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ATG Interviews Allison Belan, Director for Strategic Innovation and Services, Duke University Press

by | Nov 30, 2022 | 0 comments

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By Tom Gilson  (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) and Katina Strauch  (Editor, Against the Grain

Against the Grain v34#5

ATG:  Allison, you have been involved with digital strategies at Duke University Press since 2011.  During that time, you have seen a lot of changes.  Which would you say have been the most impactful?

Allison Belan

AB:  I have been doing this long enough that I could legitimately say “eBooks!” but that topic has been pretty well covered. 

I’m really excited by the rise of project and product management as a discipline within publishing operations.  It was a real accelerator at the press when we were able to put skilled project managers and product owners in a position to accomplish big changes and initiatives, rather than asking the marketer or managing editor or accountant with the most interest to take on such efforts in addition to their actual full-time jobs.  This is one of those developments where the impact may be more visible over time. 

One huge impact in the last few years has been consolidation.  Significant portions of the technologies and the vendor networks that we rely on to create and disseminate scholarly books and journals have been bought by large commercial entities, some of whom are competitors who are not aligned with the mission-driven community’s values.  A significant amount of work and head space now goes into figuring out which set of partners, tools, and platforms stand the best chance over time of remaining available, remaining affordable, and protecting the data and interests of authors, editors, customers, and users.  

ATG:  How many current staff members does Duke University Press have?  Do they come from diverse academic backgrounds outside of Duke University? 

AB:  We have about 110 permanent staff and about a fifteen paid student interns at any given time.  A significant majority of us come from public education backgrounds.  Because we are located in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, we are fortunate to draw from stellar public institutions like NC State University, NC Central University, and UNC Chapel Hill, as well as private and public institutions further afield.  We do have a contingent of Duke graduates.  Durham is a wonderful place to live and quite a few Duke graduates would like to remain in the area and remain involved in academia.  In the last several years, when recruiting for student interns, we’ve put a lot of effort into outreach to the many great HBCUs in the area.  As is common with scholarly book publishers, positions in our book acquisition department attract people from across the country who want to build a career as an editor. 

ATG:  We understand that as the current Director for Strategic Innovation and Services, you work to align all aspects of the Press’s publishing operations to build a digital presence for Duke University Press’s scholarship.  What does a digital presence for Duke University Press entail?  Does print still play a part in the Press’s publishing strategy?

AB:  I think of digital presence in broad and inclusive terms.  It comprises the elements you’d expect — an ecommerce and marketing web site, scholarly content platform, social media presence, eBooks of various formats and at various points of sale — but it also includes the invisible stuff that makes our publications successful in those environments:  metadata, standards, analytics, data security, accessibility practices.  Finally, our digital presence relies on smooth integrations with our back-office systems and operations, such as ordering, fulfillment, and accounting.

From the time I stepped into a press-wide digital strategy role in 2011 through today, I’ve worked from one foundational philosophy: there is no separation between publishing and technology.  There is no difference between “publishing” and “digital publishing.”  To publish is to be deeply engaged with technology.  Until the late 20th century, those were manufacturing technologies.  Now they are digital technologies and they are present at every stage of the publication lifecycle:  word processing software, PDFs, digital pre-press, metadata standards for discovery and for the marketplace, digital formats for devices and online. 

That’s a bit of a long way of saying that at Duke University Press print and digital are all of a piece.  We publish largely in the humanities and the qualitative social sciences, which remain very engaged with the print.  So, our publishing strategy centers both the printed manifestation, which is still in high demand, and the digital expression, which is essential to increasing the accessibility and breadth and depth of impact of the knowledge we shepherd into the world. 

ATG:  Duke University Press is member of the recently formed Scholarly Publishing Collective.  Can you tell us about the origins of the Collective, particularly, the reasoning behind its formation? 

AB:  The Scholarly Publishing Collective is a collaboration between nonprofit scholarly journal publishers that is managed by Duke University Press.  What became the Collective began around 2017 as a series of casual conversations at conferences and meetings between university press journal managers at UPs that are reliant on journal revenues to sustain the larger mission of the organization.  What we heard in those early conversations was that the mission was under threat because these presses lacked the resources, experience, and technology to fully engage the library community, especially consortia and at a global scale.  They were frustrated that there weren’t more vendor or partner options available to them for institutional sales and marketing, especially options that really understood humanities and social sciences. 

Cason Lynley, our director of marketing, sales, and finance, was in most of these conversations, and she brought what she heard back home.  The more we considered the problem, the more we felt compelled to contribute to a solution.  We strongly believe university presses and independent societies are critical to the continued health of the humanities and the social sciences.  We also believe that survival of mission-driven publishing requires community cooperation and resource sharing.  Duke University Press has been successfully selling directly to the institutional and consortia market for about 20 years, and we wanted to find a way to leverage our success and expertise to meet the needs our peers were expressing. 

Our discussions and planning focused on an institutional sales service until April 2020, when JSTOR announced its Journal Hosting Program would cease operation at the end of 2021.  All of the UPs involved in discussions used the Journal Hosting Program to sell and fulfill access to their journals.  Suddenly, instead of talking about how a sales service might work, we were scrambling to figure out how we could bring the press’s full sales, marketing, customer service, and content platform operation to bear to meet the now-urgent need for a hosting and digital access platform. 

We rapidly pivoted.  We defined and built out a full suite of core solutions, including institutional subscription management, online journal hosting, print and electronic subscription fulfillment, and marketing and sales to institutions.  Between April 2020 and December 2021, we defined a service and fee model, entered into agreements with the members, created the Scholarly Publishing Collective brand, built a new content platform, deployed 137 journal sites and four publisher mini-sites, converted and migrated 70,000 articles, migrated 15,000 customer order lines, and communicated continuously with the library community and its vendors.  Our strategic hosting partner, Silverchair, and our subscription system partner, AdvantageCS, helped us tap into their capabilities to make it all possible so quickly.  In January 2022, we launched the platform, scholarlypublishingcollective.org, and began serving access.

In addition to Duke University Press, there are currently four member-publishers (Michigan State University Press, Pennsylvania State University Press, the Society of Biblical Literature Press, University of Illinois Press) and one strategic partner, Longleaf Services, through whom several other UPs receive subscription management.  

ATG:  What would you say is the most innovative aspect of the Scholarly Publishing Collective?  Overall, do you think that the Collective is meeting the expectations of its members?  If so, why?  If not, why not?

AB:  The Collective is an innovative intervention in the market for publishing services that aims to increase the ability of mission-driven journal publishers to attract and retain scholarly journals.  The Collective members each have strong journal programs that produce high-quality, essential scholarship in support of dozens of HSS disciplines.  If the publisher cannot cover the costs of publishing or meet the journal sponsors’ needs, the journals will leave the non-profit space and partner with a large commercial publisher.  Subscription prices will increase faster than inflation and become unaffordable.  Some of these journals would vanish altogether, diminishing the disciplines they shape and build.  Duke University Press saw how we could use the quality of our journal content, our globally recognized and respected brand, our world-class infrastructure, and our hard-won experience to strengthen the academic journal space by preserving and, we hope, growing bibliodiversity.  All participants in the Collective are betting that we are stronger when we bring this scholarship together under one roof and present it to the world in a coherent, consistent, and unified way, and to do that we are setting aside our historical competitive interests.

I do think we’re meeting the expectations of members.  We’ve worked hard to be super-transparent about the things we are really confident will work and the things that are more speculative or that we’ll have to grow into.  The Collective has been successful with the most important things: migrating the extensive corpus of content from its previous host to the Collective site, communicating effectively with the library community, getting it indexed in discovery systems and Crossref, and providing appropriate access to it all.  Additionally, the members and their editors and partners are thrilled with the way the sites present the material and the tools available to enrich the research experience. 

We are working hard to meet other expectations.  Just this summer, we’ve introduced publisher collections — all of a given publisher’s journals in a package with a very compelling price point.  The number of inquiries we’re getting already from the library community bodes well for meeting member expectations for increasing awareness and usage of their full set of titles through these collections. 

ATG:  What is Duke University Press’s role in the Scholarly Publishing Collective?  Do you have a specific position?  And if you do, how does it relate to your current job as Director for Strategic Innovation and Services at the Press?

AB:  Duke University Press manages the services offered to Collective members and the technologies and vendors that enable those services.  The press’s tremendous team of publishing technologists, customer relations professionals, library sales and marketing managers, and accounting professionals handle the day-to-day operations and support the members by responding to requests and questions, offering expert technical guidance, and generally executing the work of the Collective. 

My remit at the press is strategic innovation, and my role is structured to allow me to focus significant portions of my time and energy on strategic initiatives, which is what the Collective is.  I don’t have a formal, titled position with the Collective separate from my Duke University Press title, but I am essentially the director.  At this early point in the Collective’s life, I wear a lot of hats.  I oversee the planning and coordinate the delivery of services to the members.  I manage the member relationships, ensuring that their needs are met, that they understand how to make fullest use of the platform’s capabilities, and that they receive reports and payments accurately and on time.  Finally, I engage with journal publishers who are interested in learning more about what the Collective can do for their goals and mission and how we do it.  As the Collective matures, I expect my role to both become more formal and more focused.  

ATG:  Can you give us some more specifics about the operation of the Scholarly Publishing Collective.  Do you have an advisory Board?  What is the Collective’s budget?  How is it funded?  Do you have a development officer?  Does the Scholarly Publishing Collective have a staff?

AB:  There is no formal advisory board.  It’s a small, very closely connected community now, and the partners serve as an informal advisory board.  When a question arises about the specific shape something should take, we discuss it with the group.  Early in its planning and formation, all members aligned on the basic features of the journal sites, the workflows for publishing and disseminating content, and order management workflows. 

Duke University Press provided the capital for the start-up of the service.  We were able to constrain those costs because we built on existing strategic technology partnerships, the setups we already have in those systems, and the expertise we have in-house.  Operationally, the Collective is an extension of Duke University Press.  There’s minimal variation from how DUP manages its own fulfillment and online journals.  The press’s digital content and platform, content marketing, library sales, customer relations, and finance teams all work on the Collective. 

The launch required huge effort;  it was all-hands-on-deck at the press to get to launch.  We had to make it a top priority for the organization and push lower priorities to the side.  Now that we are moving into more typical, ongoing operations, we’re assessing how best to staff the effort so that the Collective partners are well-supported and the workload for us is sustainable. 

The Collective is funded through fees paid by the members for the services they utilize.  The Collective is not an aggregation, so it does not make money from sales of an aggregated product.  Nor are we a traditional sales or subscription agent;  we don’t collect commission on the subscriptions we take and administer.  

ATG:  What are the current goals of the Scholarly Publishing Collective?  What about goals for the future?  Is the Collective planning to grow in membership?  Will more services be offered?

AB:  Short-term, our goal is to tie up the loose ends of such a massive content and data migration and establish “business as usual” operations across the whole endeavor.  We want to meet and exceed the expectations of library partners and their communities for all the critical aspects of serving digital content.  The new publisher collections on offer from three of the Collective members are part of meeting that goal.  They make it convenient and very cost-effective for libraries to discover, acquire, and administer a lot of high-quality HSS scholarship from publishers who align with their values and exist within the academy. 

We do want the Collective to grow and add members, because we want as many independent, non-profit journal publishers as possible to contribute to and benefit from the economies of scale we are building.  At the same time, we want to manage growth in a way that ensures we deliver the quality of service every Collective member and every library customer deserves.  I see opportunities for adding services that, like what we offer now, provide enabling infrastructure and expertise for scholarly journal publishing.  

ATG:  Allison, we all need to recharge our batteries now and then, so we were wondering, what fun things do you like to do during your time away from work.  Are there any hobbies or leisure activities that you particularly enjoy?

AB:  For me, it’s all about food and travel.  My partner and I cook most nights.  On the weekends, we make all-day events out of planning, shopping for, and cooking something special.  The center of my Saturdays is going to the Durham Farmer’s Market and grabbing all the best in-season stuff while chatting with the vendors.  Travel is just an extension of food for me, because I pick most of my destinations based on the cuisine I’ll get to try.  The pandemic put a long, sad pause on all travel, of course.  I’m still not clamoring to hop on a plane, but I am satisfying my wanderlust by compiling lists of places to go when it feels manageable again.  I’ve been very fortunate to visit some truly incredible places, my favorites being Vietnam and, just before COVID, Kenya.  

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