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The Editorial Fallacy

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The editorial fallacy is the belief that all of a publisher’s strategic problems can be solved by pursuing and publishing the finest books and articles.

I first encountered the editorial fallacy when it was not entirely fallacious. This was some time ago, when the most striking thing in the business environment was the growth of the national book chains, at that time Walden and B. Dalton. How to publish successfully to these impersonal, financially driven entities?  “In publishing,” my colleague said, “the best book wins.”

That comment was not entirely fallacious at the time. While one could argue about what is meant by “the best book” (a question among scholarly publishers that is a matter of some importance), when the landscape for the distribution of publishing products is more or less stable and even showing some growth, having superior editorial products is the best strategy. Indeed, it may be the only successful strategy. Imagine a world where library budgets are growing, where bookshops stock books of intellectual merit, where the economy and demography provide a bit of a tailwind:  publish the best book in this environment and its sales are assured.   Excellent editorial work becomes a differentiator, since all journals and books have access to the same distribution channels. All things being equal, the best book wins.  The question is, what happens when all things are not equal?

The publishers of journals know that not all things are equal. There are significant advantages to those few publishers that can offer bundling (the “big deal”) and technology platforms. These are not editorial matters. As the pressure on library budgets increases, the market share of the larger journals publishers is likely to grow, as smaller publishers are more vulnerable to library budget-cutting. While editorial concerns are part of every budget-cutting exercise, the resilience of the larger publishers in the face of such cuts has little to do with editorial quality and much to do with market position. The independent publishers of distinguished journals can bemoan the fallen times, but they would do better to understand that their editorial strategy and their business strategy are not one and the same. Even strategies designed to work around libraries’ budgetary limitations play into the hands of the larger publishers as they have resources for business development (that is, personnel equipped to open up new markets) that smaller organizations can only dream of.

This situation is even starker in the book business, where I have put most of my attention the past year. What is a book anyway? A long-form text issued in print, which is then shipped to Baker & Taylor and ultimately finds its way onto the shelves of academic libraries? Or is a digital text intended to be read on the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook? Is it something a publisher makes available for the Apple iPad? If so, of the many ways (at least 4) to get a book onto the iPad, which one should a publisher choose? What about the surge in Android-based devices; should we work in that format, too? And what to do about Google Editions? Not having the right strategy for digital formats and the new online venues can mean that outstanding books may simply not come to the attention of discriminating readers. A purely editorial strategy is not enough to cut through the thicket of new ebook options.

A contributive and unanticipated factor to this problem is the emphasis on outsourcing. Outsourcing can be a good way to lower costs and get access to capabilities that a small publisher could not afford on its own (the management of a physical warehouse is perhaps the best example), but it comes with a hidden price:  what happens if the outsourced capability once again becomes strategically central in a changing business environment?

Many small publishers have chosen to outsource everything but their editorial departments, and if there is a better example of the editorial fallacy at work, I am not aware of it. Some of these very publishers are now frustrated by their outsourcing partners because the partners cannot or will not move quickly enough for certain new initiatives. Who is going to get them onto the iPad? Who is going to help them with the complex issues surrounding PCI compliance?

This is a disruptive period for the publishing industry. No one knows what the industry will look like in 5 years, though few doubt that it will be substantially diffferent from today. In a dynamic environment, scholarly publishers have to look beyond their editorial departments to secure a position with their readers. The challenge is immense, as no one in the world of scholarly communications wants to publish anything but the finest work available. How to broaden an organization’s range and outlook without downgrading the essential editorial function? The success of outstanding editorial programs depends on finding solutions to a growing number of non-editorial issues.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “The Editorial Fallacy

  1. I don’t follow your logic in the last paragraph. Sure, the *business* of publishing is as important as the content today.
    But I can’t accept the suggestion in your last paragraph that paying attention to the business side (“How to broaden an organization’s range and outlook without downgrading the essential editorial function?”) necessarily means you’re short-shifting the content side.
    Explain?

    Posted by Frank Fortin | Sep 8, 2010, 9:24 am
  2. I agree, the distribution/marketing strategy of books makes a huge difference these days, but hasn’t that always been true? Do you spend your marketing dollars on an author tour or on advertising? Do you ink big deals with bookstore chains or sign on with book clubs? I’m not saying that things haven’t gotten more complicated with so many electronic platforms for books, but marketing strategy has never been easy.

    That said, I’m much more reluctant to pursue writing a book now than I was, say, 7 or 8 years ago.

    Posted by Dave Munger | Sep 8, 2010, 9:27 am
  3. I think Joe needs to disaggregate his argument by sector. It may apply to trade publishing much more than to pure academic publishing as done by many university presses.

    The truth is that the success of university presses is judged just as much by achieved prestige through high quality of the editorial program as by any financial parameters. A parent university will be much more reluctant to close a press with a strong editorial program, like LSU’s, when it comes under financial pressure than a press that hasn’t achieved such stature, like Rice’s or Scranton’s or Eastern Washington’s.

    As the Ithaka report emphasized, it is also becoming ever more important for a press’s list to be aligned with the parent university’s mission. The fate of SMU Press hangs in the balance in part because of its imbalance toward fiction publishing. Again, editorial content proves crucial in this respect.

    As for chain stores, editorial quality was never as important as discounts. Quality mattered much more for independent bookstores in their selection of stock, but that is a declining market.

    In the arena of journals, I daresay it is ONLY if a journal from a smaller publisher achieves very high quality that librarians will go out of their way to continue a subscription, in the face of severe financial constraints owing to the “big deals.” A journal like Penn State’s Chaucer Review has been able to survive for this reason.

    Yes, I do agree that it is important for publishers to be adept at making their content accessible through multiple devices and vendors. But discounts play less of a role here than they did with the chain stores, so quality is proportionately more important, i would argue.

    And if and when we get to “open access” for monographs, price will play no role at all, but technological robustness will be key to making it easy for readers to access the OA books.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Sep 8, 2010, 1:18 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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