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.