Universities are showing cautious interest in buying discount books over the Internet but fear the loss of special services offered by traditional library suppliers.
Many universities, such as the five-library consortium in Manchester, are putting their library supply operations out to European tender.
Internet booksellers may bid for the contract, says Colin Harris, librarian of Manchester Metropolitan University: "We will wait to see what discounts we are offered. But it is an interesting thought."
Top Internet discounts are invariably on new fiction titles. United States giant Amazon offers up to 40 per cent off, and the Oxford-based Internet Bookshop 45 per cent off latest hardback fiction. But university suppliers are tending to see Internet sites as allies at present, or not relevant to their markets.
Academic libraries have long used the Internet to search for hard-to-find or out-of-print titles. Discounts on US-published books are bound to be a new attraction. Waterstones intends to sell discounted US-published books but it is aware of the complex legal issues that need to be resolved when the US publisher of a book does not have United Kingdom rights.
Waterstones relaunches its expanded website this month, and Dillons is one of the partners which has bought into the Book Pl@ce, a 1.2 million-title database scheduled to be launched on Monday. Book Pl@ce allows suppliers to set their own discounts. Owners Book Data, compilers of bibliographic information for the industry, are stressing the site's enriched searching power.
"I am not aware that the Internet sites offer this." says Jaci Clark, Teesside University. "We place orders at US Internet bookselling sites but credit card limit prevents ordering in bulk. I can't see how we could do a lot of business this way."
Colin Galloway, acquisitions librarian at Glasgow University said: "We buy books via US library suppliers anyway. The Internet Bookshop discounts are quite attractive, but it is important to maintain good relationships with our suppliers. US suppliers deal with our 'problem orders' such as tracking down grey literature with low profit margins. They wouldn't be too happy to do this if we started ordering our mainstream books elsewhere."
Hammicks, which supplies law books to universities, says its presence on the Book Pl@ce website will reach more overseas markets. Blackwells has its own Internet bookshop, as has Scottish bookseller John Smith & Son.
"University libraries have chosen to communicate electronically with suppliers for years. I don't see Amazon and the others as a threat in academic publishing," said Phil Coles of Blackwells. Willie Anderson, managing director of John Smiths, would rather his company was known for quality of service than discounts. But it is early days, and Matthew Pollock, director of the Book Pl@ce, is well aware of the needs of university libraries..
He said: "We are looking very carefully at developing an online professional trade service, and we also want to take on more specialist publishers and booksellers - the British Medical Association has just agreed to come on board, for example."
Library suppliers have been suffering acutely since the end of the Net Book Agreement and have increased discounting from the general 10 per cent. On top of this are the processing services, free carriage, security tagging, product information.