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The Inexorable Path of the Professional Society Publisher

Like Christian in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the professional society today embarks on a long journey, encounters many obstacles, but hopes in the end to be saved. I don’t mean to belittle Bunyan’s notion of salvation, which is many orders of magnitude beyond the mostly economic concerns of society publishers, but there is more than a hint of existential dread in the society publishing world today. How will our society adapt to all the changes in our environment? Will our society cease to exist in the coming years? What is the true path out of all this mess?

While professional societies, like all organizations, have always had problems, suffer from problems now, and will always have problems — as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be world without end — the current demon is the decline and potential collapse of their publishing programs. Publishing is many things to a professional society — it is a hub of interaction, an icon of identity, a tool for recruitment, and a goose that is sometimes golden. It is many things, but it is nothing without a successful economic component, as society publications often go a long way toward paying for other society activities, including the management of conferences, participation in policy discussions in Washington, helping junior members of the profession get a start, and providing educational support for young people who have shown an interest in the field. Thus it is not surprising that many presidents of professional societies set out on a pilgrimage to shore up their journals’ finances, searching far and wide, often with missteps along the way.

The path to financial success — mere sustainability is not enough, as the journal must support the activities of the society as well as itself — may not be self-evident as the society sets out on it, but it typically runs through some predictable and escalating stages.

1.  The prelapsarian society. Under perfect conditions, a society is wholly independent. Most societies start out this way and virtually all hold this state to be ideal. The prelapsarian society manages itself, has a serviceable business model, controls its own publishing program, and even provides the software platform to disseminate the journal and other materials. Such a society may or may not have an executive director, but even when there is an ED, the major decisions of the society are made by society members.  We have heard the phrase “by and for scientists” in recent years — such a phrase applies to societies with the good fortune to be operating in this primeval state.

2.  The community of societies. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer professional societies find it possible to go it alone. They watch as the number of subscriptions to their journals drops year by year, which cuts into their available cash for programs to support their membership. They find it hard to get the attention of library consortia and see little or no positive results in tailoring their offerings to please librarians, who continue to cancel subscriptions anyway. This is an important point — giving customers what they want matters little if they want other things more, and often those things include the ability to acquire a huge amount of content through a single negotiation. Aggregations trump service. Think about this the next time you buy a book through Amazon instead of placing a special order through your local bookseller.

A society in this situation may find it plausible to join forces with other societies, forming a consortium, a community of societies. The merits of a consortium are many — the consolidation of production services, the integration of all content on a single software platform, the reduction of administrative costs because of the enlarged scale of the operation. The thinking here is that there is strength in numbers, and this is true: a well-managed consortium has a better chance to deal with an increasingly hostile marketplace than a single entity. So the pilgrim in charge of the society decides to trade a little bit of autonomy in exchange for the critical mass that a community provides.

3.  The strategic technology partnership. The consortium idea has a great deal of appeal on many levels, but the society now sees that although there was a brief period in which the cancellation of subscriptions slowed down, the rate of cancellations has picked up again and few new customers are being added, despite the hopes placed in the consortium’s combined marketing efforts. Analyzing the problem, the society concludes that the technological requirements of disseminating scholarship continue to grow — how, for example, to display content on a mobile phone? — which leads to a discussion of outsourcing the hosting of the journals.

Enter the strategic technology partner. There has never been a better time to find such a partner, as the competition among the platform providers is sharp: HighWire, Silverchair, Atypon, Publishing Technology, MetaPress, and others. The professional society, perhaps collaborating with its consortium, circulates an RFP and then chooses to migrate to the new platform. It is immediately evident that the new platform is more robust than anything the society had used before. Librarians praise it. The system rarely goes down, and it provides all kinds of new management reports on usage. Everyone prefers the new service, though there is some nostalgia for the ability to customize things under the old regime. The price of superior technology is a certain degree of inflexibility.

4.  A broader partnership for services. Despite the whiz-bang technology, the society is disappointed to see that the number of subscribers continues to decline. It now realizes that the core problem is not technology but marketing:  how to get the attention of librarians and their consortia. So the pilgrimage begins again, this time for a partner to provide a broader suite of services.

Because of a bias toward not-for-profit enterprises and because most society members have academic appointments, most societies at this point explore the possibility of working with any of the many university presses in the US — Duke, California, MIT, and Chicago, to name just a few examples. These presses take on a great deal of the work from the society, including production, Web hosting, and sales and marketing. While the presses extract a fee for these services, the reduction in costs for the society makes the fee appear to be a good deal. And there is the promise of better marketing, which goes to the heart of the society’s problems, the decline in the number of subscriptions.

5.  The larger not-for-profit partnership. The linkage with a university press is a good idea. Librarians like university presses, though they don’t always purchase their books any more. The society’s costs drop. But now it becomes apparent that many university presses are struggling with the same problems that the societies wrestled with when the prelapsarian phase was coming to an end.  It is hard to keep up with the technology and very hard to maintain the attention of librarians, who increasingly have been outsourcing some of their own operations to consortia.  Sometimes journals leave the fold of a university press after many years of what had seemed to outsiders to be a productive relationship. Perhaps big is not enough; it is necessary to be bigger still.

As the idea of working with a commercial partner is anathema to many society members, the society president, working with the executive director, seeks a more powerful partner in the not-for-profit arena. There are several candidates — the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge are high up on this list, as they are significantly larger than any of the American-based presses — which are carefully vetted in certain areas: access to technology, marketing, global reach, financial commitment. A new, more robust partner is chosen, and the society sees a pick-up in business. Perhaps the pilgrimage has come to an end.

6.  The commercial arrangement. Some societies, though, are mindful of the richer arrangements that other societies have made with commercial companies. There are rumors of seven-figure financial commitments and the benefits of a global marketing footprint. If the society is able to counter internal resistance to working with a for-profit entity, the blandishments of such organizations as Elsevier, John Wiley, and Springer are difficult to resist; the course is inexorable. The pilgrimage over, the society joins the growing ranks of society publishers whose publishing operations are now managed by commercial companies, whose ability to extract large sums from libraries is the stuff of legend.

With financial stability and global penetration come other things, of course. The price for scale in any organization is bureaucracy and inflexibility, and many society presidents, who count librarians as friends, have the uncomfortable feeling that they have sold out. So perhaps the pilgrimage is not over — perhaps the contract with a commercial publisher is but another way station to a destination that is still over the horizon.

I have made this presentation a few times, and afterward people come up, usually grinning sheepishly, and try to determine where they are in the hierarchy of options. “We are at stage one and are considering going to stage two, but maybe we will jump ahead to stage 5 or 6”; or, “We are at stage 4, but have concluded that we have to move up”; or, “We are at stage 6, which solved all of our financial problems, but many of our members are irate and are cancelling their memberships.” Unlike Christian’s quest, the path for a society president does not have an unambiguous ending.

What makes this path inexorable has to do with the structure of the marketplace today. For almost all journals publishers, libraries constitute their single largest source of revenue. Therefore, a publisher must get access to the library budget to thrive or even survive. But increasingly the largest commercial publishers have set up as gatekeepers to those library budgets, a situation that has intensified as more and more purchasing power has moved to the library consortia. When a society publisher decides to move up to stage 6 — that is, by making an arrangement with a large commercial publisher — it can be seen as selling out, but a strategic assessment of the marketplace may see that as buying in.

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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 Inexorable Path of the Professional Society Publisher

  1. I’d argue that stages 5 and 6 are parallel, rather than in sequence, though I’m likely biased given my employer (OUP). When we respond to a society’s RFP, we are almost always in direct competition with the large commercial publishing houses. It should be made clear that the financial arrangements (those seven figure commitments you mention) and the global marketing footprint are offered by the larger not-for-profit publishers as well as our commercial counterparts. In this case, one can have one’s not-for-profit cake and eat it too.

    Posted by David Crotty | May 8, 2013, 9:22 am
  2. And I would argue that you have to include Project Muse as a significant player in stage 5, easily comparable (and in some ways superior) to anything offered by Oxford and Cambridge (sorry, David!), and that, given librarian’s direct involvement in setting up Project Muse, it has a goodwill factor no commercial publisher can match. The scale of Project Muse in its domain, humanities journal publishing, is not something any commercial publisher I know of can match.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | May 8, 2013, 12:14 pm
  3. Great summary of the situation. My personal experience is that librarians, including myself, have been speaking with scientific societies for decades about just these issues. We knew we were their cash cows but they didn’t necessarily see it that way (or perhaps want to see it that way). Granted, we may not be the most dynamic communicators but I can assert that in at least one case the officers and ED of a society asked tough questions but ignored solutions presented by librarians.

    Posted by Science Librarian | May 8, 2013, 1:05 pm
    • I think the “cash cow” analogy needs some nuance. Before the site license, publishers were less dependent on libraries, as there were plenty of departmental and personal subscriptions around. The site license eliminated the vast majority of these other subscription sources, which of course (see Joe’s earlier post on unintended consequences), led to a greater reliance on this new consolidated payment model at universities, and increased prices from the library standpoint. Publishers, I believe, preferred the diversified risk of multiple subscription pools, but have learned to live with the consolidated site license. However, one unintended consequence has been the Big Deal, and these contracts consume the bulk of institutional dollars, leaving scraps for society publishers to fight over. So, what is their choice? Join the Big Deal publishers.

      The story is more about consolidation of buying and selling, and what happens when smaller players can’t leverage a consolidated sales approach when there is a consolidated purchasing approach. It’s especially tough when the “cash cow” as you call it is producing less milk than the rest of the university, which has been the trend since the 1980s.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | May 9, 2013, 6:45 am
  4. thanks for a really interesting piece, Joe. I agree with David that stages 5 and 6 are parallel rather than sequential – in fact, I’d suggest that stage 3 increasingly happens in parallel too. And I think you are right that this can be seen as societies buying in as much as selling out. Societies need to ensure their future sustainability, and partnering with an organization that can help achieve that (and which in many cases provides higher revenues and/or a guaranteed minimum income for the society) therefore makes perfect sense.

    Posted by Alice Meadows | May 9, 2013, 3:56 pm

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