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.