Library supply chain under pressure

Library supply chain under pressure

Connect Books m.d. Justin Adams has said a more “sustainable” model is needed for the library supply chain.

Adams, who has led the company since January, emphasised Connect Books’ commitment to serving the public library sector, but said the Norwich-based firm had recently conducted an internal review of its library supply contracts to identify a number that were “unprofitable and unsustainable” in the medium term. 

Greater pressure has fallen on libraries owing to reduced funding from local councils, and as a result institutions are seeking more from their suppliers, turning that pressure back on the supply chain. 

Adams told The Bookseller: “Over the past 12 months we have seen huge changes, with funding for library budgets reducing year on year and customers seeking ever-increasing discounts and requesting more technology support to make internal efficiencies—all of which passes on cost to us. We have taken the difficult step of adjusting our pricing to break this cycle, with the aim of achieving a more sustainable business model. Specifically, we need to ensure that current contracts are profitable and that any new bids are sustainable over their full duration.”

He believes a more sustainable model could share the benefits with customers, while also allowing for investment to meet their future needs. “We are trying to move to a more transparent approach, so that customers can choose services based on the true economics of the role we play,” Adams said, adding: “We are passionate about serving our library customers and remaining a key player in the library market.”

His stance has been supported by prominent library campaigner Tim Coates, who believes a full review of the library supply chain should take place. Coates urged interested parties, libraries, publishers and suppliers to use Book Industry Communication (BIC)—which is backed by the Publishers Association, Booksellers Association, Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals (CILIP) and the British Library—as a forum to promote and discuss library supply chain efficiency. 

Coates said: “Justin Adams is absolutely right. It is really important that this is discussed. A review should have happened five or 10 years ago.” He said libraries’ requests for specifications for processing, which can mean each book needs to be handled in a different way for each council, were “unnecessary and unsustainable”. Coates said: “If there is a cheaper way of doing things, it is advantageous to everyone. In order for this to be possible, the whole process has to be reviewed and radically changed. Almost everything needs to change—the whole supply chain, effectively, from start to finish, is so stupid it is heartbreaking.” He added: “Publishers have lost contact with libraries and suppliers have almost just gone down to the two big names—Bertrams (the arm of Connect Books that supplies public libraries) and Gardners’ sister company Askews & Holts.”

In the past six years, UK public libraries’ total spend on books has dropped 16.5%, from £97m to £81m, according to the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy. 

A bigger ask

Other suppliers The Bookseller spoke to agreed that the supply chain was under pressure. Besides institutions asking for greater discounts, many are relying on suppliers to carry out back-office functions they can no longer afford, such as title selection.

Ray Dyer, m.d. of Peters, a children’s book supplier which also serves the schools market, said: “A lot of cost has been driven back to the supplier. A lot of authorities are under such pressure [that] it means stripping experienced people, so they don’t have the expertise. They want that service from us but [they] want it for free.”

Kathryn Pattinson, m.d. of Askews & Holts, said: “The market is shrinking and libraries themselves are cutting back and looking to us to do more and more for them. This is not a new challenge, it is something that has been happening for a long, long time.”

Pattinson did not agree that the library supply chain needed re-evaluating, however, stating: “Askews & Holts is going to remain because we are completely focused on the library supply chain. We see the changes in the market as an opportunity and we will continue—all we need to do is keep an eye on costs.”

Ken Park, m.d. of Rochdale-based Bright Books, a supplier specialising in foreign-language titles, said the number of library suppliers in the UK had fallen from more than 20 to around five. “Small suppliers like us could get away with working around the edges and libraries would use their discretionary spend with us. However, more and more of their budget seems to go to main tenders so they have less discretionary spending,” he said.

Darren Smart, chair of the public and mobile libraries group at CILIP, agreed that the low number of suppliers left in the market was troubling. “One of the things that is getting harder and harder from a library point of view is to put a meaningful tender together, as there are so few players left,” he said. “At the moment we are dangerously close to a monopoly, and that is not good. Ideally we would have three or four suppliers that could compete.”

However, Nick Stopforth, head of libraries at Doncaster Council and digital officer at the Society of Chief Librarians, said books and reading were the core of the public library service, and that would not change. “I see booksellers and public libraries as part of the same market, with the suppliers in the middle and publishers and their authors at the other side. They need to protect their revenue streams, but need to meet the needs of the public as well,” he said.