Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Eric Broug. Eric spent ten years working for a British academic publisher as their business manager for Africa and the Middle East, and latterly the Benelux & Scandinavia. His job was to grow revenue and reputational capital.
For most institutes of higher education, a visit from a publisher is a visit from the business manager. On my business trips, I was seen as representing all departments, not just the sales department. When I arrived back at my desk in the UK, this holistic attitude could not be sustained; our company culture did not permit it.
For academic publishers, a ‘top account’ is a university with high revenue, high usage, and high authorship. These three factors create a virtuous circle. The theory is that high authorship increases relevance, relevance increases usage, and high usage makes it easier to sell database upgrades and new products and makes subscription cancellations less likely. Academic publishers construct entire sales strategies around this theory.
Sales people are trained to address the challenges of revenue and usage but not the challenge of authorship. The editorial department is responsible for authorship. Publishers, both academic and trade, are remarkably unholistic in how they connect with their markets and their clients. The silos that exist at headquarters are transposed into the markets. Sales doesn’t talk to editorial, editorial doesn’t talk to sales, marketing doesn’t talk to product development, no one talks to marketing. For the overseas offices, it’s all mildly bewildering because they work in small regional teams where everybody does talk to each other.
Top accounts get at least one visit per year from a sales manager. He or she will meet with someone senior at the central library, and if there’s time, perhaps a subject librarian. On one of my first sales trips, to Uganda, I did not anticipate that any librarians would want to sit in on my meeting with the library director. To my surprise, twenty-five members of staff, snacks, drinks, a video crew, and a digital projector were all waiting for me on arrival. A prayer was said by a member of the library staff before I could start with a powerpoint presentation I hadn’t been expecting to make.
Sales visits to university libraries
The timing of a sales visit is crucial. You don’t want to visit at the wrong time in the university library’s budget cycle. There’s no point in trying to sell an upgrade if all their money has already been committed. A well-prepared sales manager will have an agenda of talking points, will have looked at the download statistics and if they are unfavorable, will have come up with a way to accentuate the positives. Most sales managers have at least 100 accounts to look after. You’re expected to know them all: you have to know the key library people and how long they’ve been in post, the inter-generational power struggles, know what they subscribe to, how much they’re paying, whether usage is up or down compared to the same time last year, etc. etc. When you’re trying to connect with a non-subscribing university, you need to be sure you’re sending your first exploratory email to the right person in the food chain. Accidentally ask for a meeting with middle management and you might never be forgiven this slight by the library director. Meet with the library director but not with the subject librarian who is most interested in our content, and they’ll feel out of the loop and slighted when they hear about our visit after it’s happened. There are delicate egos, not just among academics but also among university librarians. I was in the habit of handing out free USB sticks to library staff and once ran out of stock before I could give one to the library director. She did not attempt to hide her disappointment. I ended up sending one by courier when I got back to the office.
The subscription model
Academic publishers want to increase profitability every year, or more recently: at least hold onto profit margins in the face of the unstoppable steamrollers of Open Access, Patron Driven Access, and other “horrors”. What company directors like even more than profits is the reliability of the annual subscription business model. In what other business do you reach over 95% of your target before the end of March? By the time it’s Easter, most of the revenue is in and you can put your feet on the desk. For sales managers, stress comes from chasing the remaining 5% until 23:59 on the 31st of December. The annual dilemma for sales managers is: if a client still hasn’t paid three months into their subscription, do you turn off access? Or after four months? What about if you turn off access and no one at the university notices? That would be a disaster.
The standard ‘grace period’ for many publishers is three months, i.e., access will stay on until the 31st of March because we think you will pay us soon. Grace periods are extended on a case-by-case basis, depending on advice of the sales manager. As a small publisher, our policy was to be nicer than the big publishers. Our niceness was exemplified by our willingness to keep extending the grace period in anticipation of imminent payment. Who could object to that? Well, our Delhi and Beijing offices objected to that. If a university library has 10 unpaid invoices in February, it will first pay the publishers who have already turned off access. The nice publishers can wait. Sometimes all the money was spent before they got around to our invoice. Despite the vociferous complaints from our Indian and Chinese colleagues, company policy on a three month grace period never changed. Sales managers in most other regions of the world preferred to keep extending access. To do otherwise would signal that you have given up on the account; it would go into a red box on an excel sheet and all the directors would see it. Better to keep the account in an orange box as long as possible: keep hope alive, mostly for yourself and your bosses.
Academic publishers need to constantly be developing products, new stuff to sell. Sometimes it is new content, often it is old content, repackaged. Market feedback is essential: what do clients want? What products could open new markets? Creating a new product takes at least one sales cycle, often more. A decision to throw money at creating a new product is taken by directors. There might be ten product ideas, only one or two get chosen. Publishers are typically not responsive enough to changing market demand (‘agile’ is the buzzword here). One reason is that it takes various rounds for a business proposal to end up in a board meeting. Another reason is that deadlines are missed: products have to be ready to sell when universities are ready to spend. If you miss that window, you have to wait another year. Sales people need product information so they can extol the virtues of this shiny new database. Most importantly though, academic publishers are wedded to the business model which has given them reliable revenue for decades. If new products are too granular and too bespoke (in other words: too responsive to market demand), university libraries might actually choose them instead of the big databases. This means less money, essentially a downgrade.
What publishers think the market wants
A few years into my career as a sales manager, our directors made a big acquisition of books, both electronic and print. Up to then, we only had journals. This books catalogue was attractive because it gave us more content and a new cohort of book series editors at prestigious universities in markets where we did not have much of a presence. These book volumes were packaged into two subscription databases. We soon discovered that clients wanted to buy the eBooks, but not subscribe to a database. Market feedback was: yes, we like your books but we don’t want them in the way you’re offering them. As sales managers, we don’t want to say no to clients but if they wanted to buy any of our eBooks, they had to use a third party. We were not set up for direct sales. In any case, any eBook sale didn’t count towards reaching target for the sales manager so there was little incentive to allow the sales meeting to get derailed over the purchase of one lousy eBook for £80. In any case, a librarian would only purchase a specific volume if there was a request to do so from faculty. For a librarian, it’s a relatively safe decision to subscribe to a big database because it satisfies all departments more or less equally. Even an upgrade will give something extra to all departments. Once the subscription or purchase decisions become more focused, they’re no longer the right person to talk to. So, a lot of extra effort needs to be made by the sales managers to make new friends in order to sell new, relatively low-value databases. If you’ve got 100 accounts to look after, you might conclude that it’s not worth the effort.
Five years later, our directors made several small acquisitions in order to create a case studies database. Up to then, we had no case studies. These case studies were packaged in a subscription database. Market feedback was: yes, we like your case studies but we don’t want them in the way you’re offering them. We just want two or three, not two or three hundred. Case study purchase decisions were typically made by academics, not librarians. So, all of a sudden, sales managers had to start cultivating these new decision makers in the hope of persuading them that it was better to subscribe to our case studies database rather than buy 30 e-copies of one, to be used as course material. If sales managers are visiting a university library to discuss renewal of a database worth £15,000, are they likely after that meeting to visit an academic in the hope of getting a £1,200 sale of a case studies database subscription for which no interest was expressed? Not so likely. In any case, they probably wouldn’t get a meeting in the first place. In most European countries and in the US, academics don’t even reply to emails from sales people. In the rare event that they do, they’ll probably tell you to talk to the subject librarian.
In both these examples, our company could have known about these specific access preferences for our new eBooks and case studies portfolios; it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It was easiest for our systems to create a new subscription product, so that’s what we did. Creating a sales system for these products would have been another big investment and a delay. Besides, product revenue forecasts were probably based on subscription sales. Adding a sales option meant clients would pick and choose titles, at the expense of the big value subscription.
The silo culture in academic publishing companies means that every department is typically only interested in meeting its own targets. Editorial doesn’t really care about new database products. Sales doesn’t really care about Impact Factors. Product development doesn’t care (enough) about the market. Publishing companies are slow to adapt to changing markets, and when they do adapt, it is typically not enough, and not fast enough, thus underwhelming clients. In large part this is due to internal competing interests, ultimately fighting it out in the boardroom. Publishers should facilitate more interaction between departments in order to bring about an holistic company culture. Internal secondments, whereby an employee from editorial works in a sales team for a week, and vice versa can be an effective approach, as can having travel budgets specifically for interdepartmental business trips. More interdepartmental interaction means more understanding of each others’ contribution to the success of the company. This leads to a greater awareness of how different departments can help each other succeed. Breaking down the silo culture is a requisite for publishing companies if they want to survive and thrive in the rapidly changing landscape of academic publishing.
14 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Sales vs. Editorial: The Silo Culture in Academic Publishing"
It is nice to see an article discussing the silos and the inefficiencies they bring. In my experience, it is not that the Silos don’t talk to each other, but rather Sales doesn’t listen to editorial, editorial doesn’t listen to sales, marketing doesn’t listen to product development, marketing doesn’t listen to anyone.
The problem exists because each of these Silos has a different goal and remit, which often conflicts with the other. The top management, in any way, is focused solely on the bottom-line growth. Meanwhile, employees have to go through an ordeal to get the most logical of the arguments even to be heard. STM Publishing has a Money vs. Quality problem in the management style and that is reflected in the products we try to be proud of.
Great post. Thanks for sharing.
There is another complication for medium and small publishers– geopolitical strife. One year, Greece can’t pay for subscriptions. Two years later, Turkey can’t pay for subscriptions. Two years after that, Lebanon can’t pay for subscriptions. You are correct that the smaller and society publishers strive to be “nicer” and extend grace periods, allow access while years-long negotiations happen, agree to significant discounts or free access to countries in turmoil. When those countries get back on their feet (which takes years), however, they start with payments to the big commercial publishers and expect to continue to have access or significant discounts to content from the smaller publishers. We can’t afford to cut them off.
Regarding the silos, I really think that a good start for busting them is to start information sharing. Believe it or not, managing editors really do wonder on their toughest of days whether the content they toil over is used/purchased/read and contributes to the overall goals of the organization. Production editors do want to understand why a new product is falling into their lap and what those products mean in the overall picture. Marketing is interested in what the editors think resonates with the community around a journal. I have found that this information sharing doesn’t happen for a few reasons. First, one group doesn’t know what question to ask or who is the right person to answer it. And second, those with the information think no one else could possibly care so there is no point in sharing.
Leaders of these divisions/organizations would be wise to adopt a more transparent information sharing process in order to inspire collaboration.
Yes indeed, geopolitical problems with renewals: there are many stories to tell! I did Algeria and Egypt for several years. The only way to stay upbeat was to treat it all as a game.
>> On my business trips, I was seen as representing all departments, not just the sales department. When I arrived back at my desk in the UK, this holistic attitude could not be sustained; our company culture did not permit it.
Sorry – I did my best!!
Good article Eric – couldn’t disagree with the sentiments. The scale of organizations and society groups is a key challenge. People complain (reasonably) that they spend “too much time in meetings” and also (reasonably) that “nobody tells me anything”. The larger the organization, the more formalized information sharing becomes; hence too many meetings not really being enough meetings. Byzantine CRM systems designed and policed by IT departments make the problem worse, not better; social media-style add-ins (Yammer, for example) displace rather than address the problem.
Robin Dunbar’s Rule of 150 (a notional maximum number where an entity can hold together without an administrative hierarchy) was something I long wanted to test in practice, but none of my own businesses got that big, and the owners of the larger businesses I worked in would never let me break them up!
But if scale is the enemy of collaboration, it’s also a survival mechanism.Organizations and societies, with publishing being no different, like to get bigger than 150. So we get silos; and we get barriers to communication.
There are mitigation mechanisms (such as interdepartmental secondments, or cleverly designed incentives) but silos are an inescapable by-product of the desire for scale in our societies and our organizations, in my view.
Thanks for the comments. You’re right to reference the Rule of 150. Once that threshold was passed in employee numbers, a lot of the informal exchanges of information disappeared. Tellingly, most of the informal interdepartmental friendships I had, were created when the company still had fewer than 150 staff.
I was in publishing for 40 years. A mantra in the college division was that we all had to be on the same page when it came to signing, developing, producing, marketing and selling the books published! Additionally, one of the responsibilities of a sales rep was to report on market trends, and to actively seek authors. Some 75 textbooks were signed that I initiated over a 20 year period while I was in the field. Many are still actively being adopted in new editions.
At one point I was recruited by a British publisher and after our discussions said you will never break into the US market because each part of your company is doing their own thing. They didn’t and still have not!
I moved into STEM publishing and as a VP informed editorial, sales and marketing that we were a team and we worked together to launch and sign new product.
Later I moved to a european company and was amazed that the front list was presented to various editorial groups at one meeting but not to sales and marketing who were presented the front list by the publisher of a given group but not by the acquiring editors. And, marketing had the job of selling the company but not its product!
Lastly, I had a manager who said: Sales solves all problems! Best advice I ever received.
Over many years I organised and directed the STM intensive journals course in Europe and in Asia. It is now run under a slightly different name by Bas Straub. The idea was to emphasise that all publishers should have an understanding in all publishing functions. The speakers on the course were from each function. Much of the time was devoted to a case study which was so organised that all the participants had to make a presentation.
Unfortunately companies tended to omit the sales function when deciding who to pay to send. The “students” were mostly from editorial and marketing in that order. There were few from sales and production.
I suspect the situation is much the same.
No mention of leadership here. Organizations don’t run themselves. Leaders have to manage up, out, and down. This post is about the absentee CEO.
The CEO is busy on a flight, business class, with the communications director brooding upon further buzzwords to learn. In between, sighing a bit about „nobody has new ideas“ 🙂
After more than a decade in sales, and two as a sales manager, I was very aware that the market intelligence gained by those in the field seldom was heard by management. Even worse, product development could create what they thought the customer wanted, when collaborating with the field would have eliminated a lot of pain for all involved and avoided a lost investment. It’s a mistake to define sales as simply executing on a plan as it results in so many missed opportunities.
Excellent piece thank you
Thanks for posting, Eric – interesting reading. There was a time in the 2000s and 2010s when it was great to be in field sales. Markets were there to be opened by anyone with a digital offering, a passport and a sense of adventure. Consortia were being formed all around the world so markets could be entered at scale. I may be romanticising it somewhat, and obstacles undoubtedly existed, cultural as well as geopolitical, but international sales expansion drove growth for much of that period. Those days are gone. Now growth is only available to publishers through product innovation, which they have historically been poor at, or through diversifying into non-academic markets, which is also a marginal gain. Big academic deals remove the incentive to innovate in any way that could undermine the status quo. Open access agreements are at best changing the shape of publishers’ revenue and in many cases eroding it. An existential threat? Probably not, given the margins publishers enjoy. A compelling reason to break down the silos and communicate better? Absolutely. Despite best intentions and cross-departmental initiatives, I still see a lot of functions working in isolation. Above all, customers are rarely part of the conversation. Genuine customer collaboration including bringing real life customers through the doors to participate in discussions may help publishers out of the impasse.
Excellent piece! A couple of years ago, working for a large intermediary in sales to academic libraries, I visited publishers in the U.S., U.K., and Europe to share our insights regarding trends in library acquisitions. We had noticed that publishers weren’t ‘aligned’ internally as well as they might be to reinforce their brand and sales in the market. Instead of our usual meetings with just management and sales, we invited editorial and marketing staff to these meetings. We spent extra effort describing market processes in purchasing as well as sales trends. There were real ‘ah ha!’ moments all around as misunderstandings and new understandings were uncovered in productive ways. This article points in the same direction as my experience, but I’ll add that publishers are often a step removed from the market by intermediaries – who themselves may not remember that publishers as well as libraries are their ‘customers’ and are dependent across their organizations on intermediary insights.
“Academic publishers want to increase profitability every year”. Here we have the core of what is broken in academic publishing. Researchers care about advancing knowledge, but for-profit publishers care about taking more and more money away from research, teaching, and students at the expense of quality, equity, and future scholars. It’s not sane to expect profits to continually rise. That money has to come from somewhere.