When considering market evolution and organizational change and the core competencies that we will need to address them, it is sometimes overwhelming to look at where we are now and define where we need to be. The present situation has a habit of constraining the future. While many aspects of our current environment may be legitimate constraints that will take varying amounts of time and effort to relieve or remove, it is dangerous to let them block even the consideration of what our future state should incorporate. One time-honored method to temporarily release ourselves from our current constraints is to consider how we might address current or anticipated market conditions if we were starting with a blank slate, a green field.

This month we asked the Chefs: If you were starting a publishing operation today, which core competencies would you consider critical?

skill concept

Rick Anderson:  If I were starting a publishing operation today, it would mean that my wife had died prematurely and no one was left to stop me from undertaking projects for which I’m grossly unqualified. So let me change the question before I answer it: If someone else were starting a publishing operation and put me in charge of selecting people with important competencies that aren’t specific to publishing, which core competencies would I consider critical?

I can think of three: first, an ability and willingness to think critically. (I know, that’s two. I’m cheating.) Can this person step back from his or her preconceived notions, prejudices, personal preferences, and expectations and analyze situations and opportunities carefully and objectively? Is he or she able and willing to examine both the pros and the cons of any opportunity or option? Second, expansive vision. I would want people who not only know how to do what publishers do now, but who has the capacity to see what’s possible — and maybe even a little bit beyond what’s possible. What could we be doing that we should and aren’t — regardless of whether it’s “what publishers do”? Third, a passion for third-person problem solving. I would want people who are constantly learning about our customers, thinking about how they work, and finding ways for us to solve problems for them — specifically, the problems that our customers know they have and that cause them real, felt pain (as distinct from the problems that we want them to think they have because we have a ready-made solution for that problem all set to go). Complicating this endeavor is the fact that the term “customer” is problematic when it comes to scholarly publishing; our customers are authors, readers, libraries, students, administrators, the general public, grantmakers (public and private), government agencies… So I guess that means I’ve got one more essential competency to add: dogged, resilient persistence.

Joe Esposito:  Before saying what core competencies a start-up publishing company we would look for, it’s important to say what we mean by “publishing.” My definition of the term is “an industry that invests in and markets content.” That leaves out tools companies and platform companies, as valuable as those companies may be.

For a publishing concern the core competency is now and will always be a strategic editorial perspective. The best marketing team in the world cannot sell content that is not fresh, original, and insightful; software developers can manipulate text in a myriad of ways imaginable and unimaginable, but a publishing concern’s primary task is to determine what that content is. A strategic editorial perspective does not only identify what is competent but actively seeks out what is groundbreaking. If you don’t have that or if you don’t think it Job #1, get out of publishing.

I’m not sure I’d start a publishing operation today. That’s the vocabulary of yesteryear. What was publishing is now something a little different, or radically different, depending on your perspective.

Kent Anderson:  In keeping with a recent post from the inimitable David Worlock, I’m not sure I’d start a publishing operation today. That’s the vocabulary of yesteryear. What was publishing is now something a little different, or radically different, depending on your perspective. So I’d start with reframing the publishing operation differently — as something more data-driven, more automated, and more distributed. This would lead me to look for people who can manage teams well, in addition to people able to manage large technology projects. I also think that since margins are tighter than they were 10-20 years ago, I’d look for people who can squeeze efficiency out of operations, and who can identify new revenue opportunities. This all leads to looking for good, personable technology entrepreneurs, with “the publishing operation” being almost an outcome but not itself the end goal. The end goal would be a technology business that is entrepreneurial, efficient, distributed, data-driven, team-oriented, and personable. 

Phill Jones:  Having been involved in a very early stage academic publisher, I can tell you that the barriers to entry in our industry are monumentally high. All things being equal, I honestly don’t think it’s possible to just launch a traditional academic publishing operation and be successful without either sailing close to the wind, or being disruptive in such a way that creates community support. So let’s assume that my startup publisher isn’t prepared to just trawl university web pages and send spam emails to every academic it can find an address for, or get a few busy professors with good intentions to volunteer to be listed on the site as silent editorial board members. Let’s take the higher ground and think about disruption.

Disruption is a word that’s hugely overused. It’s often used as a synonym for innovation, which it isn’t. Disruption involves challenging the value systems of the market in such a way that the barriers to entry become solvent. PLOS and BMC successfully did this by changing the values around peer review and repositioning publishing as a dissemination service for authors. Hindawi is in the middle of doing it by creating an alternative editorial model that is community driven; a model which may disrupt learned societies.

Disruption is a word that’s hugely overused. It’s  often used as a synonym for innovation, which it isn’t. Disruption involves challenging the value systems of the market in such a way that the barriers to entry become solvent

If I were to create a publishing company, the single  most important thing would be a willingness to question all assumptions about how things are supposed to work. A close second would be customer centricity. That is, the ability to really listen to what frustrates customers and find creative solutions, replace legacy workflows or even abandon traditional value propositions in favor of new, better-targeted ones that suit 21st century needs.

David Smith: Recently I heard a talk from the CTO of Ocado — A UK online grocery supplier. He said many interesting things indeed, but one was this:

“We aren’t a grocery company! We are a time machine for our customers. We save them time, and the delivery food goods are the mechanism by which we do that”

So AI — autonomous machines — robot operated warehouses and ‘On Road Events’ (that’s delivery drivers — human — for now…) were his lingua franca.

My publishing operation wouldn’t be concerned so much about publishing… but it would be VERY concerned about information. My operation is small — but not so small that everyone fits in a garage.

Communications (Slack/Office 365 or Google apps/ video conferencing/project management/time management/tracking) all outsourced — don’t wanna spend any time or capital there.

HR and payroll — outsourced.

Office space — Nope. Pitches etc will occur at a membership club where rooms can be rented as needed. It will have a nice bar and restaurant for meals etc.

First competency:  One of your employee benefits is a nice phone, tablet and a nice laptop — and you better be able to look after all of it properly — updates / troubleshooting / etc. It’s a Rorschach for EVERY employee. You break it, you fix it.

Second Competency:  We’ll be building our assets in the cloud. Again every employee needs to be able to talk properly about what the cloud is and how they can use its capabilities to help advance their areas of responsibility. Clearly some employees will be real propeller-heads in this area.

Third Competency:  Agile. There will be a test. It will be philosophical in nature and it will probe the difference between knowing the words and living and breathing the principles and approaches of true agile thinking. Again, every employee will be expected to be pretty fluent here and in the senior roles, will be expected to bring an investment, risk taking, and decision making approach that is grounded in these principles  [See also user centered thinking/ethnographc study/A/B testing qualitative and quantitative data analysis].

Fourth Competency:  Empathy, Integrity and Equality. I don’t care how old you are, what color you are, or what your gender or sexuality is. Religion too. If you have problem with those things, walk on by. No place for you here. Everyone’s job will be to build an environment and culture that recognizes what’s important. So, yeah — you are going to the school play and the sports day, and helping your parents and all that stuff. You tell your team, and you commit to the outcomes that everybody has signed up to (see agile).

Specialist Competencies 1:  Usability/UX/data analytics/ they will work not just on product build and iteration but marketing and coms and R&D as well.

Specialist Competencies 2:  The team will have a working background in the specialist areas in which this company will operate. It could be engineering :-), it could be health or history or literature, etc etc. Those without it will be expected to pick up a working knowledge of the world (if not all the multi-syllable words) PDQ.

Specialist Competencies 3:  Programmers and Engineers and Architects. Now here I’m wanting multi-skilled folks with the right approach, not drones who can only do exactly what they are told. I’d be looking for folks with a broad range of experience building things using a variety of different tools and techniques. Folks who can interact with the various tiers of cloud based capability from the primitives of servers and databases and machine learning and AI engines, through to the new stuff that is supposed to be used quickly, picked up in a sprint or two and turned in a piece of business value shortly after. Key question — “what’s the most complicated thing you have taken apart, and what did you learn about putting it back together?”

Now here I’m wanting multi-skilled folks with the right approach, not drones who can only do exactly what they are told.

A key thing about that Ocado quote — the key business insight was about time and the value to their customers — the groceries are simply the vector by which the business value is unlocked. Not a grocery company, a TIME MACHINE. So that’s what I’m building. And if it was run by a woman, so much the better.

Angela Cochran:  Database management is the new core competency for everything. Once you understand how a database functions and how one database can “talk” to another, new product and service development is a whole lot easier. Along with that, expertise around metadata is also critical. I think some operations make the mistake of creating the metadata they need today without thinking about the metadata they may need tomorrow. Without trying to make yourself crazy by tagging every little thing, you need to examine what questions you might want to answer with your data and ensure that you know how to find those answers.

Equally important to the technology and delivery considerations are the content acquisition issues. I would want to ensure that there were team leads that know the value of peer review and understand how to build trust with the editors, authors, and readers. There needs to be a common understanding of what the content should be and how to attract it.

Lastly, even though the landscape is changing, there are certain things any new publication needs in order to fit in with the others. I am talking about the nuts and bolts of ISSNs, ISBNs, DOIs, Google crawls, inclusion in A&I services, etc. There are a whole lot of details and many of them play a critical role in helping people find the content.

Robert Harington:  The first conundrum that came to mind, when thinking about how to address this question, was how to define a publishing operation today. Let’s assume we are operating in the academic sector. We need to know where we will add value, value that is significant enough that your defined market is prepared to pay for that value.

To really understand how to launch, and run this publishing operation you need to understand your community from a few different perspectives. You definitely need a direct connection to your community, and this implies cultural expertise — perhaps subject expertise — combined with soft communication skills. These skills allow you to not just understand your community, but to build trust. You need to consider how to translate cultural and subject expertise into form and function. Let’s not even get into books, journals, digital products, or services at this point. Whatever you do, being able to translate an idea through process, and technological expertise is going to allow you to realize your product. Of course, your product is fabulous.

You also need to consider how to market and sell to your community. These days, you need to embrace the social world right off the bat, understanding that your products will live, or die in post publication review, and perhaps take-off by word of mouth. In summary then I am being quite minimalist, suggesting you need skills that combine cultural and subject expertise, process and technology skills with the ability to translate technology to your business needs, and social market savvy.

Lettie Conrad:  Putting relevant technical and industry experience aside, the proficiencies that define success in publishing today are consistent across roles — whether you’re a production line-manager or an executive, adaptability and resiliency are crucial. The ability to flex with changing business priorities and competing demands is a given, and those who do so while remaining grounded in the institution’s mission and core value proposition will thrive. This requires dual attention to operational efficiencies and organizational development, alongside the successful execution of one’s role, balanced by a healthy willingness to be wrong and try new things. Creativity and vision, gumption and grit, and old-fashioned integrity are lasting traits that successfully serve our industry, despite its many changes.

The ability to flex with changing business priorities and competing demands is a given, and those who do so while remaining grounded in the institution’s mission and core value proposition will thrive.

Michael Clarke:  To hear the vocal bandwagon of critics of the publishing industry tell it, the most important competencies in a publisher include a luddite’s disdain for technology combined with a misanthrope’s disregard for the well-being of society and a robber baron’s talent for profiteering. And certainly in starting a publishing company we would actively recruit our staff from among the ranks of patent trolls, trophy hunters, cellular service providers, House Slytherin, and South American dictators. Travis Kalanick and Martin Shkreli would be shoo-ins for our board of directors. Board meetings would be conducted on our corporate yacht, the Publish or Perish, ornamented with rare rain forest woods and framed rejection letters issued by our editors.

As we assemble our motley crew of talent, it would behoove us to remember that publishing is now and has always been first and foremost about cultivating a public. Which is to say, publishing is not merely about “making something public” (dissemination). My two-year-old puppy could put your manuscript on a public server and he doesn’t even have opposable thumbs. Rather it is about finding or developing an audience for work (whether that is research, scholarship, educational works, or mystery novels). Ask any publisher – including open access publishers – what percentage of their time is spent on releasing manuscripts on their website versus working to cultivate or align with a community (recruiting papers, recruiting reviewers, recruiting editors, user experience design, conference promotion, and so forth). These latter activities consume the vast majority of time and attention for most publishers and here we would be no different, orienting our competencies (editorial, marketing, community engagement) around these core activities. The true mark of mastery of such competencies is the degree to which one can appear credible while decrying the continued use of the impact factor while trumpeting the numbers for one’s own journals. We would aspire to achieve grand master status in this regard as rapidly as possible.

Alice Meadows: I’m not sure that the core competencies I’d be looking for today would be so very different from in the past. They include project management and technology skills, as well as “softer” skills like excellent communication skills, great relationship management, intelligence, curiosity, and of course masses of enthusiasm.

What I do think we should be doing differently though is to proactively look for those skills in a much wider range of places and people than we have historically done. So much has been written about the value of a diverse workforce — it increases innovation and profitability (subscription required). It enables you to better serve your community. How can you hope to reach a global market, for example, if all your strategic decisions are being taken by people of the same color, gender, education, etc? So for my money, what we should be focusing on is not new types of core competency but a much wider range of people who have — or can be taught — those skills, so that our workforce better reflects our community, both now and in the future.


Now it’s your turn!

If you were starting a publishing operation today, which core competencies would YOU consider critical?


Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is President of Delta Think, a business and technology consulting and advisory firm focused on innovation and growth in membership organizations, scholarly publishers, and professional information providers. Ann is Past-President of SSP.

View All Posts by Ann Michael


7 Thoughts on "Ask The Chefs: If You Were Starting A Publishing Operation Today, Which Core Competencies Would You Consider Critical?"

I did start a publishing operation in 2008: Business Expert Press. My advice: 1. willingness to commit to digital first for revenue generation. 2. willingness to constantly be open to innovation in pricing, packaging and delivery, 3. Commitment to striking a 50/50 balance in all decisions between the need to maximize return for the author and minimize the price paid by the library, or author, or ??? and 4. willingness to see OA not so much as a mission but as a business opportunity. Purpose and mission and “fairness” and “what is right” are all worthy and important pursuits, but OA will not broadly flourish across all publishing outputs so long as it relies on donor organizations, APCs and institutional funds. And, one last thought: You better know how to separate the good and the occasional great publishing ideas and place big bets on the great!

When the provosts of what is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance around the turn of the millennium proposed that all the presses in the consortium combine their operations, they realized that each press would still need to maintain its own editorial office so that the press would continue to have its own identity. Thus what Joe said is key. And his emphasis on strategy is also key. It is not just any old editorial program that that positions the press strategically in the wider publishing environment and takes advantage of the opportunities available.

All good suggestions and undoubtedly core competencies. To these I add a caution for the aspiring publisher: AI and machine learning technologies — specifically, as applied to competitive intelligence and customer insights functions — are on a collision course with the content publishing industry. This is because “content consumers” (researchers), in their quest for automated insights, want their AI-enabled search engine to have unfettered access to the largest, most robust, broadest, and most authoritative content sets, but they don’t care if their users have direct access to the underlying documents. What does this do to a premium content provider’s subscriber base, content licensing revenue, and advertising revenue stream? How does it affect a publisher’s intellectual property rights? (More of my thoughts on this topic are at https://lnkd.in/d2mCwnt)

If the smartest publishers are moving away from content-silos towards work-flow solutions. That seems to be the lesson of this August, I guess there have to be some very big opportunities in providing work-flow for learning environments. The content mostly open access and malleable, the metrics and assessment tools for hire, will become key investment development focus. I think the MOOCs mostly missed this.

Leave a Comment