Another day, another bad deal

Photo Credit: Tim & Selena Middleton via Compfight cc

I had a brief email conversation today with one of our vendor-service middlemen. You may not work with the same ones I do, but you know the type: the organizations that negotiate on behalf of libraries to get good deals for online resources and then they sell them to us so we don’t have do go direct. We love our middlemen, and we rely on them to save us time and money. Unfortunately for all of us involved, today’s conversation was an extension of a conversation from last month, both of which focused around why we can’t get clear, reliable, understandable, transparent pricing from SAGE for their Premier package.

There are a ton of details, not all of which are relevant, interesting, or worth repeating. But one part is worth repeating, and here’s the key:

We declined to resubscribe to Sage’s Premier or All Access packages because we do not have faith in their pricing model.

When I announced that at our faculty luncheon last week (an event I host each semester to share our news and updates and have a discussion with library liaisons about their departmental needs and our issues), the first response I got was puzzlement. “What does that mean, no faith?” And then I explained.

What started as a deal that was presented to us as a classic Big Deal package became something less clear, and less acceptable. We started with a price — meticulously negotiated and described between SAGE and our Collection Development Coordinator, Marianne Hebert over the course of several months — that was based on our previous print + online holdings in SAGE titles, and included a fee for access to the full collection, with an agreement on an annual price increase negotiated by the middleman. We budgeted in 2014 for the 2013 price, plus that negotiated percentage increase.

What we got in 2014 was a quote for about 7% more than we expected, and a lot of email correspondence that included phrasing like “inflationary uptick” and “fee for the upgrade” and “holdings top-up”.

What we also got in 2014 was an email from a vendor rep that said “If a customer has a final cost of $50,000, it’s going to be $50,000 for the package no matter if their holdings are $25,000 or $10,000.”

And so we were left, after 16 emails in just one of the threads of emails on this, with no idea how pricing was actually being calculated, but a strong feeling that it goes something like this: SAGE looks at our spend from last year, decides what they think we should spend this year, and then bills us for that, but is willing to justify it however will make us happy through some combination of negotiated price increases, holdings values for a time period defined by them, top-up fees, upgrade fees, and inflationary upticks. Very few of those phrases have actual definable meanings. Every email we got seemed to offer us a new set of prices, broken down in new ways, with a slightly different bottom line. Each exchange produced more questions, and few answers. (And, perhaps, the whole thing can be explained by saying that the vendor has a perfectly explicable pricing policy but we just didn’t get it… but if two experienced collection development and administration librarians “can’t get it”, isn’t that a problem in and of itself?) So, as I explained to our faculty, as a steward of this institution’s funds, as a steward of our students’ tuition dollars, and as a steward of resources dedicated to providing good, appropriate access to information for our teaching and learning community, this is not how I choose to do business.

Our faculty got it. They really did. And when I said it was our fault, and therefore our job to change it, they got that, too. How is this our fault, you wonder? What did I mean by that? Well, when I vented about the experience to a group of librarians, one made a very good point: we brought this on ourselves. And she’s right. We did.

Who told publishers it was a great idea to offer us Big Deal packages? We did.

Who signed on to purchasing agreements via middlemen when we hadn’t negotiated the terms ourselves? We did.

Who agreed to a purchasing system in which we don’t sign our own licenses or participate in setting the terms of our purchase? We did.

For the last 20 years. We did. We agreed. We said yes. We went along.

Well, I’m done, people. Done. I cannot continue doing more with less. I cannot continue signing onto deals that are unclear. I cannot continue agreeing to egregious terms and conditions, to nondisclosure agreements, and to crushing price increases justified only by corporate profit goals. I cannot continue drinking snake oil, and I cannot continue smiling through the pain. I’m done. And so is my library, for every choice in which I have the agency to make smarter, more thoughtful decisions than we’ve chosen to make in the past. So yes, we told the publishers through word, deed, and dollar that this was okay, for a very long time. But for me, that stops now. I’m going to be telling them it’s not okay. It’s not business as usual. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be. And it won’t be.

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