It’s three years now since I posted “The Inexorable Path of the Professional Society Publisher” and I thought it was time to revisit it. What’s always troubled me about that post is that it takes the view of the underdog — that is, of the small or mid-size professional society publisher — which is struggling to remain competitive in an environment in which administrative costs explode, the budgets of customers are flat and sometimes declining, and libraries continue to invite consolidation among vendors in order to reduce administrative costs. While few journals truly lose out entirely in this environment (they more likely get absorbed into other companies in some fashion), the fact is that some journal publishers win bigger than others. Let’s tell the tale of the winners this time, those publishers that remain independent and even grow, some magnificently.
Parenthetically, talking about winners is so unfashionable in scholarly communications today that it is something of a struggle to find the vocabulary for it. Everyone is crying in their beer. Researchers can’t get access, librarians are out of money, publishers are struggling to find new markets, and the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. Meanwhile, the world gets better every day, and the research community, including the libraries and publishers that support it, are in part to thank for it. I wonder if I am the only person who will read this Kitchen post who knows people who are alive today because of medical technology that did not exist 20 years ago.
But the winners! What about them? Aside from the small publishers that cleverly and effectively occupy a niche (very common in humanities publishing–and, to spare anyone from the need to make this comment, even for monographs!), the winners in journal publishing fall into three broad strategic categories.
The Leviathan Model. We should begin with the Leviathans because they are the other side of the troubled world of the small society publishers. There are basically four of these–Elsevier, Springer Nature, John Wiley, and Taylor & Francis. Two university presses (Oxford and Cambridge) play this game in a smaller pond — call theirs the Dolphin Strategy — but they play it well — trumpeting their not-for-profit status, as they should. Wolters Kluwer plays the game with a deep vertical focus, and Sage strives to join the Big 4 as a veritable #5. Beyond that the remaining publishers, even the larger ones, work with a different strategy. The Leviathan strategy is that of the aggregator, a provider of so much scholarly material that libraries have to pay serious attention to it. This is the key winning strategy in the industry today. Leviathans try to roll up as much content as possible, the better to stare down increasingly tough-minded consortia buyers and to squeeze out the smaller publishers, which are denied access to library budgets. There is a very important point to be made about the Leviathan model: only a very few publishers can play this game. I am myself impressed by the management discipline at Sage, OUP, and Cambridge, which has enabled them to expand their offerings when even a decade ago there was some reason to believe that the marketplace was going to pass them by.
The Community Model. For all the sturm und drang incited by the Leviathans, the fact is that successful journal publishing does not stop there. There is a large contingent (by some estimates, as many as 50) professional societies that remain independent and deliver impressive results. The obvious names to invoke here are ACS and IEEE, but there are others, and we should expect their representatives to let us know about them in the comments to this post. A community is defined not only by whom you include but also by whom you exclude, and the community-oriented publishers are careful not to try to please everybody. The core strategy of the community model is to anchor the publishing program in the society membership itself. Members submit articles to the society’s journals, review articles for the journals, and may serve as editors. They also read the journals, either through direct subscription or through the access provided by their employers. Such members often prove to be valuable in bringing the society’s journals to the attention of the appropriate member of the library staff.
Here it should be noted that the community publisher is wholly different from a publisher with a journal without a community supporting it. Indeed, one of the curious things about scholarly publishing today is the enormous growth in content that is not anchored in a scholarly community. The open access movement is in part responsible for this, as it reduces the complex set of professional and social arrangements surrounding scholarship to the single issue of access, but commercial publishers have also been instrumental in stripping away the community dimension from the published article. The Community model, however, views content (articles, books) as a single aspect of a suite of professional relationships and communications. Content that is so anchored is very difficult to displace, as authors who, say, decide to submit an article to a publication outside their society are abandoning not only the journal but their colleagues.
The Prestige Model. There is a very small number of publications–a very, very small number–whose prestige in their fields is so great that few, if any, prospective customers can fail to purchase them. It is a club with a tiny membership, with Nature and Science sitting atop the heap. But there is a handful of others and about them it is safe to say: They know who they are, and so do we. Publication in one of these journals is often believed to guarantee a successful career. Librarians subscribe to these publications because they want to and because they have to.
One characteristic of the Prestige publishers is the sheer number of submitted articles, which means that there is a very low acceptance rate. This in turn leads to cascading models, which can be highly efficient economically. Publishers in this category may suffer from an endemic problem, that with so much prestige, it becomes hard to innovate. A Prestige publisher may be strangled by its own reputation.
Beyond these three categories there are, of course, many successful journals, and we are now seeing the possibility of other models becoming more significant. Most obviously we have the megajournals pioneered by PLOS ONE, though that publication appears to be resting right now; but we also have a great deal of activity among smaller societies and with new entrants such as library publishing. There are more routes to success than simply to sign a deal with one of the Big 4.
What should be clear, though, is that the successful publishers that fall into these three categories are in a league of their own. It is difficult to imagine them being seriously challenged, and it is difficult to imagine scholarly communications without them. For an upstart to crack this league would require a new approach to the marketplace and truly compelling leadership.