v28 #2 What’s Next for Academic Publishing?

by | Jun 28, 2016 | 0 comments

by Alan Jarvis  (Publishing Director, Taylor & Francis Books)

I recently spoke to an old friend and colleague now working at a rival publisher who said that their organization had undergone more change in the last two years than it had in the previous two hundred.  A sentiment that may be difficult to verify but is indicative of a rate of change most in the industry are finding challenging.

This is manifested at both a macro and a micro level.  Whilst publishers puzzle over “big picture” issues such as the impact and trajectory of things like Open Access, MOOCs, the for-profit educators, and the never-ending shift in library budgets away from books towards STM journals, on a micro level they also have to rethink their approach to deciding whether individual book projects are worth pursuing.  At the Charleston Library Conference I was asked how a commercial publisher can evaluate whether a monograph will be financially viable under current highly uncertain market conditions.  Historically this would just be a case of comparing costs (fairly predictable) with anticipated revenues, determined by sales which, with the aid of approval plans, would also be fairly predictable.

The basics of this equation — revenues minus costs — remain the same, but the details have become much more complex.  Sales revenue might now be generated from the printed hardback book, a subsequent print on demand paperback, the eBook and from eBook rentals.  It is not clear how any of these components is going to behave, or even what the split between the different parts is going to be.  Perhaps the only predictable thing is that total revenue from sales in all formats is likely to be lower than what it used to be from a single hardback version.  Costs associated with electronic sales ought to be lower, since you are no longer paying for printing, paper and binding or for storing and distributing physical copies.  But this saving is offset by investment in platforms for selling eBooks, and can be negated entirely if the publisher has anticipated, and printed for, more hard copy sales.  Many other costs have been largely unaffected by the digital revolution (for example, human inputs like copy editing or the costs of peer review).  The underlying feeling, therefore, at macro and at micro level, is of sailing in uncharted waters.

What does a scholarly publisher do in the face of rapid change, with conflicting priorities, and where budgets in core library markets are flat or declining?  What is next for academic publishing is some combination of developments along existing trajectories, changes which are significant in themselves but leave much untouched, and changes that might amount to a paradigm shift.

Developments Along Existing Trajectories

Publish more — Come what may, growth in published scholarly output is likely to continue.  The number of universities, libraries, scholars, and students continues to increase, especially in emerging markets, and administrative and institutional exercises like the UK’s Research Excellence Framework also create more pressure on scholars to publish.  For Routledge, publishing more books is the consequence of decisions taken some time ago, when we chose to add to our strength in established areas by pursuing new and emerging areas.  As a result we have editors in areas like gender studies, environment and sustainability, and tourism, alongside editors in traditional subjects like philosophy and economics.  Growth in output is also a reflection of the globalization of academic research in English.  This means that publishing more does not mean lowering the quality threshold, since we are not just taking more fish from the same geographic pond.  In our case growth in title output is also driven by the acquisition of other publishers and imprints.

Consolidation — Faced with declining revenues and the need to invest in digital infrastructure to compete, many small and medium-sized publishers are choosing to sell up.  At the same time larger publishers also active in areas other than scholarly books (e.g., journals or textbooks) are downsizing or selling their books aimed at more specialist upper-level courses.  Concerns that this might lead to the sort of oligopoly that supposedly exists in STM publishing are probably premature.  There is far less concentration in HSS scholarly book publishing, with a multitude of small publishers and no single player owning more than 20% of the market.  And even in the most unpromising circumstances there are still new start-ups and entrants to the market.  Authors and customers will likely go on being able to choose and distinguish between HSS publishers for the foreseeable future.

The Long Tail — Not only will publishers publish more books, but print on demand technology and eBooks guarantee that few, if any, of these titles will now go out of print.  At the same time many publishers are actively re-issuing titles that were previously out of print (at Routledge this takes the form of the Routledge Revivals and Routledge Library Editions programs).  This activity is enabled by digital technology, and it persists because there is a small but demonstrable demand for these books.

Pricing — Not a subject publishers always choose to broach but the financial realities of the market for specialist academic content mean that it cannot be ignored.  Our prices are relatively high for an HSS books publisher, but the gap between our prices and those of our competitors has shrunk, and we expect it to shrink further.  Fewer units sold normally leads to higher prices.  Is this a vicious circle that can be broken?  It is possible that with the flexibility that digital publishing brings the answer may be “yes,” or at least a qualified “yes.”  There are now multiple ways in which our customers acquire our content — in print or electronic format, outright purchase or rental, and individually or in collections.  Each of these might involve a different price point.  The headline price of the book is no longer the sole factor in determining how much the customer pays for it.

Change which is Significant but Not Necessarily Fundamental

Engage proactively with new business models — Clearly there have been some bumps in the road with Demand-Driven Acquisition (DDA) and, to an even greater extent, Short-Term Loan (STL).  With hindsight one could argue that publishers sleepwalked into a situation in which STL was one of the primary ways in which libraries acquired new books.  Before Routledge agreed to participate in the Kindle rental program there were extensive internal discussions about whether it would extend the market or cannibalize existing sales.  There were no such discussions before we agreed to STL, and we ended up having to raise our rates because of the impact that STL was having on frontlist sales.  Notwithstanding this we remain excited about the potential of STL to keep books in front of potential readers for longer periods of time.  We have reduced our STL rates for backlist titles (i.e., books more than a year old), in the hope that this encourages libraries to keep titles in their portfolio for longer periods.  Publishers need to accept that if they are publishing more at a time when budgets are flat, then libraries will need to pursue innovative strategies to determine what to buy and what not to buy.  Flexibility around price and discounting can help influence these decisions.

Focus on Open Access — Open Access (OA) is clearly a very powerful way of connecting authors and readers, which remains the primary function of publishers.  Along with most of our competitors we have a gold OA offering, and publish OA book content (either whole titles or chapters) most months.  But there remain significant issues around available funding for OA monographs in HSS subjects.  The UK government, for example, has been quick to mandate gold OA but slow to provide additional funding to facilitate this.

Sell more to non-library markets — Scholarly publishers operate in a “mixed economy,” selling print and eBooks to different sorts of customers (libraries, individual scholars, students, and professionals).  Books which primarily sell to libraries (monographs, works of reference) account for a minority of our sales.  We use digital printing to sell monographs to individuals in paperback format through our Routledge Paperbacks Direct program and we use differential pricing to make more specialized works available to individuals in eBook form, with lower prices on Kindle and other eBook retailers.  The wider availability is welcome to authors, but the impact is finite.  Moreover as the library increasingly becomes something that is accessed 24/7 via a VPN the need for an individual to possess their own copy diminishes.  The library still remains the heart of the market for scholarly publishers.

Publish eOnly — This seems to be an appropriate approach to changing technology, but we still make 70% of our sales from print and publishing eOnly might only save about 15% of our costs.  Notwithstanding this, publishing models which combine eBooks and books where the hard copies are printed on demand are becoming increasingly common.

Pursue new publishing models — Technological developments in digital publishing have facilitated innovation from short-form publishing (e.g., the Palgrave Pivot or Routledge Focus) to complex digital platforms hosting multi-volume reference works or databases which can contain millions of items.  But the latter are not what most scholars produce most of the time, nor are they what most scholars or students read.  Projects like the Routledge Performance Archive, which makes extensive use of video, or Routledge Handbooks Online, which is our first foray into chapter level metadata, are potentially most valuable to us as they allow us to build our digital capabilities, experiment with different kinds of content such as video, and develop similar products based on accurate measurement of customer usage and engagement.

Change with Potential for Paradigm Shift

Make your books more discoverable, so they get used more, and then use that data to drive better decisions — In the contest for library budgets, slowly circulating HSS monographs find themselves consistently outgunned by easy-to-use and instantly accessible journal articles.  Books have much to learn from journals if they are to make the most of the digital transition.  I would highlight four key steps:

  • Make books more discoverable, so they get used more. Adding metadata at the chapter level is an obvious first step but publishers must also work more closely with intermediaries like eBooks vendors and make sure that the metadata is surfaced by major discovery tools.
  • Remove or reduce barriers to use such as restrictions on concurrent use, printing and copying.
  • Enhanced discoverability also gives the publisher a much greater sense of which parts of their content are being read, cited and referenced. This is valuable information which can be used for both marketing and editorial purposes.  Find out what is getting used, and publish more of it.
  • Greater usage of metrics around citations and impact, including altmetrics.

Our experience at Routledge of what gets used when you have metadata at the chapter level is limited but eye-opening.  We have chapter level metadata for our handbooks on RHO (Routledge Handbooks Online), and we believe it is a major factor in driving use.  The same title is fourteen times more likely to be used on RHO than it was on our standard eBook platform.  There are also striking variations in the extent to which different chapters from the same title get read.  Feedback at this level of granularity has implications for customers, authors and publishers.  Historically the only real data book publishers have attended to has been about sales and costs, and they lag far behind journal publishers in their use of other metrics.  However, I would anticipate that this gap will close rapidly and book publishers will increasingly focus on citations, impact, and altmetrics, as well as usage data.  Clearly we need to be mindful of the limits of each of these measures, but if a publisher’s main role is to connect authors and readers, paying attention to what gets read is paramount.


Book publishing: will it survive and will they still be books? — My argument is that if books’ content is more discoverable to readers then books themselves have a better chance of surviving as repositories of knowledge, wisdom, argument, debate and provocation, whether in print or digital formats.  If book publishers can learn from journals’ use of metadata at a more granular level, books will be better able to compete for readers’ attention as their empirical research and theoretical insights will be easier to discover and will therefore be accessed more frequently and engaged with more productively by readers.  In a world where usage is becoming increasingly linked to purchase, and where there is stiff competition for limited library funds, this will be as essential for the future of books as the Gutenberg printing press once was.

But is a disaggregated book still a book?  Will the scholarly book only survive if it becomes like a journal, consumed, if at all, by the chapter?  Traditional fans of the book need not be alarmed.  On the surface much might remain the same, with physical books still being the preferred “long-form” format for HSS scholars to delineate complex arguments, collate and analyse empirical evidence, and develop innovative methodological and theoretical insights.  But alongside this familiar territory, there is a quiet revolution happening beneath the surface in a digital sphere where much publishing activity will be guided and influenced by a forensic analysis of incredibly detailed, albeit inherently imperfect, data.


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