Many non-profit and commercial publishers have multiple programs and departments that create content. The most frequently created content types include journals, books (e.g., reference, monographs, textbooks, trade, etc.), educational materials (e.g., courses, simulations, question banks, assessments, ancillary materials, etc.), guidelines, standards, databases, and meeting proceedings. However, this list is not nearly exhaustive!
Within a publishing enterprise, these content types likely cover similar subjects, but they are often created by different editorial processes, managed by separate teams with separate business goals, appeal to different audiences, and seek to fulfill different use cases. However, as content technologies have evolved and the expectations and demands of users and purchasers have increased, publishers have started to consider whether content type separation is truly the best way to meet customer needs, the best use of resources, or the best way to create content and content products. Is integration needed?
This month we asked the Chefs: How should a scholarly publisher integrate their books and journals programs? Or can they remain separate?
Joe Esposito: This question is a version of the now-familiar “container” argument. The idea here is that historically publishers worked in containers that were dictated by the limited forms of print technology. Thus we had the book, the article, the magazine, the newspaper. When things go digital, the sides are torn off the containers and the various content types are permitted to reshape themselves however and wherever they are viewed; and they are enabled for integration with other content. I summarized the thinking behind this on the Kitchen in “Theory of the eBook”.
The complicating issue is that while people search for information without containers (“Give me everything you have, regardless of format, on the total mass of the planet”), information is very much consumed in containers. People read articles, books, and so forth: these forms are adapted to how we read and how we think. So while we have “containerless” material behind the scenes, we experience content in containers. Sounds a bit like the Uncertainty Principle.
So a publisher would do well to embrace the dichotomy: create “databases” of content that are searchable in various ways, but deliver content via interfaces that have been “humanized.” That’s not so bad: as Hamlet said, “What a piece of work is a man!” That is, yet another container. (I address this comment to the bacteria living in my gut.)
Robert Harington: The question is perhaps irrelevant. Publishers are dealing with content regardless of form. A “life in the day” of content begins with the author and progresses through to sale, and use. Depending on the type of content, it may require some level of acquisition, rather than passive delivery. For a publisher to be truly effective in a field, they should be in the community, actively listening and communicating with researchers and teachers, and in some cases steering how research may evolve.
It is true that some separation is necessary in the sense that content experts may not be business experts. One way of handing this is for a publisher to embrace content expertise separately from the business aspects of publishing, but having those groups work together intimately. Let’s take the American Mathematical Society – my home. We are lucky to have content experts who are mathematicians. They know a wide range of people, and can converse in a wide range of topics. My role is to think through the work that they do, be it in books, journals, or indeed with our discovery gateway database, MathSciNet, and translate this into mission driven strategic, and business success. There is separation in activities, but with our mission in mind. We are joined at the hip in outlook, discussion, and action. So, where do I stand? I am in favor of integration, and separation – now that’s clear as mud.
Angela Cochran: Here at American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), we have opted for integration. We spent considerable time and effort to digitize our front list and a huge chunk of our backlist titles. These new e-books are now on the same platform as journals and conference proceedings. The books program is really transforming into a “digital first” program and new features such as software downloads, video instruction and fillable forms can be packaged as downloads with the content. For most of our book titles, we are not only making the entire book available but we have also created metadata for individual chapters. On the whole, people are not buying individual chapters of the books but having chapter metadata greatly improves discoverability. In most cases, purchasing the entire e-book is a fairly easy upsell and as such, whole book sales are strong. Librarians also like that books are available by the chapter. We have been selling e-book packages to librarians and have gotten feedback that the patrons like not having to download huge files if they really only need one chapter.
So why integrate on the same platform? The ASCE Library is well known to the academic community but not so well known to the practitioner community—the core membership demographic. By putting the books, journals and proceedings on the same platform, all three product lines enjoy exposure through search results and cross marketing. An engineer looking for information on snow loads, will now find our e-book standards on minimum design loads, case studies in the proceedings content, and journal articles.
For those thinking of taking this kind of project on, don’t underestimate the level of difficulty. Online journal platforms are not made for book content and it can sometimes feel like you are jamming a square peg into a round hole. Also, if you are like us, there is no chapter level metadata available and as such, this all needs to be created. Lastly, the eCommerce around selling print and digital side-by-side, using two different systems, is not for the faint of heart.
Michael Clarke: Books and journals programs remain quite separate divisions at many publishers, including all of those I worked for during my days as a publisher (though I was delighted to hear that the American Academy of Pediatrics just completed a merger of the two divisions). This is because they have historically been organized around production and distribution activities. Books and journals have long had very different workflows and have employed different production technologies. Books have traditionally been sold via wholesalers and bookstores whereas journals are typically distributed via subscription agents and direct to individuals and libraries. Differences in production workflows and technologies are becoming smaller, however, as books (at least in the STM and scholarly arena) are increasingly adopting XML workflows. And while sales and distribution between the two formats continue to have important differences, they are increasingly available in common packages and integrated together on the same web delivery platforms. As differences in production and distribution diminish, publishers are increasingly asking whether it makes sense to combine the two programs.
There is no universal answer to this question (that would be too easy). One way of determining whether to combine programs is to ask what makes the most sense for your customers and especially your end users (understanding these may be different people). There is, of course, no such thing as a “book reader” or a “journal reader.” There are instead pediatricians and geologists and psychologists and so forth. They read books and journals, along with conference proceedings, standards, white papers, guidelines, and much else. How do your customers want to discover and consume your information? Answering that question is the first step in determining how best to organize your enterprise in order to meet their needs.
Charlie Rapple: Integrate is one of those words. Some people hear: “merge systems, datasets, processes, teams, departments, offices … and then start from scratch when the disruption drives all your staff to leave, taking all their knowledge with them”. Others hear: “just create a light interface to sit on top of everything.” Too often, where we land on this spectrum is driven by technological possibilities (“let’s do an app!”) or impossibilities (“this feature is hard-coded; none shall pass”), rather than by a solid understanding of what will make sense for customers; in fairness, decisions can also be driven by business goals that are equally uninformed by market research (“let’s just have one way into everything!”).
Rephrasing the question as “to what end would a publisher integrate their books and journals programs?” is helpful – knowing where you’re going in order to decide what route to take there. If your goal is to provide more consistent services to your authors, with greater economies of scale, then you’ll be starting with editorial teams and processes. If your goal is to increase cross-readership of your content, you’ll be starting with the design of your online content pages. If your goal is to increase revenues from your content, you might need to start with your e-commerce middleware. Of course, you’ll be thinking you want to do all of this: that’s where some customer research can help you prioritize, by understanding which are the biggest obstacles that need to be dealt with first. I guess what I’m saying is, “focus on the user and all else will follow”. Seems to be working for Google!
David Crotty: While others here have addressed the needs of readers, it’s important to also think about attracting authors. I last worked on books when I was at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. Despite a long history of popular life science monographs and lab manuals, it was becoming harder and harder to attract top authors to write chapters. We were repeatedly turned down, and told that book chapters didn’t “count” toward career advancement and funding as much as journal articles. Authors felt they couldn’t sacrifice the time to write for anything that didn’t have an Impact Factor, and that wasn’t indexed in Medline.
At the same time, like many other academic book publishers, we were seeing declines in print book sales. For authors and readers, if it wasn’t online, it didn’t exist. To solve both problems, we turned areas of our book acquisition program into journals, launching new methods and review journals. The usual collection of chapters are instead commissioned as journal articles, which are peer reviewed and published in the journals as they come in. When the entire set is in, a printed book collection and an ebook are issued for those who prefer the content in those sorts of packages.
This has created new revenue streams from new journals and cut way back on the costs of producing books — the journal editing and production process results in print-ready PDFs which can readily be repurposed for a small print run of a book. And for authors, they now get an Impact Factor-having, peer reviewed journal article to put on their C.V., making recruitment much easier.
Ann Michael: This question is all about use cases. For your organization, how interoperable is your content? How interoperable should it be to meet or exceed the expectations of your key audiences? By the way, that is not just limited to the content that your organization produces, but also includes content that is valuable or critical to your audience that you don’t produce. Are there commonly available guidelines or databases that your audience requires? Are there partnerships you should explore? Are there tools that you can offer your customers that, while leveraging the value of your content, also makes your members/customers/users more productive?
We can consider integration from several perspectives. From a user perspective, is there a value (increased productivity, access, efficiency, etc.) derived from frictionless simultaneous access to multiple content types that they may or may not recognize? From a technology perspective, integration can mean the content is on the same delivery platform, leverages the same search capabilities and shared indexes, is categorized with the same taxonomy, is available through a single eCommerce transaction, etc. From a business perspective, integration generally means that there is a set of common (or at least complementary) organizational goals, targets, and incentives. From a content perspective, integration could mean that steps have been taken to ensure a compatible “voice” across content intended for the same audience or use case. From a business model perspective, there is a positive financial impact for making content interoperable. Will interoperability offer value to the purchaser that will allow the organization to maintain or increase revenue and/or mission impact.
Now it’s your turn!
What type of content types does your organization produce? Are they integrated? Should they be? If they are integrated, what benefits or draw backs have you experienced?