play a major role in underwriting the expenses associated with hosting conferences and supporting professional associations, offsetting publishing costs for many library-related publications, making leading writers and thinkers available to interact personally with librarians, providing scholarships and travel grants, and sponsoring library awards. Without implying any quid pro quo or ulterior motives, if we simply follow the flow of funds, we see that libraries pay vendors for goods or services, and a portion of those payments end up benefiting librarians professionally. These are professional benefits, not personal benefits; while it is possible that some of these benefits may help some librarians earn more money or obtain greater job security, the overwhelming benefit seems to be to the profession as a whole, helping us to communicate more effectively, allocate our resources more efficiently, and better serve library users. The vendors benefit from this arrangement as well; by exposing potential customers to their products, they gain advantages within their markets.
The reason markets function, the reason vendors are useful to libraries, is that firms compete. Their goal is to maximize profit, both short term and long term. This requires a balance. They want to charge as much as they can get, but they also need to make sure they don’t charge so much that they bankrupt their customers or force them to go without the product. They want to keep their expenses as low as they can, but not so low that their product is perceived as less valuable. They want to assume control of their competitors or put them out of business, but they also don’t want to minimize the perceived value of their product or stifle innovation within their markets. Vendors understand that they operate in an ecosystem. They may not agree with you, or with each other, about the best way to steward that ecosystem—and a policy or situation that is good for firm A and bad for firm B now may be bad for firm A and good for firm B a year from now—but it is generally safe to assume that library vendors want what’s best for library users and libraries, both for moral and economic reasons.
tl;dr: in general, the firms that market to libraries succeed when libraries are perceived as more valuable and therefore more worth funding. The vendors know those funds will expand the market, creating a situation in which everyone benefits. They will compete with each other for a greater share of those funds, and sell as many of their products and services as they can for as much as libraries can pay, but they know that it’s bad for business if they charge unsustainable prices.
Vendors as Negotiating Partners
Here’s where we really torture the tango metaphor. What we need to keep in mind when libraries negotiate with vendors is that vendors are going to kick hard and fast, turn quickly, and libraries need to kick just as hard and fast, and turn just as quickly, or everything collapses.2
We should also keep in mind that it’s not clear to either of us, at least when we start the dance, exactly who it is that’s leading. Vendors have more money than libraries do, for the most part, and vendors generally have more potential customers than libraries have potential vendors. Vendors are also better negotiators than libraries because they do it more often. And, when necessary, vendors are more likely to have the funds to hire specialist lawyers or public relations firms to help them, whether they’re negotiating privately or in public.
Vendors also, like everyone else, can get so close to a position that it’s hard for them to step back and see how what they say or do might be perceived by their negotiating partners. Or they may say or do things just to see if anyone objects; maybe the objection they’ve been anticipating won’t materialize, meaning they’ve been limiting their own profits unnecessarily. Or maybe they’re just throwing wide the Overton window, taking advantage of anchoring to move the negotiations farther along in the direction that most benefits them.3
I believe this is how smart people with good intentions end up saying stupid things, how OCLC creates an “All Your Bases Are Belong to Us” records policy that draws near universal ire from its members or a library outsourcing company chief executive provides a quote for the New York Times in which he says, “You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement.” It isn’t difficult to imagine how smart people with good intentions would say or do these things. Frank Pezzanite, now Executive Chairman at Library Systems & Services (L.S.S.I.), founded the company in 1981 with his wife, Judy, who holds an MLS from the University of Maryland. They’ve been working in and with libraries for decades, and in that time it would be surprising if they didn’t encounter librarians who seemed to be biding their time until they could retire. Every profession has a few people who seem not to realize that workdays go faster and are more enjoyable when they’re filled with meaningful work. And perhaps Frank Pezzanite perceives even more of that attitude that most because his business first involved automation and later progressed to outsourced management, two areas that librarians may find threatening or worthy of resistance. There’s no reason to believe he sees himself as doing anything other than providing value to libraries and library users. But there’s also no reason to believe he’s right or that his quote helped anyone, including L.S.S.I.
tl;dr: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” (Robert J. Hanlon). “Never ascribe to stupidity that which is adequately explained by smart people with good intentions whose incentives are different from yours.” (Brett J. Bonfield)
Which brings us to the stupid statements I hope we can eliminate from libraries’ negotiations with vendors: “You just want everything for free,” and “It will cost you more when you factor in the total cost of ownership.”
You Just Want Everything For Free
This seems to come up a lot when I talk to vendors. It came up at the Library Journal round table discussion in connection with open source software. It’s come up in discussions about the HarperCollins decision to have ebooks self destruct. I’m told I just want everything for free.
The thing is, I don’t want everything for free. I mean, it’s true in the sense that I really would like to win the lottery, but it’s both stupid and false in the sense that I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. There’s nothing about my behavior to indicate that I want to win the lottery. And there’s nothing about my behavior that should lead anyone to conclude I want library vendors’ products and services for free.
What I am willing to do is stop paying. I’m willing to go without. And in so doing, I’m willing to take the money I’m spending on HarperCollins material and spend it instead on other publishers’ material. I’m not saving anything at all by not buying from HarperCollins. And I’m certainly not waiting around for any publishers to start giving away their work for free. I’m going to spend everything in my acquisitions budget every single year, and I’m going to do everything I can to increase that budget. What I’m not going to do is waste any of that budget on materials that don’t provide for intellectual freedom, that undermine fair use or the first sale doctrine. HarperCollins has more money to spend trying to figure out how its policies should work than I have, and it has more motivation to find an answer. HarperCollins has a lot more customers than I have vendors; even with the hundreds of libraries that are choosing not to buy HarperCollins materials, even with the tens of thousands of readers who have signed the Tell HarperCollins: Limited Checkouts on eBooks is Wrong for Libraries petition at change.org, HarperCollins still has thousands of potential library customers and billions of potential individual customers. HarperCollins employs people who can negotiate circles around me, and can bring in outside specialists lawyers or public relations firms just in case.
What libraries can do is choose not to dance.
In a Library Journal article by Michael Kelly about the HarperCollins change.org petition posted on May 5, Erin Crum, vice president for corporate communications was quoted as saying, “We invite librarians to continue to discuss their concerns with us, to actually use the model and to give us constructive feedback.” Assuming she is quoted correctly, and assuming she believes what she said, the point she’s missing is that libraries that are not buying from HarperCollins are using the model, just not in the way that HarperCollins would like. And we’re giving HarperCollins incredibly constructive, unambiguous feedback. We’re saying no, and we’re saying no very precisely, to a single, clearly identifiable factor. I wish everyone who chooses not to use the library where I work would give me such constructive feedback. About half the people who are eligible for a library card at Collingswood Public Library have an active, recently used card, but about half don’t. I wish there were a single thing I could do that would get them to sign up for library cards and start using them. If there were a change I could make, or a policy I could undo, and it would get them into the library—presumably back into the library, since most people have visited a library at least once in their lives—I’d like to know what that change is.
Sometimes when we choose not to dance we’re accused of wanting everything for free or of not using models. Other times we’re accused of being bad at arithmetic.
It Will Cost You More When You Factor in the Total Cost of Ownership
Like many people, I first encountered the concept of TCO, total cost of ownership, when I was evaluating the possibility of moving from proprietary, closed source software to open source alternatives. The idea behind TCO is to figure out which software option costs less after every factor has been accounted for, or at least guestimated. Karen Schneider is probably best known for expressing this as “free beer versus free kittens”, conveying the idea that some open source software is every bit as free (in terms of cost) as free closed source software (think Firefox or Chrome versus Internet Explorer or Safari), while other open source software could, potentially, cost more to operate and support than an expensive-to-purchase but fixed-cost-to-maintain closed source, propriety competitor.
The thing is, I have yet to meet a librarian who wasn’t aware that it generally costs a lot of money to operate and support open source library software like Evergreen or Koha or SOPAC. The libraries that initiated these projects and have underwritten their development were aware of these costs as were all the libraries that have hired developers, either on staff or as consultants, to support their operation. And the libraries that have contributed to the development of the Kuali/OLE are certainly aware that they’re undertaking a tremendously expensive open source project. Perhaps their decision is best summarized by the FAQ answer on the Evergreen website that discusses the reason the Georgia Public Library Service (GPLS) chose to write its own software for PINES rather than license software from an existing vendor: “GPLS decided that instead of pointing fingers at vendors or complaining about the limitations of legacy software, their developers would write the kind of system we want our users to experience.”
Ultimately, I think that’s what libraries care about. Not Total Cost. They care about Ownership. And that’s something most commercial software vendors won’t really sell you. If you want to own the code, you have to buy the company. If that’s your only alternative, generally it’s cheaper to write your own software.
So sometimes libraries just need control in order to ensure they provide library users with services that meet their immediate needs and also provide for their intellectual freedom. Other times libraries are willing to spend more now with the expectation they’ll realize cost savings long term. That seems to be the thinking behind many of the libraries who adopt open source software after some of the early development costs have been assumed by better funded libraries. It also seems to be the thinking behind Prince Edward Island University’s efforts to replace Web of Science with an open source alternative.
Saying no is useful up to a point, though it’s hard to know what will happen with the HarperCollins boycott, in part because it seems to be unprecedented; I’m not aware of libraries’ having said no quite so publicly in the past, or of a situation in which so many libraries decided not to purchase products or services from a specific vendor. There are many possible outcomes, both immediate and long term. Libraries are testing their economic strength, as well as public sentiment. Whether we can support the pillars of intellectual freedom is an open question.
In addition to saying no, choosing a new partner can also be useful. We can even start from scratch by teaching a non-dancer how to dance, effectively creating a new dance partner where none existed before. The more efficient financial operations made possible by open source may make it the long term solution to many software needs, though it’s also possible that having only open source software to choose from would stifle innovation.
The equivalent for authors and publishers—the way libraries could have a more direct role in deciding which books are published and what restrictions accompany those books—is probably a variation on the Kickstarter or IndieGoGo paradigm; in its first two years of existence, Kickstarter has already generated nearly $3 million in pledges for books and other written works. Perhaps Gluejar, which focuses on publishing Creative Commons-licensed ebooks, will eventually fill that need, or perhaps it will be Unbound and its crowdfunded books by brand name authors. I see a lot of promise here, though I think it’s unlikely that we’ll get more and better books if this is the only way that books (or, perhaps more accurately, book-length works) are published.
We can also make our negotiations more public. Vendors know what all of their customers are paying for their products, but we often can’t or don’t share those prices with each other, nor do we share our experiences with the products themselves. In Sarah Houghton-Jan’s candid post about Freegal, she identifies three reasons for librarians’ silence:
- As a profession, we’re generally nice people and don’t like to talk smack about anyone. This is generally a wonderful trait, but when we’re talking about allocating our scarce resources it can be extremely detrimental.
- Librarians are afraid of repercussions at work, including being disciplined, yelled at, or just plain fired.
- Librarians are afraid of the vendors, who they think might give them worse prices and support if they bad-mouth the product.
I think Sarah nails it. The one time I publicly documented my frustrating interactions with a vendor, I was told by the vendor that I should have understood that our negotiations were meant to be private. I’m also aware of one vendor whose reputation, both for preventing libraries from accessing their data and for aggressively intimidating librarians who complain about these policies, makes its product the one ILS that no library-based programmer I know wants to support. I brought this up at the Library Journal round table and mentioned the vendor by name, but it didn’t make it into final version of the story. I realize I may be contributing to the problem with my coyness, but all of my stories are second hand; the decision whether or not to share them is not and should not be mine. My guess is that they’ll come out sooner or later. And I think it won’t just be individuals sharing their vendor experiences and the details of their contracts, I think it will be entire libraries.
One of the most encouraging events I’ve seen recently is Cornell University Library’s announcement that it will no longer sign contracts with publishers that include confidentiality agreements. At least in the short term, Cornell is probably going to have to pay more for products and services if it follows through on its promise to deal openly with vendors, because vendors are either going to make Cornell pay for that privilege or they are going to refuse to deal with Cornell, meaning it will have a smaller group of vendors from which it can make purchases. And fewer suppliers means less competition, which generally means higher prices. What Cornell is doing will likely increase its total cost, perhaps for the next several years, but it will also increase its ownership of the bidding process, and not just its own, but every library’s. We’ll all have Cornell to use as a benchmark.
My hope is that other libraries will join Cornell. I believe it will happen. As librarians, we know how important it is for information to be available to those who need it.
Thanks to Kate Sheehan for reading an early draft of this article, and to my ItLwtLP colleagues, Hilary Davis and Eric Frierson, for helping me with its final version.
- Using just people I’ve collaborated with on In the Library with the Lead Pipe as examples, some librarians who either don’t have library degrees, don’t work solely for libraries, or aren’t employed by libraries directly include Derik Badman, Casey Bisson, Clayton Copeland, Birkin James Diana, Ryan Eby, Clifford Lynch, Eli Neiburger, Carlos Ovalle, Jodi Schneider, Dan Scott, Ross Singer, Tim Spalding, Aaron Swartz. Cindy Welch, and Alex Wright. If we count cooperatives as “vendors” rather than “libraries,” that list also includes Sophie Brookover and Kate Sheehan. [↩]
- Sorry. Everything I know about tango I learned from a pretty forgettable Sally Potter film and from an essay by pinboard creator, Maciej Ceglowski. I’m sure that anyone who knows anything at all about tango is aghast. My only defense: you should see the metaphors I rejected. [↩]
- For more on vendor negotiations and pricing models, see “Fantasy Pricing—An Interview with Selden Lamoureux“ [↩]