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The failure of the traditional music industry has become the standard cautionary tale for content industries adapting to a digital era.  But for scholarly publishers, many factors make the music industry a poor comparison. We have more in common with smaller niche markets. Watching their electronic experimentation and new business models may be more informative as we seek new strategies for presenting and selling content.

Music isn’t similar to STM publishing because the market for music is essentially every human being on the planet.  The market for high-level journal articles or detailed scientific books, however, is extremely limited.  Much of what is published is of little interest outside of the research community and is often written at such a high technical level that few have the training to read and understand it.  It’s unlikely we’ll see mainstream culture seeking out the details of ubiquitination or the epithelial-mesenchymal transition, at least not with same level of interest shown for downloading Beyonce’s latest single.

The really interesting developments in the music industry involve a move toward taking advantage of scale through streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. These services depend on massive levels of traffic for revenue generation.  Take a look at this infographic which shows the level of activity needed for an artist to earn a minimum wage salary.  I doubt very many individual  journal articles see more than 4.5 million pageviews per month, which makes these types of approaches difficult to adopt for our more specialized content and limited audiences.

So if not music, then where should we look for innovation and new business methods that can readily be applied to scholarly publishing?

Two more comparable markets that are undergoing a great deal of experimentation are worth watching — short stories and comic books.

The short story market has been in a long, slow decline:

In the good old days it seemed that authors had it easy selling the short story. Hundreds of magazines existed to handle the flow, and many great and famous authors certainly got their start or gave their careers much needed impetus by selling to this market. From Jack London to O. Henry to John Cheever to Asimov to Isaac Bashevis Singer all started with the short story in their genre. Believe it or not, in the good ole’ days some authors actually made a living out of pouring their hearts into short stories and selling them. . . .

Then it was blamed on Television. Today we blame it on the Internet. Whatever we blame it on it is remains true that there are only a handful of journals left willing to publish and cater to the short story market. Short story collections or anthologies are worse than difficult to sell. Anthologies are usually impossible to put together, and collections will usually not be touched by a publisher . . .

Print publishers have not had any viable means of selling individual short stories directly to a reader.  But all that is changing.  The rise of the e-book offers a new freedom from traditional containers.  The music industry did teach us the lesson (much to their chagrin) — customers want to buy content their own way, and they prefer buying songs over buying albums.

The Hachette Book group recently announced their plans for a digital short fiction publishing program (more details can be found in the comments from Hachette’s Tim Holman responding to author John Scalzi’s analysis).  The mobile market seems an ideal place for the short story, providing a quick but complete read on the subway or on line at the bank.

Science publishers are already experimenting with the idea of breaking away from the journal as a container, and focusing instead on the individual article.  If this trend catches on, the short story market may provide some useful business lessons both for acquiring and selling material on this level.

One could easily see putting out a variety of small packages of chapters covering subject areas, then allowing each individual instructor to assemble his own textbook (the logical extension of  MacMillan’s recent Dynamic Books venture).  I can think of many book proposals I’ve had to turn down because there didn’t seem to be enough substance to carry a whole collection. Instead, these could become small, focused sets rather than trying to stretch them out to a traditionally sized book. The poor economics of printing and trying to sell a 50-page book disappear in an electronic format.  As Scalzi’s article notes, there are all sorts of details that need fine tuning, from selling price to payment of authors, but these first steps into a market free from previously defined containers should be interesting.

While movies based on comic books are doing great business, the comic book industry itself is, like the short story market, in a long decline from its heyday. Comics have become more and more marginalized due to their move away from widespread distribution and toward an almost exclusive direct market approach, selling only through specialty comic shops.  The advantage of the direct market over the newsstand was an elimination of returns of unsold comics (retailers, in return, receive a greater discount from publishers).  If you’re in the publishing business, that may sound familiar.

Direct market sales continued to grow through the mid-1990s, fueled by growth of a speculation-based collector’s craze.  Much like what was seen for baseball cards, the comic collection market crashed in the mid-1990s, and nearly two-thirds of specialty comic book stores closed.  The market has not yet recovered. There are around 3,000 stores still open in the US (5,000 worldwide), with sales revenue around $700 million in 2008.

Like the book industry, the comics industry sees a potential savior in the iPad and other e-reading devices. Comic author Warren Ellis comments:

I think they’re interesting as an apotheosis of the Apple design aesthetic, which is very much Star Trek: The Bay Area Generation. It’s a bland-looking Eighties Star Trek device. It is, however, a fine form factor for reading comics on (if you’re indoors, or in the shade). And here’s the thing: Marvel only have to get 5,000 Marvel Apps on iPads to outnumber the count of physical comics stores selling Marvel comics. Each one of those apps is a retail station. And as much as we all love physical comics stores, I know lots and lots of people who don’t live near a physical comics store, and I don’t know any comics stores that are open at two in the morning if I suddenly fancy reading a certain comic.

Preliminary forecasts indicate that Apple may sell seven million iPads by the end of the year. Here’s the thing about Apple technology: once you own a piece, you want to use it. Not least because it was expensive. Not least because they’re a simple pleasure to use. If comics look good on the iPad…then things are going to get interesting very quickly.

Ellis correctly points out the great advantages in distribution provided by an electronic product.  Most specialized STM works aren’t likely to be found in your local Borders store, so increasing availability and ease of ordering could be a big positives.  The immediacy of delivery is also likely to be appealing, particularly to a frustrated scientist working late at night who desperately needs that chapter on optimizing an uncooperative reaction.  However, Ellis does also note  the inherent dangers of this sort of distribution– for instance, how easy it is for your product to become lost, condemned to obscurity as part of a huge category dump in the iTunes store.

The parallels continue: comic publishers are already struggling with widespread online piracy; readers are balking at the proposed prices for electronic comics ($1.99 per issue); there are worries that electronic comics are going to drive brick and mortar stores out of business; publishers are beginning to play around with form, to experiment with new ways of presenting material now that it’s freed from the printed page. As with the book, there’s an increasing split in the customer base between those who view books/comics solely as a means of delivering content and those who see the physical product as a fetish object, to be coveted and collected.

The successes and failures of electronic short stories and comics are likely to be directly relevant to scholarly publishing, certainly more so than the music business’ continued struggles.  Moving forward, the way these container-less forms of content reach paying customers bears watching.

Now, if we can only get Hollywood to start buying the film rights to lab manuals . . .

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


5 Thoughts on "Short Stories and Comics: Niche Markets with Core Lessons for STM Publishers"

An important distinction is that scientific articles and books tend to be monopoly products. One journal articles does not substitute for another. This is why e-articles still sell for $25 or more on-line.

“The failure of the traditional music industry” … isn’t that like referring to the demise of slide-rule manufacturers as “The failure of the traditional calculations industry”? Electronic Calculators were a huge boost to the “Calculations Industry”.

There is more music being consumed now than in any time in history. How’s that a failure? Is it because the change in technology exposed and wiped out businesses that had hidden their lack of value-add under a cost-markup?

You said “Music isn’t similar to STM publishing because the market for music is essentially every human being on the planet. The market for high-level journal articles or detailed scientific books, however, is extremely limited.” Really??

That would be because a slightly-non-random series of tones and words has intrinsic value but the knowledge of how the natural world works (Science), how the man-made world works (Technical), and we ourselves work (Medical) has no intrinsic value?

“the short story market … in a long decline” Really? There are more short stories being distributed now than in any time in history. You may have to stretch your definition a little to include “blog” and rename the “Romance” genre to “Porn”.

I agree that neither STM journals nor Short Story magazines add much value, and should go. They were largely protectors of a de facto monopoly – collectors of monopoly rent, not earned income.

If a business is threatened by a huge DECREASE in the cost of doing business, by technology that EXPANDS its accessible customer set by billions, then it does not deserve to survive and hopefully wont.

Enough of this hand-wringing. Figure out what your value-add is and get on with this opportunity.

I think you’re confusing mass availability of something that can’t be sold with a “market” or an “industry”. This is, after all, a business blog.

The music industry failed because it refused to recognize and adapt to new technologies. Had they recognized Napster for what it is, licensed their material to them and changed their business model to one based on compulsory licensing, they’d have a much brighter future than they now face. The STM journal publishing industry has thrived in a digital marketplace, however, as the changing technologies were recognized early on and the industry switched from a primarily printed product to an online one. The book industry has been mostly shielded from these technologies as their products have stubbornly remained analog, but that’s coming to an end, hence a need to adapt or die.

And yes, the market for high level scientific papers is an extremely limited market. The knowledge gained can certainly benefit all of mankind, but the papers themselves are readable only by experts. If you want material readable by the general public, then you’re talking about a different product, one that requires vastly more editorial oversight to be done well by the way, and one that’s much less efficient in communicating results between experts. Jennifer Rohn recently wrote an excellent piece explaining this, I recommend you read it. If you’d like, I can send you a set of high level physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology papers and you can give them to your grandma or your bus driver and report back what they get out of reading them.

Also yes, the short story market is in a long decline. Sure, there’s lots of stuff available for free on the internet. That’s not a market. How many people are making a living solely from giving away short stories online? Answer: Zero. You can’t eat free. Doing something because it’s fun and giving it away isn’t an industry, it’s what we call a “hobby”. Many authors do give away material in an attempt to use that to sell something else. That’s not a market, that’s what we call “marketing”. I think artists should be compensated for the hard work they do in creating something, and science writers should as well. I want the best of those creators to actually be able to earn a living from their creative activities, so they can commit to doing so full-time. That requires more than just giving everything away for free on a blog.

As for the value a publisher adds, I’d suggest you start with Charlie Stross’ excellent recent series on Common Misconceptions About Publishing (especially part 2, How books are made), followed by John Scalzi’s three act farse explaining what publishers do for him.

Your shotgun blast of wild claims is impossible to respond to here, so I will pick the worst. Phil did not say that STM journals do not add value so there is nothing to agree with. In fact journals are central to the dynamics of science, hence very valuable. Journals aggregate and rate research results for specific communities, which are two central functions.

Nor is there any hand wringing, just analogical reasoning. We are looking for the right analogs. If you think that working a business through a technological revolution is easy you are amazingly mistaken.

Sorry David, this is your article, not Phil’s. A senior moment. Regarding your comment, there is of course a complex process whereby research results get communicated to the general public, textbooks being the final link, 10-20 years later. A lot of filtering goes on, as it must.

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