Trump and Clinton
Image via Michael Vadon and Gage Skidmore.

Today’s article is being written as I recover from the first of the big televised debates between the two candidates for President here in the USA. Whatever side you take, we are living through an era of life as game day, with a pre-game show to wind up the hysteria. The current state of play is essentially a dystopian tale where reality plays second fiddle to spectacle — facts do not matter — it is about scoring points in the moment — an existential sense of truth and impact.

The Scholarly Kitchen is not a place for political rhetoric. While I clearly have my personal biases, this article references our altered state in politics as a tool to reflect on balance and the need to invoke balance in publishing innovation, and in growth.

Let’s take the concept of growth. Growth is essential in a commercial setting. Shareholders demand growth, both in revenues and profit. Growth can, of course, take many forms and indeed growth can also relate to scale, market share and the ability to impact a community. All these are good things. However, at a certain point a business — let’s say a society publisher — may decide that growth is not the goal, and that keeping pace financially may allow different factors to drive products: for example, the desire to serve communities that might not otherwise be served. The goal may therefore be sustainability, instead. Certainly, to be sustainable, growth is a factor, but it is a factor that holds hands with innovation and quality of service. These various goals must exist in balance.

Balance, then — for a society publisher — takes on a subtle meaning, where growth is tempered alongside the need to sustainably provide content to a range of diverse communities. Some of these may bring in revenue and surplus, while others may not. Overall, however, they provide for a community that would otherwise not be served by organizations purely focusing on growth.

Balance in innovation is also an interesting concept to embrace. There is no question that innovation is key to the success of any publishing enterprise. The real beauty of innovation, though, lies in the balance applied to delivering on innovation. Innovation also is important as part of workplace life. The process of innovation provides a means to engage with your workforce bringing balance to the work lives of individuals who can contribute to the business in new ways. Being the first to implement innovation is not always the right place to be. The art of balance is to realize when to make the leap. It can good to be behind the curve and steadily taking account of innovations that may apply to your needs in future years. There is balance then in a publisher’s approach to innovation. If you look only at one aspect – perhaps the drive to gold open access, or ebooks to the exclusion of print, or the hunt for new models of peer review in a system that is not broken, then you risk not seeing the big picture and publishing to the needs of your communities. Taking a polymathic approach to business allows for many different pieces to fit into the same puzzle and you can take the leap when it is the right time to do so.

Cultural balance is also important. The recent Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) annual meeting in Vancouver succeeded in displaying some encouraging directions for our profession. You can read about the what the Scholarly Kitchen Chefs had to say about the meeting’s highlights in the post “Ask the Chefs: What Did you Learn At This Year’s SSP Annual Meeting?”), the SSP student fellows in the post “Ask the Fellows: What Did You Learn At This Year’s Annual SSP Meeting?”, and attending librarians in the post “Ask The Librarians: What Did You Learn At This Year’s SSP Annual Meeting?”. For example, Dr Margaret-Ann Armour, Associate Dean, Diversity, in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta , showed us that aiming to close the gender gap in the publishing profession will bring a new balance to the table, enabling innovation and boosting the publishing economy.

Cultural balance also refers to the way our publishing businesses view customers. What do our customers need? Do they know what they need? Do their needs match up to the products we currently publish, and if not do we have the skills to innovate?

Lastly, it is worth taking a look at the changing dynamics between stakeholders in publishing. At one extreme you have the corporate publishers, the giants that provide quantity (and some quality). At the other, you have the smaller publishers, that are privately owned. Then there are the university presses and society publishers, the libraries, the funders, and last but not least, the students and academics. Each of these stakeholders’ position in the equation is shifting. If we can understand the balance between these groups effectively, then publishing has a bright future.

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.


4 Thoughts on "Innovation, Growth and the Art of Balance"

There is one major difference in how innovation is funded in the non-profit and for-profit sectors. For-profits generally fund innovation from profits; non-profits generally do not have any substantial surpluses to devote to innovation. University presses, for example, have relied heavily on grants from foundations like Mellon to spur innovation (e.g., Project Muse) or from sharing of resources and staff time among presses through the AAUP (which created the AAUP Online Catalogue, which preceded Amazon, in this way).

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