Many of our readers, familiar with the ease of book purchasing over the internet, often with a next-day delivery service, assume that the buying of new titles by the Library is invariably straightforward. The internet has certainly facilitated the way in which we work. Ordering 20 books on-line usually only takes a few minutes. It is much easier to establish whether a title is still in print, although publishers’ and vendors’ websites are often not completely up to date in the detail they provide. The websites of many suppliers enable us to track our requests, seeing the dates on which they order, acquire and dispatch a book. Sites such as Abebooks and Chapitre can make the acquisition of many out-of-print items far easier.
It shouldn’t be assumed, however, that the Library can always replicate the experience of the private individual, particularly in terms of e-books. Browsing the French Amazon website indicates the range of new French titles available both in print and e-format, but electronic availability is often restricted to a single purchaser and not extended to libraries. Nor is pricing always transparent. Since library-held e-books can normally be accessed by multiple users at one time, publishers and providers of e-books accordingly charge libraries a great deal more than the cost of a single physical copy. If we add to this the controversial 20% VAT levied on e-books (no VAT is charged for physical books), the financial considerations of buying e-books can become significant.
Of course, the majority of hard copy books we buy can be acquired with minimum effort, but there are also plenty of challenges. Swedish imprints, for example, are surprisingly difficult to acquire at reasonable prices. Years ago we had a good supplier in Sweden, but they ceased trading. We transferred our business to a vendor based on the Finnish border, at the recommendation of colleagues at Harvard, and all was well for a few years, but they were then taken over by another company specialising in school textbooks who wouldn’t in any case supply to the UK. That is a familiar problem. There is no difficulty tracking down new Swedish titles, but most of the vendors advertising the material won’t send the books abroad. Presumably it is too much effort for too little profit.
Spanish and Portuguese publications produced by regional governments can be of excellent quality, but are often not widely distributed. The books can be very cheap, since they haven’t been published for profit, but no infrastructure is in place to ship them abroad and reclaim the cost. Titles produced by Spanish and Portuguese academic foundations can likewise have very limited print runs, and are sometimes only available from the foundation’s bookshop.
Whereas we usually deal directly with vendors in each European country (South and Central America is covered by eight different suppliers), for Swedish books we now use a supplier in Germany. Using third parties inevitably means a mark-up in price, but these vendors also feed us with information on new titles, particularly important when the country does not produce an up-to-date and reliable national bibliography. We also use vendors based in Germany to acquire imprints from Angola and Greece, a vendor in Canada for Cape Verde (see earlier blogpost) and Francophone Africa south of the Sahara, a vendor in Cairo for French-language material from the Maghreb. For East European material, we have vendors from across Europe and North America in addition to those based in the relevant countries themselves.
These vendors offer a good service, but usually we are making a selection from material which they happen to have in stock, so it can be a fairly haphazard business. The biggest challenge arises when a reader asks for specific titles from some of these countries. A fortnight ago a reader asked us to acquire two recent French titles from an Algerian publisher. Some Algerian publishers have outlets in France, but not this one, so neither of our regular French suppliers could help. The publisher has a well-designed website, but repeated emails from me met with no response. Fortunately our Egyptian vendor, who is attending the Casablanca book fair, sent out a helpful email asking libraries for lists of desiderata. We wait to see if the publisher appears in Casablanca and our Egyptian dealer can pick up copies of the books we want. It is a far remove from the Amazon one-click order.