hey joe record sleeveRereading Joe Esposito’s post of June this year, “The Mixed Marriage of For-profit and Not-for-Profit Publishing“, I found myself in the curious and unusual position of saying “No Joe, you are missing the point.” OK, maybe that is too strong. Joe’s piece is spot on in many ways. He quite astutely points out the atypical nature of the publishing industry in its mixed marriage of for-profits and not-for-profits. He identifies the differentiating characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of this mixed marriage of partners with very different driving forces. Yes, the for-profits are more muscular and bottom-line driven in that hard-nosed, share-value-propping­-up kind of way — hard-nosed to the end. In fact, for-profits revel in their participation in “the economy”. Joe points out that not only do for-profits live and operate in this economy, but so do not-for-profits. And then there is the notion that not-for-profits just do not get how influential they could be if there was a clear understanding of brand management.

Where I take issue with Joe – in the friendliest way possible, of course — is in the rather stereotypical portrait of the not-for-profit as a tweedy, rather inept and bumbling operator that does not truly understand how to participate in “the economy”. My own experience across both for profit and not-for-profit publishing is very different – although, of course, I am not alone in having worked in both sectors. Many of my colleagues leading society publishing enterprises trained and enjoyed working in a for-profit environment, and they bring the same commitment to efficient management to the non-profit environment that they were required to bring to their corporate jobs. Moreover, most society publishers that I know are not at all interested in toppling the corporates, other than mentioning their names in a passing quip as you might about any competition.

The fundamental difference between the society publisher and the for-profit publisher lies in their mission — the reasons why societies publish in the first place. This admittedly is not an obvious concept. It has taken me a while to grasp the subtlety in the way mission colors outlook. I can sit at a book review meeting and discuss a book that will clearly not make money and ask the question “why should we publish this book if we are clearly going to lose money on it?” A book such as this will likely be of the highest academic quality, delving into perhaps new and important scholarship. It may be well written, and even be labeled exciting, yet when you look at how many people will be interested in the book, we may be looking at a few hundred at the most. From a business perspective, the only way to climb out of this conundrum is to not publish the book on the one hand, or price it so that on paper it works. Most societies I know will not do either of these things, however. Instead, they will embrace such a book as important, relevant and in keeping with mission.

What is needed here is an understanding of why mission is important. Academic societies do not include in their missions the need to make money. Money is a means to an end – most likely supporting the supplementary activities that allow their community to thrive. Part of the mission may well be dissemination of scholarship to all those who may be interested, however small that community may be. This is not going to happen in the “economy”. This is not ineptness at all. In fact, what I see is that societies feel as passionate about their dissemination mission as they do about their role supporting their academic communities in other ways. It is a positive force, almost entirely independent of a business-based calculus.

It is true that society governance is often engaged in a mighty struggle between the forces of the business and the drive to fulfill a mission. The fact is that a society revels in this struggle and feels fortunate to be able to do it. Society publishers are really not interested in toppling the commercial giants, they just want to be able to do it all –publish what they want, innovate, embrace authors and readers and yes be sustainable – across a portfolio of activities – not necessarily in any one part of that portfolio. Society publishing is so much fun when you learn to embrace this dynamic, and in fact it is good for all the stakeholders: from students to tenure-seeking professors, from authors to readers, from academic department to library, from funder to policy makers.

Joe is right, though, in the end when he says that we need to learn how to be more influential – to let our communities know what we are doing and why we do it, and how what a society does affects its individual members. We are not always good at understanding how to answer the question “what’s in it for me?”

So, Joe, perhaps what you read here is not disagreement, but enthusiastic appreciation for your thoughts after all.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


7 Thoughts on "Dear Joe: Not-for-profit Publishers in “The Economy”"

While many of the not for profit publishers don’t have shareholders that they have to report too on a quarterly basis, the not for profit publishers that I have worked for all have been very bottom line oriented and just as diligent about revenue generation, cost control, and running their business with the same financial energy as any for profit company. The mission of the society may be a driver, however the organization still needs revenue to pay for the services. Membership fees will not support their mission. Often the not for profit publishers are faced with a more difficult financial environment than their commercial cousin. The people who run the business side of publishing have the same set of skills and both groups have to be good at their trade to be successful.

Good points, Robert. But I don’t understand why you keep putting the word “economy” in scare quotes. Arer you suggesting that publishers (either for-profit or not-for-profit) are operating in something other than the plain old economy?

Interesting post, Robert – everything you’ve said here applies equally to university presses. What I noticed as missing when I moved over to the UP world (or at least, my little corner of it) was a focus on growth – if our mission is as important as we all believe, why did we not strive to do more of it in ever more impactful ways? This is where I encountered that clash with the commercial world that Joe talks about – the notion of profit (or surplus, as I’ve learned to call it) was somehow crass and perhaps beneath us. Overcoming this culturally (and of course, getting the organization into consistent annual surplus) has been the hardest but most important part of getting to a position where we can really invest in deepening and broadening delivery of the mission – which is, as you say, why we’re all here.

Sometimes growth in the for-profit world comes at the expense of quality. Greater output allows for certain economies of scale, but maintaining quality while growing is not easy. That is one reason I would say, in response to Alison, that university presses have been cautious about growth. But some have also sacrificed mission in favor of growth in sales revenue, under pressure as they have been to pay their own way in the face of decreasing university support. One manifestation has been the substitution of the mid-list trade books, increasingly abandoned by the large commercial publishers, for scholarly monographs, resulting in underproduction of monographs in some fields (which have become known as “endangered species”). The larger role that market potential has played in decisions by university presses about what to publish is one reason that open access becomes more attractive as an alternative approach, because it allows publishers to focus more on mission than on market results (while of course adding the burden of finding other means for covering costs up front).

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