by Matthew Ismail (Director of Collection Development, Central Michigan University)
Written by Matthew Ismail based on written responses received on August 1, 2019 from: Hazel Newton, Director of Researcher and Conference Services, Springer Nature – formerly Head of Digital Publishing, Palgrave Macmillan; Christina M. Brian, Vice President Business, Economics, Politics, & Law (Books), Springer Nature; and Rosalind Pyne, Director, Open Access Books and Book Policies, Springer Nature. Interviews were sometimes edited for clarity.
The origin of the Palgrave Pivot series lies in a decision in 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan’s editorial team to examine the publishing challenges faced by researchers in the humanities and social sciences. The editorial team was aware from experience that many academics were frustrated that the natural length of a work they wished to publish was too long for a journal article, but too short for a traditional monograph. This format restriction forced authors to expand the work to fit the length of a monograph, or to split their research over multiple journal articles. Either way, being forced to publish a bloated book or a series of separate articles could harm the impact of their research.
Not surprisingly, authors and readers were also quite frustrated by how long it takes to publish their research.
Of course, as Hazel Newton (then of Palgrave and now at Springer Nature) put it, the idea of an “academic novella” was not new. Several other presses had talked about this possibility for years. “But technological advances coupled with our determination to make this a scalable and sustainable program meant that we were able to launch Palgrave Pivot.”
The Pivot initiative was sponsored by Samantha Burridge, then Managing Director for Palgrave Macmillan, and managed by Newton, herself, who was then Palgrave’s Digital Strategy Manager. Palgrave’s CEO at the time, Annette Thomas (now CEO of Guardian Media Group), was quick to support the Pivot series, says Newton, because “it aligned with our strategy to be a progressive publisher focused on meeting the needs of the HSS community, and we felt confident in it being a sound commercial proposition.”
Books at Palgrave had traditionally been 250+ pages due to print book economics — the cost of editing, marketing, printing, and distributing a short print book is not substantially less than it is to publish a longer one. Yet, one can charge substantially more for a longer print book and thus more than cover one’s costs. In the age of eBooks and high-quality print-on-demand printers, however, there was no need to be so rigidly restricted by page lengths. Print-on-demand technology also helped them to distribute copies around the world more efficiently, without the need for warehousing.
The book industry requires at least six months’ notice in order to sell into bookshops and many presses were taking much longer than that. Even six months felt like a long time for cutting-edge research to be published so Palgrave decided to publish the titles within 12 weeks on acceptance (after peer review). This was very much welcomed by authors, but it required Palgrave to adopt new workflows to ensure that quality did not suffer.
One of the challenges with launching Palgrave Pivot was the fact that they were neither books nor journal articles, so it was unclear how they would be received by committees such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. Palgrave spoke with relevant stakeholders, of course, but it still wasn’t certain if they would be accepted by academe. Palgrave proceeded with the series nonetheless and sought to bolster their credibility by working with well-respected researchers whose participation might help reassure less experienced or conservative authors.
Palgrave officially began commissioning the Pivot series in early 2012 and published the first titles in October of that year. “It wasn’t easy,” said Newton. “It required rethinking everything we were used to. At the time, like most publishers, we still treated print as the dominant format. But with Palgrave Pivot we considered the digital version as the primary format. This meant that we had to rethink hundreds of things we’d always done. For example, for a printed book, the Table of Contents traditionally started on a recto page, or right-hand page. And eBooks derived from printed books would often have pages with ‘deliberately left blank’ stamped on them to accommodate this. For a digital-first publication, there’s no such thing as a recto and verso. Whilst this is a very small example which seven years on seems laughable that this was ever the practice of publishers, the fact that the publishing industry was centuries old with very little changing for much of that time meant that there were hundreds of decisions we had to rethink.”
The oft-cited problem of the high fixed costs of publishing was not actually a problem with the Pivot series, says Christina Brian, Palgrave’s Editorial Director for Politics and International Studies (now Vice President HSS Books at Springer Nature). “This doesn’t really cause an issue as Palgrave Pivots are well integrated into our standard production schedule. The only difference is that we produce them on a shorter schedule, similar to other short formats.”
Brian says that Pivots were “wholeheartedly accepted by researchers across the HSS disciplines Palgrave Macmillan covers. Our editors used them as icebreakers at academic conferences as they were (and still are!) such an exciting format to talk about. As mentioned above, academics welcomed that we were one of the first publishers to consider research at its natural length and without the usual constraints. Depending on what a researcher is working on at any given point in time, s/he can submit a journal article, a Pivot, a full-length monograph or textbook or even go the extra mile and edit an edited volume, handbook or major reference work.”
One of the first Pivots published was called Fukushima: Impacts and Implications by David Elliott (October 2012). “The Palgrave Pivot initiative allowed us to publish the first academic book after this horrendous tragedy,” says Brian, “and the author was awarded the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Titles. This would not have been possible without this versatile format, speedy production schedule and of course, our author’s willingness to test new ground with us!”
Initially, Palgrave only accepted Pivots by individual authors, such as “when an author was expanding on a strong working paper but didn’t have enough time or content to work on a full-length monograph — and equally didn’t want to cut down their argument to journal article length. Unlike other publishers, our short format is still original, peer reviewed research rather than a review or summary of a topic.”
Yet, authors began to ask Palgrave about publishing short edited volumes based on events such as small workshops or conference panels. They revisited their publishing criteria and “realized that sometimes a short collection of well-aligned chapters is actually more useful to readers than a big edited volume with 12-15 chapters that may lack coherence. So, we continuously revise how we publish original research and like to experiment with new formats.”
Ros Pyne, now Director, Open Access Books and Book Policies at Springer Nature, says that Palgrave developed an OA model for the Pivots as part of their wider OA book program. Palgrave has published a variety of OA Pivots since they began in 2014, many sponsored by funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the EC’s Horizon 2020 program, as well as by many individual institutions. “We have also seen great usage for these publications: our most-accessed 2019 OA Pivot, The Values of Independent Hip Hop in the Post-Golden Era, has already had 120,000 downloads, while Disrupting Finance (also 2019) has been downloaded 85,000 times.”
Brian also remarked that, with the success of the Pivot series, Palgrave “launched another new format of short, accessible books written by influential academics with direct policymaking experience. Palgrave Policy Essentials are designed to appeal to a wide audience, with clear summaries on policy implications and recommendations for action.”