It was fascinating to watch the lead-up to last week’s efforts to debut Springer Nature on the stock market through an initial public offering (IPO). The prospectus was scrutinized not only by investors and competitors privately but also on Twitter by librarians and open access advocates (here are Bianca Kramer and Richard Menke) — and me. Here on The Kitchen, in a post positing that “Organizations with Subscriptions Are More Valuable,” Kent Anderson asserted “The ultimate share price for the Springer Nature IPO will help calibrate the value of subscriptions in our market, as well as the market’s opinion of the threat posed by APCs as non-recurring revenue trade-offs.” One commenter noted, “The Springer Nature IPO has been a long time coming and it will occur without any major problem.” And, on the morning of the planned IPO, Joe Esposito presciently asked, “Would you buy a stock if you thought it was going down?” Later that day, we learned that Springer Nature’s owners were withdrawing the IPO. What happened? What comes next?
It is clear that, for whatever reason, Springer Nature in its present configuration is viewed as less valuable by the market than it is by its current owners. This is why the offering was withdrawn. This helpful piece from Reuters reminds us, with an echo of Tolstoy, that “Like families, botched initial public offerings are all unhappy in their own way,” focusing in this case on debt and earnings figures.
In a smart analysis, David Worlock has emphasized that it is not so much a matter of “soft” European markets. Rather, he wonders if Springer Nature’s bankers marketed the offering without enough “allure” — positioning the offering as a publisher with its current business successes and challenges, rather than emphasizing the opportunity that it has to transform research and scholarship in the future.
I am left to wonder: Perhaps it is not just about marketing the offering but about the substance of the business.
Perhaps, whatever the strength of subscription businesses, the market rightly sees that model as tapped out for selling into academic libraries. Perhaps, as Michael Clarke has wondered on these pages, building on a term apparently earlier used by Jan Velterop, we have reached “peak subscription.” Perhaps, as Worlock writes, the market is coming to recognize that content is “getting commoditized and anyway you can get it free in Kazakhstan” and even more tellingly “that OA dilutes Ebitda” [Earnings before taxes, interest, depreciation and amortization].
In the wake of the failed offering, Timo Hannay tweeted that Springer Nature is a “great name laid low,” but from the offering prospectus, we can see that it is hardly “the sick man of scholarly publishing” — it has a perfectly profitable publishing business. Indeed, if anything, it is somewhat ahead of others in its efforts to pivot towards APC-driven open access. This business can reasonably be expected to continue to produce profits for the foreseeable future. Even so, investors might understandably ask whether scholarly publishers expect to be unique among information intermediaries as the only ones never to face a fundamental disruption to their role.
Perhaps the future is, and indeed much of the value will be, not about publishing as we have known it but about research workflow services. Through its new Dimensions product, for example, Digital Science is positioning itself to transform the nature of content distribution and access, one of several major areas where it is fostering entirely new businesses. While its revenue may still be relatively modest and from a profitability perspective is almost certainly loss-making, it is driving transformation in the research workflow.
Readers may recall that I asked if Digital Science would end up a part of Springer Nature, since they are half-siblings, both under Holtzbrinck control. My questions provoked vociferous denials from Digital Science, which indeed was not part of the withdrawn Springer Nature public offering. It is entirely possible that Holtzbrinck believes that Digital Science is more valuable on its own, or in combination with similar businesses, rather than bridled to a publisher like Springer Nature.
As a result, without Digital Science, perhaps Springer Nature reads to the market as one of the publishers at risk of being “left behind.” After all, RELX’s scholarly communications businesses include both a traditional publisher, albeit one that positions itself as increasingly focused on analytics, and a portfolio of entirely new research workflow services. And Clarivate is building a somewhat similar portfolio of workflow services as well, independent of a publisher. Academia may have a real opportunity to get into this game itself rather than through commercial providers. Perhaps Springer Nature’s future potential is far reduced without those equivalent new services of Digital Science. What a fascinating dilemma for Holtzbrinck in the wake of this “botched” IPO.