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I’m going to say it: Librarians are rarely effective negotiators. Way too often we pay full prices for mediocre resources without demur. Why?

Credit: Flickr user changeorder

First of all, most librarians are introverts and/or peaceable sorts who dislike confrontation. Second, we are unlikely to get bonuses or promotions when we save our organizations money, so there goes most of the extrinsic motivation for driving a hard bargain with vendors. Third and most importantly, we go into the library business because libraries aren’t a business. Most of us deliver government-funded public services, so we have zero profit motive, and our non-business mentality is almost a professional value in itself. But this failure to negotiate weakens our value to the communities we serve.

Libraries pay providers over a billion dollars a year for digital services and resources, only to get overpriced subscriptions and comparatively shoddy products. When did you last meet a librarian who loved their ILS? Meanwhile, we lose whatever dignity remains to us when our national associations curry favor with “Library Champions” like Elsevier, soliciting these profiteers to give back a minuscule fraction of their profits squeezed from libraries. We forget that vendors exist because of us.

Recently I sat in a dealer’s office for ninety minutes, refusing to budge till I got a better deal on my new car. The initial offer was 7% APR. The final offer was 0.9% APR with new all-season floor mats thrown in. The experience awoke me to the realization that I, as the customer, always held the leverage in any business relationship. I was thrilled.

I applied that realization to my work managing electronic resources, renegotiating contracts, haggling reduced rates, and saving about 10% of my annual budget my first year while delivering equivalent levels of services. This money then could be shuffled to fund other e-resources and services, or saved so as to forestall forced budgets cuts and make the library look good to external administrators keen to cut costs.

The key to negotiation is not to fold at the first “no.” Initial price quotes and contracts are a starting point for negotiation, by no means the final offer. Trim unneeded services to obtain a price reduction. Renegotiate, don’t renew, contracts. Ask to renew existing subscriptions at the previous year’s price, dodging the 5% annual increase that most providers slap on products. And take nothing at face value! I once saved $4000 on a single bill because I phoned to ask for a definitive list of our product subscriptions only to discover that the provider had neglected to document one very active subscription. Sooo… we didn’t have to pay for it.

Don’t hesitate to call out bad service either. A company president once personally phoned me because I had rather vociferously objected to his firm’s abysmal customer service. Bear in mind, though, that most vendor reps are delightful people who care about libraries too. So when you’re negotiating, be firm and persistent but please don’t be a jerk.

Long-term solutions to vendor overpricing and second-rate products include consortiums, open access publishing, and open source software. But the simplest and quickest short-term solution for us individuals is to negotiate to get your money’s worth. Vendors want to keep your business, so to get a better deal, sometimes all you have to do is ask.

Michael Rodriguez is the E-Learning Librarian at Hodges University in Florida. He manages the library’s digital services and resources, including 130-plus databases, the library website, and the ILS. He also teaches and tutors students in the School of Liberal Studies and the School of Technology, runs social media for LITA, and does freelance professional training and consulting. He tweets @topshelver and blogs at Shelver’s Cove.