Saturday 7 March 2009

Lightning Strikes in Milton Keynes

Had a very enlightening visit to Lightning Source's plant in Milton Keynes this week. As a member of Coutt's Oasis Advisory Group (OAG) (Coutts are a library book/ebook supplier, not the financial whizzkids) we were due to meet, and Coutts are part of the much bigger company that is Ingram Industries, which includes Lightning Source.

The advisory group is a great idea, they are currently my only supplier that offer something like this, where they bring together 10 or so representatives from across the UK, twice a year to receive updates from Coutts, and to give feedback to the supplier on strategic direction of academic libraries, with relation to purchasing books and the like.

It's quite a complicated set up in terms of the different businesses that are working under the Ingram umbrella, and rather than try to explain it here in a somewhat confused way, feel free to go off and explore Ingram's web site!

So, how does Lightning Source impact on what I do at Edge Hill University?

I've been interested in Ingram for quite a while as there are some quite disparate things that I have responsibility for as part of my role. One is to buy books, ebooks, journals etc for the purpose of teaching, learning and research, which is to all intents and purposes, quite straightforward although constantly changing (library supply). The other is to consider how we supply our students with textbooks and other learner support material to purchase. (student supply)

The first links through Ingram as they have (and I might get this a bit wrong but the principle will be right) Core Source, and Vital Source. This part of the company builds relationships with publishers and takes from publishers e-copies of books which Ingram then re-sells via one of two routes. The first is MyiLibrary, which is their e-book platform, and which we at EHU use extensively, the second is Lightning Source, a print on demand service.

I heard James Gray speak at UKSG last year about the digital workflow involved in this process, and was very impressed at what was going on. Mr Ingram obviously had a very clear vision about what he wanted to do about digital publishing, and has delivered it in a very publisher focussed way.

This is jumping about a bit - hope you're still with me!

So, I love Ingram for getting me lots of ebooks for EHU students and staff, a platform in MyiLibrary that is relatively easy to use, and which has a growing selection of stock. Now, don't get me wrong - I don't hate books, in fact I love 'em, but e-books just have so many advantages in terms of access, and my ideal is to have both and offer our customers a choice wherever possible. The fact that Ingram are negotiating with publishers to get stock in e-format is just great, and they have such a powerful business model that they are likely to convince 'lots' of publishers to get on board with it.

Sticking with library supply still, the second element is delivered via Lightning Source, which is print on demand, or p.o.d. to those in the know.

Lightning Source is a service delivered through warehouses, currently one in the USA, one in Milton Keynes, that take orders direct from publishers for anything from one book, to 50,000 and print the books - on demand. It sounds like a very simple service, and it is, but it is just amazing, and will have a real impact on the way publishing will work in the future (not publishing as in writing, but distribution of stock).

So, you go to your local bookshop or your favourite online retailer and order that book you really want or need - they don't have it in stock, what happens next? If the publisher has an agreement with Lightning Source, they can send through an order for 'a' copy and have it printed within a very short timeframe, Lightning Source can even post it directly out to the customer on the publishers behalf, cutting down that very important delivery time.

It is a very slick set up, and seeing the process from cover to cover was intriguing, and also offered up some ideas for further streamlining of our own library processes (which I'll write about another time!).

Impact on publishers has already been noted, with some removing their own warehouse facilities, and relying upon Lightning Source to do all printing, as printing to order means the publishers don't have to forecast on how many books they 'might' sell, but only print those that they have orders for.

Gap printing is also used, where publishers will order a 'normal' print run of 10,000 books but unexpected very high demand will ensure a sell out of that stock, using Lightning Source as a stop gap for actual orders allows publishers to set up a second print run without losing any custom in between. This was used to bring the Nobel Laureate titles to market.

From a student supply perspective, Lightning Source won't really help me, but it's database of electronic stock will, and I believe that a UK supplier now has access to that stock for retail purposes. One of the things I've been looking at over the last year is electronic course packs, and how we provide not ebooks to students, but echapters from relevant text books, and how we do that at a price that is reasonable, so a very different model to the library one where the library pays a fortune for all its staff and students to be able to get access, and one that puts the onus on students to purchase parts of books that will be extremely relevant to what they are studying.

The student supply model is related to the student support package that Edge Hill University offer to all full fee paying students, which won a Times Higher award a few years back.

Now, I want to go on but I'm going to stop there, and make a note to self to write in the future about emerging business models for ebooks and print (in that order) .

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