The Canadian Association of Law Libraries put on a webinar on dealing with legal publishers. I was one of three panelists who discussed working with legal publishers, particularly on negotiations. We also answered a bunch of questions submitted by CALL members prior to the session. I thought I’d break out my tips here for anyone who missed the webinar and might be curious.
My first tip was
Buy your own coffee, skip the swag
It is important to have good, working, business-like relationships with legal publishers. Unlike many consumer transactions that may be one-off, librarians working with publishers will do so over their entire career. And the legal publishing world is just as small as the library world so you tend to run into the same people in a variety of places.
We frequently negotiated electronic agreements or buy print materials valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (my current library’s collections budget is over $1 million in 2014). If you want to be taken seriously by the people who give you that money, you need to be sure that you are interacting with the publishers in an arms length manner.
There is a reciprocal obligation created when someone gives you something. Researchers have found that very small things – think of the pens or other special gifts or swag you get at library conferences from legal publishers – can impact your feeling of obligation. The easiest thing is to disengage from collecting tchotchkes or other giveaways from publishers.
I’d never been a big swag collector. As I explained in the webinar, I mostly was on the lookout for envelope openers for my mum, who worked in the acquisitions department of a large academic law library. Sometimes I’d angle for a stuffed animal if my kids were small. I moved from passive to active after Sarah Glassmeyer started the now defunct lisvendor.info site. Her post on her own site and the lisvendor site made me realize that I needed to be more thoughtful about this.
If a vendor wants to meet up with you, have them come to your office. If you’re going to meet up with them for lunch or coffee, buy your own. I no longer meet any vendor for a meal, and I buy my own coffee. And skip the gifts and other free things they are offering. You’re paying for it in the first place – where do you think the marketing budget comes from? – and you may end up paying for it a second time if you succumb to the reciprocal obligation.
Keep It Business-Like
I was surprised at some of the questions we got. It’s important to understand that legal publishing is a business. They want to make money. They’re not your partners or colleagues. That doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly but at the end of the day, their bottom line, literally, is financial. If you lose sight of that, your interactions with them will go off track.
You should be respectful. Don’t waste the publisher’s time and don’t let them waste yours. If a publisher calls or e-mails you and a response is called for, give them one. They’ve got a job to do and you make it harder if you don’t respond. That doesn’t mean you say “yes” to whatever they’re calling about. You just treat them like you’d expect to be treated if you called and asked a question.
Similarly, don’t window shop on their time. If you’re curious about something new in the market, do your own research. If you think you’re ready to buy or need additional information, work with your account representative. But don’t get them involved early to do your footwork unless you’re really likely to purchase. They will already have an understanding (or should – see below) of your library and should be able to fill in knowledge gaps that help put the new product in context. Again, they’ve got their own internal sales goals and if one client is sucking up their time with no chance of a sale, that puts them on the back foot.
The reverse is true too. Don’t let them waste your time. Account representatives should understand your library and how it operates. If they don’t and they are calling or emailing you about products you don’t or can’t use, let them know.
The anecdote I shared on the webinar was of a Carswell representative who tried to sell us e-books that relied on the Thomson Reuters Proview app. It’s a nice app; not compelling, but clearly designed for a purpose. But it’s tied to a user ID and in a membership library with 40,000 subscribers and about a dozen IDs, that doesn’t compute. Additionally, there was no way to easily lend the ebooks to people who couldn’t physically come to the library.
It wins the Tone Deaf Award for customer relationship management. It didn’t help that, in a room with 5 people in it, he addressed nearly all of his comments to me, mano a mano, ignoring the 3 women in the room. In fact, I was only a decision maker as to money; the content decision makers were also in the room and were not impressed. We’re an established organization. If our account contacts don’t understand what we do, I expect them to ask. And, frankly, I don’t give publisher representatives my time if they do not treat it respectfully.
It gets tricky if you are negotiating a contract and the publisher takes their time. We have had contract negotiations extend over 9 months and into a new fiscal year. I’ve heard stories of others in worse spots. Unfortunately, unless you can put yourself in a position of having a single supplier, there is little leverage to getting this time waste resolved. The most successful strategy I have heard is to call the representative’s manager and ask for someone else.
Finally, use data for your decision making. Know how often books are taken off your shelves and circulated internally or externally. Understand how your electronic subscriptions are being used and by whom. Use that data to discuss whether to keep or weed content from your print collections and your electronic licenses. “Our lawyers want” and “other libraries have” are not sufficiently business-like justifications for keeping or getting content. The question is: does your library need it? And data is an effective way to answer that question.
It’s About You
You should know in advance what your negotiating position is with the publishers. What do you want? More importantly, what is the worst case scenario that you can live with? If you haven’t thought these things through, your negotiations may meander into a place from which you find it hard to extricate a positive outcome.
I don’t want the world. I just want your half.
– They Might Be Giants
If you have not gone to a single source for electronic resource, the worst case scenario is typically still going to involve an agreement. Where you can, shift to a single source so that you can compare offers and make a selection. That enables you to walk away from a negotiation that isn’t meeting your requirements.
Don’t get caught up in worrying about what the publisher is getting. There is a concept called “leaving money on the table” that has never jibed with me. If you understand what you want and are willing to pay to get it, that’s between you and your budget. I might be willing to pay more or less depending on my own expectations. If you have thought about your position in advance, and achieve it, that’s a successful negotiation for you. If the publisher gets what they want, then it’s successful all around. If the negotiation is combative and one side doesn’t get what they want, you can be sure they will attempt to get it the next time around.
Change is Good
My last tip was that changing the discussion is good. Libraries often complain about the annual rate increases in their content packages. If you continue to buy the same thing, then the discussion will only center on how much it cost last year and how much you’re going to pay in the next year. If you want to have a different discussion, then change the conversation.
One way I try to do that is to closely monitor what is being used and what isn’t and renegotiate the content as frequently as I can. When you start talking about different slices of information and swapping in some and swapping out others, you’re no longer just talking about price increases in lockstep. You may still experience an equivalent percentage increase, but you will be fine tuning your collection. What legal professionals use changes and you can adapt to those changes.
The chart above shows how I did this with one subscription, after moving to a single source. Sometimes the change meant I was paying more overall but I was also getting more content and access. It also shows that, while there is a progression up, it is not a straight line. Over 7 years, the content set has been closely tailored without either going in lockstep on price or just adding things on and seeing the cost jump accordingly. We may be at the same dollar cost after 7 years as we would have been under a 3% lockstep, but we have had savings over that time as well.
It’s not all me. The publishers have been creative in meeting our changing expectations and understanding our budget limitations. The change, I think, helps us to find ways to take advantage of changes in what and how they are selling.
The webinar was a fun experience – it’s always nice to work with new people – and the 2 dozen attendees from the US and Canada hopefully heard something useful.