Publishing academic monographs – the kinds of books that may sell only a few hundred copies – in an era of digital platforms and shrinking library budgets is a serious challenge. Earlier this year leaders from many of the major US libraries and academic presses were hosted by Robert Darnton, the Harvard University Librarian, to discuss the idea of a Global Library Consortium (GLC).
In a nutshell something like the GLC would allow academic library members of the consortium to work with publishers to identify which monographs they would be willing to purchase. The more purchasers for a specific title, the lower the cost to each of the members of the consortium. Libraries who purchase a title would receive "enhanced" access to the book, however the contents of the book would be available free online for everyone to access, whether they purchased or not. In this way publishers have some certainty in knowing upfront that they will be able to cover their costs and make a profit, libraries can stretch their collection budgets, and open access to knowledge is promoted as well. For a better explanation see this YouTube clip by Frances Pinter who first proposed the idea. A deeper overview of the issues from Publishers Weekly can be found here.
This approach presents some real benefits to libraries and their users but there are challenges, not least of which is the free rider problem. It will be interesting to see if this has legs, and if something like this makes sense in the much smaller world of legal academic publishing.