The question in the title of this blog post was put to me by a senior executive of one of the largest publishing companies. Her company, like the other large commercial ones, has been bulking up over the years by licensing the rights to journals and, occasionally, other forms of publications from professional societies. Those publications are then integrated into the licensing company’s operations for everything from the management of submissions system to production and sales and marketing, everything but the defining editorial work. For these licenses, her company pays large royalties and usually significant annual guarantees. But her point was well taken: her company would pay so much more than the licensing fee for outright ownership. Why do societies insist on leaving so much money on the table?

Highway 61 Revisited Cover
Image courtesy of mtarvainen.

This question gets at the heart of what professional societies are and how they think of their publications. Let’s put the question this way: Are the publications of a professional society an asset or an expression of the society? An asset can be bought and sold — think of a desk or a house — but an expression of something is harder to get one’s arms around. If publications are central to the way a society thinks of itself, how do you sell them off? This begs other questions: What constitutes centrality for a society, and why do some societies view publications as central while others do not?

A bit of background. Many publishers, and all of the largest ones, have a mix of publications that they own outright and publications that are owned by a third party, most often by a professional society. For that latter category the larger publisher is a service provider to the society publisher. The large publishers create these service arrangements for a number of reasons. For one, and this is perhaps the reason that this kind of business got started in the first place many years ago, the larger publishers may have excess capacity. Thus, bringing on a client for services allows the larger publisher to make some money on infrastructure that would otherwise lie dormant. Another reason is strategic development and relationship-building. So, for example, a large publisher with no publications in the area of clinical medicine may sign up a society publisher in that area (and pay a premium) as a way to begin to build a presence in the hospital sales channel. Or a large publisher may sign up a client for services as the first step to an eventual outright acquisition (this happens more commonly with books than journals). But over the past decade or two, the primary reason the larger publishers have set out to provide services to smaller ones is that this brings scale to the larger publisher’s operations. With scale come many benefits: stronger pricing power (and don’t libraries know it), leverage with vendors, and a great deal of operating data that can be mined for patterns in sales, marketing, and even editorial. In journals publishing, big is better.

If you happen to own and operate a small for-profit journal publisher (not too many of these left), the financial attraction of an outright sale almost always outstrips the appeal of a licensing agreement. Most often, unless the small publisher is under duress, the sale takes place when the owner begins to think about estate planning. (I guarantee that the heads of business development at all of the largest publishers know the ages of the owners of the independent for-profit publishers.) But a society publisher is a different matter. There are no grand-kids to put through college, no alma mater deserving of a bequest. A society’s economic interests are those of the society itself, which endure beyond the lives and careers of any single member.

What gets lost in discussions of society publishers is the implications of the word “society.” A society publisher is not just a publisher but a social entity. For a society to sell off its publications, it often feels like it is lopping off a piece of itself. There are society members who publish in those journals, others who edit them and provide peer review. While some of this work is compensated (much more than is generally supposed), part of the willingness for society members to provide these services on a voluntary basis stems from a sense of social responsibility. Someone will say: I worked for years as a reviewer for that journal and now you are going to sell it off to Springer Nature??? What kind of schmuck do you take me for?

All these issues come to the forefront during an actual negotiation. “While we could forge a licensing arrangement,” Big Publisher says to Society Publisher, “we can make it worth your while to sell us the publications outright.” After some jockeying over price (Big Publisher always tries to get these assets on the cheap, and Society Publisher may not be familiar with market benchmarks), a financial deal gets struck.

There are aspects of scholarly communications that are simply resistant to pure market analysis. The for-profit firms are not interlopers; they are as much members of the community as an academic librarian or a biologist

And then the deal collapses. Society Publisher suddenly realizes that Big Publisher wants to have perpetual use of the trademark that appears on the publications, and almost always that trademark is the same as the name of Society Publisher. Let’s imagine the Society of Useless and Pointless Knowledge and the society’s journal, the Journal of the Society of Useless and Pointless Knowledge, edited by Professor Bob Dylan. How can that society allow the likes of Elsevier or Taylor & Francis to use that name in perpetuity? And what other publications will Big Publisher want to introduce under that name, which now partially lies outside the society’s control? Big Publisher will tell Society Publisher that the only reason it is willing to pay so much for the publications is because the trademark comes with them. So the deal reverts to a more standard licensing arrangement, with a term of 5-7 years.

There are aspects of scholarly communications that are simply resistant to pure market analysis. The for-profit firms are not interlopers; they are as much members of the community as an academic librarian or a biologist. But whereas in other markets–consumer electronics, say, or cosmetics or pet food or any of thousands of other business segments — the underlying dynamics seem to spring straight out of the pages of Adam Smith, scholarly communications has greater complexity. It is an odd and (to my knowledge) unreplicated mix of the for-profit and the not-for-profit. So don’t push too hard for ownership. Sometimes simple participation is what is called for, and even that can be highly profitable.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


15 Thoughts on "Why Don’t Societies Simply Sell off Their Publishing Assets?"

Opens up a lot to think about. There are similarities here with the public/private ownership and/or management of infrastructure or other traditionally public assets. For journals it will probably differ with regards to the traditional disciplinary areas in place historically and whether this will exist into the future.

As one example, you mention, acquisitions need to fit within certain niches which a publisher currently has or hopes to enter. Academic interests change over time which has the potential to pierce that paper curtain between the publisher’s needs and that of the society and a journal’s editorial content. There are identifiable instances.

Joe, thank you for your blog on societies and the question of whether they should partner or sell the rights to the commercial publisher.

At the 4th Annual STM Society Day, the keynote speaker Dr. Clifford Hudis, CEO of ASCO discussed how and why the society started and the principal reason was publishing articles on their specialty. The journal is the life blood of the society and if they were to sell that asset to a commercial publisher, what would be their reason to exist and how would it effect their governance.
For a society to sell their journal program and their logo (trademark) is like a small company being gobbled up by a large company would open up their brand and legacy to be forever cheapened. Not unless the acquirer makes a point to protect and enhance the journal and logo.

Another interesting question this provokes is why Societies don’t merge (or federate if merger too unpalatable) more often, where their academic interests clearly overlap and they could achieve better outreach and growth, at scale and controlled cost, together.

Publishers buy each other.

Libraries consort.

What is the Society response?

Martin: I believe that is what FASEB is – conglomeration of various small life science societies each of which publishes their own journal(s).

from Bob’s lyrics:

Well, Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
“I got forty red-white-and-blue shoestrings
And a thousand telephones that don’t ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things?”
And Louie the King said, “Let me think for a minute, son”
Then he said, “Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61”

+1. Of course, it is dangerous to quote Dylan to support a point of view, since he is a shape-shifter. For advocates of OA I would point to the lyrics of “Love is Just a Four-letter Word,” which Dylan never recorded, where the lyrics criticize the “friend of a friend of mine” for whining when life has been good to her. On the other hand, what to do with “Like a Rolling Stone” (“You’ve been to the finest schools”)?

One obvious reason is that the journals, when owned by the society, are an asset that will provide future revenues. Once sold, those assets and revenues are hard to replace. The annual interest earned on the capital raised by a journal sale is unlikely to match the profits/royalties received from a well run prestigious society journal.

To Martin’s question, two points: First, some societies do and have: e.g., 1) The American Society of Agronomy, 2) Crop Science Society of America, and 3) Soil Science Society of America = Tri-Societies (federated publishing and I believe conference support). They scale infrastructure and services to support one another, even extending same to other smaller societies. Next, many do, via their scholarly publisher: i.e., they sign on with others of overlapping interest, focus, and goals to access professional support at scale. Some might say this is what a scholarly press is; a means to aggregate need of best practices, services, and infrastructure to achieve scale and advance innovation, perhaps with the added valuable admixture of exclusive focus, professional commitment, and arms-length dispatch.

You cover all the finer aspects of the conundrum facing scholarly non-profit publishers. A tiny few of the societies have sufficient scale or technical expertise to keep up with the arms race waged by the commercials. Yet societies maintain their publishing programs because they see it as part of their mission and as a tool for member engagement. Though it’s a rickety position to be in, many of the publishing professionals working at societies wouldn’t have it any other way.

And more power to them. I think some societies jump to the idea of a partnership, whether through a license or an outright sale, too quickly, without having first done a careful strategic assessment. Few societies have the experience or tools to do such an assessment. So they go out in the marketplace without have a full sense of their options.

Another, perhaps anachronistic, way of looking at this is that scholars are about three things – researching, teaching, and conversing (publishing & presenting). We don’t want others to do our research or our teaching, so why would we want others to control our conversations?

The post suggests there is great power among the large commercial publishers and they have ‘surplus capacity’. Resistance to this seems inevitable – walk around any campus and you will hear it. Many of us academics generally don’t like the way they operate and the fees they charge. So, for scholarly societies, there are other options – DIY publishing for the smaller volume work, and subscription or APC-dependent publishing. It depends on the organisation but I think the basic starting point is to resist the big commercials, if going the latter route, who will end up charging the general readership a fair bit, and get them and librarians offside. Example – American Association of Geographers publications, still in print and online, firewalled, with heavy discounts for members, but libraries are charged commercial rates and need to stock them if there is a geography program on campus. Despite big interest in digital tech among the AAG members, we end up with a very conventional corporate publishing model and it is not budging due to deals struck in Washington DC in the HQ. The AAA however (American anthropologists) made ‘Cultural Anthropology’ fully OA and with a $23 fee to publish – at least they used some of the money from their flagship journal to subsidise the costs of this. Cultural Anthropology’s impact has not dropped. This is thinking a bit more inventively but if you look at my list you will see tens of smaller societies that seem to keep things going without big commercial involvement. I cannot see this changing soon, and some in Europe simply get a not-very lucrative deal with de Gruyter, not a major player, if they cannot remain fully independent. I think we should support diversity and this actually means pushing back against the increasingly dominant big 5. That rolls over into where you choose to publish your best work, too.

The Guardian “long read”, published on 27 June 2017, Is the Staggeringly Profitable Business of Scientific Publishing Bad for Science, is worth reading both from understanding the highly profitable industry today as well as how Robert Maxwell developed that model starting with the explosion of funding for science just after the end of WWII. It also points out the “impact” of Garfield’s invention of the “Impact Factor” in solidifying the commercial markets.

Recent postings in the Kitchen point to the idea that it’s the article and not necessarily the journal if the various publishing options can, as some sites now do, track and create a citation impact factor sans the “prestige” of the journal. Elsevier seems to understand and will seek to maintain its Google-like profit margins.

May Maxwell be remembered, not by the opening line of Brutus’ soliloquy.

Thanks Joe for another typically thought-provoking post. One answer to the question that you pose is that in the case of scholarly organizations with a publishing program, the wishes of the membership are of great importance in the way that is carried out. For a number of reasons, the society nature of the publishing program is often highly valued by the membership (and other non-member authors who publish in society journals) and moving those publications to another society or commercial publisher could be seen as negatively impacting the character of those publications. In many cases I would guess that for many members of the society and the community it serves, concerns about the perceived or actual negative impact on the character of the publishing program would override any financial benefit that selling it would bring.

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