NTIS/Bernan deal opens publishing options for feds

The arrival last September of Big Emerging Markets, the first of what is expected to be a series of economic reports published by the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration, may have marked the opening of a new chapter in federal publishing history.

Markets is not so unusual in its contents. In the book, ITA presents the case that opportunities for American business are especially promising in 10 emerging markets, including Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and various Asian countries.

What is unusual is the manner in which this book was published. Although an editorial product of ITA, Markets was published as a joint venture between the National Technical Information Service and Bernan Press, Lanham, Md. Bernan is marketing the book jointly with NTIS.

A key question about the Markets joint venture was whether ITA and NTIS were obliged to print and sell the book through the Government Printing Office under federal printing laws. GPO apparently thought they were because last October, Public Printer Michael DiMario wrote to then-Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown to ask that publishing arrangements for the book be suspended. GPO believed the arrangements were in violation of the law and also said the superintendent of documents was being deprived of the opportunity to include the book in the GPO document sales program. DiMario also asked NTIS to send GPO 1,200 copies of Markets for distribution to the federal depository libraries.

Commerce declined GPO's request that the Markets joint venture be suspended. In its response, Commerce said it was satisfied that, because of its clear statutory mandate, NTIS is not required to procure printing services through GPO. Because the printing of Markets did not use appropriated funds, the law did not require NTIS to use GPO's printing services. No appropriated funds were involved because NTIS is self-sustaining from its sales fees, and besides, Bernan paid for the printing.

As for GPO's document sales program, Commerce said GPO can have printed copies of the book, purchased under the same terms that GPO sells print publications to NTIS. This was a clever hoisting of GPO by its own petard. In 1994 GPO informed NTIS that because NTIS was a reseller of government publications from the GPO viewpoint, NTIS would have to pay the price paid by commercial resellers when ordering more than 250 copies. NTIS, in other words, no longer receives the financially favorable treatment GPO accords other federal agencies. In its Markets letter, Commerce returned the favor, proffering the identical terms back to GPO for printed copies of Markets—terms GPO was unlikely to accept.

NTIS and Bernan also offered GPO free microfiche copies of Markets for the depository libraries, an offer GPO declined because it wanted the printed version.

You might ask why ITA was party to this unorthodox mode of publishing. A major reason is because publishing Markets, a splashy three-color book, didn't cost ITA a dime. NTIS and Bernan footed the bill, gave ITA 1,000 free copies and will recoup their costs from sales. The book thus represents an instance in which a joint venture between NTIS and a private-sector partner was used to produce and disseminate, at no cost to the government, what might otherwise have become a routine government information product.

Because publishing programs throughout the federal government are now cutting their cloth to fit their severely reduced budgetary circumstances, it is only natural to wonder whether Markets is an attractive precedent for other agencies to follow.

NTIS clearly would like to think so, and Commerce's general counsel's office has backed up NTIS with a legal opinion blessing the break with GPO that the Markets arrangement constitutes.

So the opportunity now presents itself for federal agencies to reinvent their publishing programs along lines they may not have previously explored. Mind you, agency lawyers must be willing to stand up and be counted on the legal issues. But rather than eliminating publications because money is tight, agencies may now have the option of becoming creative in a new style of arrangement with private-sector publishers.

Not surprisingly, a number of agencies are studying the Markets case closely and exploring whether they can do likewise with some of their own imperiled titles.


Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe@intr.net. This column can be read on FCW's home page at http://www.fcw.com.


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