Academic Publishing, Case Studies, Trends in Publishing

Grown out of dispute: how collaboration removed frustration – and DRM!

Last month, De Gruyter announced the launch of a new initiative, called University Press Library. From early 2020, De Gruyter’s re-launched e-book platform will provide access to the digital book content of 10 American University Presses – with some of whom De Gruyter has long had distribution agreements; others have newly signed with the Germany-based publisher for this project. So far, so good.

What is so special about this project is its background. It all started as a pilot project back in 2014 (very imaginatively, called “the pilot” within De Gruyter!) to get University Presses and their readers to collaborate. At the time, De Gruyter had digital distribution arrangements for America with some of the participating Presses and was therefore aware that one University Press had decided to implement a strict DRM policy for its e-book content. As a direct result of this, 65 subscribing American libraries cancelled their subscriptions and caused a lot of disruption and frustration on both sides of the distribution chain.

At this stage, University Presses were very concerned about piracy and the cannibalisation of print sales. It was for this reason that many had implemented strict DRM rules for e-books, which in turn for the subscribing libraries was difficult to manage and administer. Particularly difficult to deal with was the fact that the Presses implemented different DRM rules on different platforms and for different formats (sometimes even introducing variations on a title-by-title basis).  This caused headaches for the librarians. One knotty issue that emerged was that the duplication of content purchased became unavoidable. For their part, the University Presses had to cope with receipt of inconsistent revenue streams from e-books whilst trying to sustain the publication of scholarly monographs.  (Despite being of high quality, the latter often only generate low usage.)

De Gruyter embraced this situation by turning it into an opportunity; by collaborating with all stakeholders, it developed a solution that worked for everyone: the University Presses, the University Libraries and the consortia.

To tackle the problems, three University Presses – Princeton, Harvard and Columbia – agreed to work with De Gruyter, the consortium LYRASIS and a group of 10 selected US university libraries to start “the pilot”.

In the pilot, all front list e-book content published in 2014 or later, whether user rights had been restricted at title level or not, was made available to the 10 university libraries without DRM. It was agreed with all stakeholders that the pilot would only last as long as it would take to collect enough data to measure the implications of going DRM-free and to evaluate the success of the pilot itself. Eventually it took 5 years to gather enough data, but the outcome was overwhelmingly positive. It turned out that there was no evidence that providing unlimited access to e-books would cannibalise the print sales. User behaviour amongst the 10 participating libraries was very consistent and showed that usage and adoption rates were not dependent on DRM.

This collaborative approach has now led to the development of a product which serves the needs of University Presses as well as consortia and university libraries; all the stakeholders have agreed to a solution that works for them. Even more, it is promising to be so successful that another 7 University Presses have already signed up to become part of the initiative. Each will have its own microsite to keep its branding and profile distinct, but will enjoy the benefits of being part of a larger platform.

When the programme is rolled out globally, it will be interesting to see how many university libraries within and outside of the USA will be interested in participating.  It will allow front-list e-books access (and in some cases also back-list access) on a DRM-free platform.

This blog post is based on an interview with Steve Fallon, Vice President Americas and Strategic Partnerships at De Gruyter.

More information on the Pilot Project and the University Press Library can be found on the De Gruyter website.
University Press Library: https://www.degruyter.com/dg/page/2001
Pilot Project: https://www.degruyter.com/dg/page/2003

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