As an organization that researches scholarly communications and libraries, our interest at Ithaka S+R was piqued when Joseph Esposito questioned whether university press sales to academic libraries were actually in decline. The reason? University presses tend to measure their sales to academic libraries through the wholesale vendors that traditionally distribute their publications. Since Amazon came onto the scene, however, academic libraries have begun to acquire many of their titles from the online retailer, whose sales metrics are not typically counted toward university press sales and which are not made available to the public. With this in mind, was it not possible that sales to libraries were not in decline, but rather that they were simply occurring through other channels?

Lacking sales figures from distributors, we approached our investigation through the libraries themselves, obtaining data through the integrated library systems (ILS) that house their acquisitions metadata. The project has since grown from an interest in distributors’ shares of the academic library market and the potential effect this might have on university press sales figures to a broader examination of the patterns present in these libraries’ acquisitions. Today, we are pleased to be able to share the preliminary results of the Library Acquisition Patterns (LAP) project.

In this initial report, we examine the nearly 180,000 books acquired in fiscal year 2017 by 54 libraries that use OCLC’s WorldShare Management Services (WMS). Of these book acquisitions, 96 percent were obtained in print format and the remaining four percent in digital format. The primary method of obtaining print books was through a firm, one time purchase, and while the majority of ebooks were also obtained via this method, nearly 31 percent were acquired through “unknown” means—meaning not through a firm purchase, approval plan, or standing order—leading us to speculate that these acquisitions may have been made through a demand-driven system. The median price of books obtained digitally was significantly higher than that of print books as well.

Looking at the institutions themselves, public masters and doctoral-level institutions tend to acquire more books on average compared to their private counterparts. This pattern may be true for baccalaureate-level institutions as well, but our current sample of schools does not include any public baccalaureate institutions that would allow us to draw this conclusion. While these institutions obtained books from hundreds of vendors, nearly three-quarters of book acquisitions were made through GOBI Library Systems (46 percent) and Amazon (25 percent) in fiscal year 2017 (for a complete list of the top 10 vendors utilized by the institutions in this sample, please see the preliminary report p.7-9). This lends credence to the idea that libraries are increasingly turning to non-traditional vendors to obtain their university press titles instead of making fewer acquisitions—or potentially, they are doing both. Books pertaining to the humanities comprised more than half of FY2017 book acquisitions as well, despite the challenging market environment surrounding humanities titles.

These findings represent an initial foray into the data we have collected thus far. While 180,000 acquisition records is no small number, we hope that integrating data from institutions using Ex Libris’s Alma into our analysis will diversify the types of institutions present in our sample and permit us to examine whether any purchasing patterns exist among groups of institutions over the span of several years. It will also allow us to more thoroughly investigate how publishers, the vendors that distribute their books, and the libraries that buy them interact on a shifting playing field. We look forward to hearing which findings from the preliminary report are of greatest interest and which areas should be explored in more granularity. The final report will be released later this fall. Please leave any comments or questions below or email me at