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Advertising Age‘s Simon Dumenco recently raised a tough question for magazine publishers that resonates even more for STM publishers: Are today’s publishers inherently anti-publishing?

Dumenco uses as examples the ways in which companies like Time, Inc., and others have given up the ghost at the faintest whiff of trouble:

That big publishers can’t manage to sell enough print ads, in a post-print media economy shadowed by a larger economic meltdown, is not exactly shocking. What is shocking, though, is that they’re essentially saying to scrappier, upstart online competitors: Take our business, please! We’re throwing in the towel! If we can’t play by the old rules of publishing — the profit-soaked, imperial model with endless layers of coddled management ensconced in luxe trophy offices — then we don’t want to play at all!

Examples include TeenPeople being folded, even to the extent of folding a site I personally would think could be a cash cow: Imagine that as a social networking hub for teens interested in movies, celebrities, pop stars, and amateur talent, with blogs, videos, communities, and the like. Imagine the possibility to tie-in contests and auditions, ticket sales, and a host of other profit-oriented activities? The traffic would be huge, and the revenue potential from non-traditional sources (tie-ins, events, webinars) and advertising makes me really wonder what they were thinking.

Yet I watch my 9-year-old son devour a print issue of SI Kids, loving the editorial features, the amazing photography, the fan pages, the features on his favorite players. He recently said, “I love the day I get a magazine in the mail.”

Newspapers are notorious, cutting out value (reporters, editors) to reinforce a suicidal spiral of irrelevancy.

Investment and change are tough. For STM publishers, it’s just as difficult to avoid the anti-publishing trends (devaluing content, missing the message from users/subscribers). The Open Access movement is implicitly anti-publishing — essentially, the value proposition is that content is so worthless that you have to pay to have it published, and you can’t charge for it even then. That’s anti-publishing, treating content as less than a commodity. Institutional site licenses drop the paid model to cents on the dollar, undervaluing published works by deprecating them to a cost basis rather than recognizing their value to academic pursuits. Institutional repositories are anti-publishing, not trying to reach a broader audience but trying to showcase their institution’s “intellectual property” for a purpose that is implicitly anti-publishing.

Where are the cool features users are willing to pay for? Or are they willing to pay, and we’re just not willing to believe it?

Meanwhile, today’s STM publishers are going for cheaper and faster, with less value-add. Sure, there are experiments around the margins, but where is the big new idea, the approach that will redefine publication of research and opinion for generations to come?

I think the pieces exist, but we have to be pro-publishing enough to put them together in a way that concatenates value anew or acknowledges the sometimes hokey but real value our readers still derive from a great publishing endeavor.

The experiments that are working are not emanating from the large publishing houses, or even from the independent, self-published societies. They are coming from outside — from Google, which appropriated the STM impact factor model to create the world’s largest search engine; from Facebook, which appropriated the community model of societies and leveraged it online; from Amazon, which has likely created the portable e-reader platform of the future; and from blogs, which has taken the specialist infrastructure of publishing houses and made it available to anyone for free (as the image above shows).

Are we about to throw in the towel to commercial upstarts? Do we really believe in what we do?

Are we pro-publishing enough to thrive in the new world?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


4 Thoughts on "Are Publishers Anti-Publishing?"

I don’t think publishers are “anti-publishing.” I do think, however, that publishers have conflated format with content. Publishers have forgotten that they are in the business of providing information, not in the business of producing books and journals and newspapers (or “e-versions” of the same), which are merely mediums. Few publishers (Bloomburg comes to mind as the best example) have been willing to rethink information creation and delivery from the ground up. Which is to say, publishers are not anti-publishing, most just have yet to realize that they are not in the publishing business–they are in the information business.

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