Dan Strempel of Simba Information has kindly made available to me Simba’s recent report on the market for social sciences and humanities (SSH) publications, Global Social Science & Humanities Publishing 2013-2014. There are not many encouraging signs in this study for publishers, but it’s worthwhile to review the numbers and the structure of the market, some of which may be surprising to many readers.
Simba estimates the global market for SSH materials in all languages at $5.2 billion, a figure that is a fraction (perhaps one-quarter) of the STM market worldwide. This is despite the fact that, right-wing politicians aside, almost everybody believes that everyone should have a grounding in the humanities (What is a democracy? What is the history of our nation?), but that education in the sciences beyond a certain level of literacy (Why is the earth hotter at some times of year, cooler at others?) is the business of specialists. The publishing trend away from the SSH fields is likely to continue, in large part because the funding–institutional, governmental, and philanthropic–is either being reduced or increasingly directed to STM areas.
What is most striking about this report are the generalizations that can be made:
- While STM publishing is almost entirely focused in journals, books play a very large role in SSH.
- While English is the critical language for STM, much HSS publishing is conducted in “local” languages. The word “local” means things like French, German, and Portuguese. That term seems condescending to me, but I don’t have a better one.
- While STM publishing is dominated by a few very large companies, the market for SSH is fragmented, with no single company having a dominant position.
- While not-for-profit organizations are a major participant in all areas of research publishing, the university press world is heavily tilted toward SSH.
- Library budgets increasingly are being skewed toward STM on one hand, journals on the other. The deep affiliation between STM and journals publishing is a part of this.
- SSH publications are drifting toward English-language publishing and the journal format, in part because of the growth of quantitative areas in SSH research, in part because the history of user metrics for journals biases library purchasing decisions.
- SSH derives almost all of its revenue from the library sector, whereas STM has a secondary market (in some cases a primary one) in the corporate market.
- The underlying research dollars for SSH (as distinct from publishing revenue) is much, much smaller than for STM.
- Print plays a far larger role in SSH than in STM. In part this is a function of the greater role of books in SSH.
I came away from reading this report with the conviction that SSH publishing needs a new idea. Some people believe that open access (OA) is that idea, but I doubt it. OA has problems operating in the SSH area for a number of reasons, not least the absence of funding to pay for Gold OA. But in any event, when you study library circulation records, the problem for many humanities publications is weak demand, not barriers to access. If scholarly monographs are languishing on the shelves at major research universities, why would making them accessible to people outside the academy meaningfully drive up usage?
One would think that the highly fragmented nature of the marketplace (many publishers with none approaching a 10% market share) would be an opportunity for a strategy of mergers and acquisitions, but there are factors militating against that. For one, so many major SSH publishers are not-for-profit and thus more or less resistant to the overtures of investment bankers even though such mergers might make good economic sense and allow the not-for-profit sector to compete more effectively. A second reason is the “local” languages. It’s hard to operate a company outside one’s own borders, triply hard to manage one that works in multiple languages. And a third reason is simply that the growth in SSH fields is anemic: it’s easier to invest in a growing market.
My personal hunch is that growth in these fields may require the ramping up of initiatives to reach out in two directions: into the classroom, with new publications and formats designed to aid in undergraduate education (because we do care about our history and how the world came to be as it is), and beyond the walls of the academy. That latter effort, popularization, is not high status (today), but it is linked to the public’s support of SSH education and research.