Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Richard Fisher. Richard has worked in academic publishing since 1983. Previously Managing Director of Academic Publishing at Cambridge University Press, he is now Deputy Chairman of Yale University Press (London), a non-executive director of Edinburgh UP and Vice-President and Chair of Publications for the Royal Historical Society. He also writes a regular blog for the Independent Publishers Guild in the UK on the intersection of academic publishing and public policy. This is the second of a two-part post, the first can be found here.
What might the future hold, post-pandemic?
The application of pretty much identical processes (and expenditures) to the great majority of titles, regardless of sales expectations or public impact, was always one of the oddly democratic aspects of the university press publishing world to which I belonged (at least for its authors). The very notion of providing a restricted set of services for given titles (often referred to using record company parlance as the provision of a ‘budget label’) was seen as unfair ghettoization, likely to lead to reputational damage to the list as a whole.
If post-COVID authors, readers, and those who try to join them together confront a significantly straitened set of financial circumstances, what costs, and what functions, might disappear? At this precise moment I am very skeptical indeed that (certainly within the transatlantic nexus) any significant financial support is going to be released for any of the current actors in the monographic domain, so we will have to make some very hard choices. It’s not, as has been said too often and too easily, that overall monographic expenditures globally have actually fallen: rather that in recent decades the increase in supply has outstripped resourced demand very significantly (in itself of course a powerful driver for open access [OA]). If we are not prepared to address that increase in supply, then self-evidently we have to look at other parts of the model (whatsoever business models apply, whether paywalled, Gold, Green or any other modes of OA).
Academic publishers have become all too used to running duplicate cost bases in recent years. This has been partly because of the survival of print (both in the end-product and in certain essential marketing tools) but also because the infrastructures required to undertake some activities work much better in a serials and OA context than they do in the context of selling and marketing books. Nonetheless, the impacts of COVID-19 will force us to look again at what we spend the monies on, and to accept that the interests of authors and readers (not to mention intermediary agents, including libraries) won’t always be in synchrony, any more than they were in the old world. It seems currently unarguable that COVID will accelerate the historically slow transition from print- to electronic-academic-book consumption.
In which case we have to come back to the cost of the current sales model,[i] which may mean for legacy publishers a much greater (and very challenging) element of Business to Consumer (B2C) rather than Business to Business (B2B), requiring its own immediate resourcing and capital investment, even if the long-term savings might be considerable. [ii]Whether any of the currently dominant imprints have the global on-the-ground knowledge to do this effectively is a huge question. A conceivable corollary post-COVID is that we end up with an even larger number of essentially small-scale and artisanal academic book publishers in the arts and social sciences, some of which are OA-only, but whose embattled resource position leaves them even more outgunned in the quest for international attention than the reputationally dominant Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (AHSS) presses are now. It may be that we exchange broader, but shallow, global brand exposure for potentially (much) deeper local penetration. Which, of course, may be much more generally acceptable than British academic publishers of my generation, brought up with avowedly internationalist aspirations, tend to assume (the whole British monographic edifice was simply not sustainable otherwise, as I explore a bit more elsewhere in this piece). Indeed research funders, often with specific national policy imperatives, may actively prefer such an outcome…[iii]
International academic impacts, and some conclusions
Quite how the academy chooses to value those different models remains to be seen: I only note that it is now two decades since Stephen Greenblatt’s celebrated Presidential Address to the Modern Languages Association, asserting that the obsession of tenure and appointment committees with certain modes of publication was unhealthy, undesirable and should, ideally, cease. It’s hard to argue (sadly) that much has changed since, in that critical professional domain. It’s also important to remember that that this was not a credentialist power that academic publishers took for themselves (although clearly they have used it for their own ends subsequently), but it was something bestowed upon them, for reasons discussed earlier, by academic and disciplinary communities: the differentiation of mission and role identified above is highly significant here.
As discussed earlier, this is not (remotely) uncontested space. The old adage that ‘academic excellence is a necessary but not sufficient condition of publication by any given publisher’ has been challenged, not least by those fundamentally at odds with the interaction of academic knowledge and, in short, markets. My ‘list curation’ is your ‘gate-keeping’ is their ‘hostile exclusion’…if, as seems both likely and (to me, personally) desirable, we end up with a multiplicity of publication models of differing sustainability offering different things for different objectives, then that question of access to publication may conceivably become less pertinent. Or it may result in an even starker divide between the haves and the have nots of the academic world.
For whatever reasons, the export-driven British legacy academic publishing sector (both commercial and NFP) has for the past half-century been rather more comfortable with this interaction of scholarship and markets than colleagues in (say) the American university press community or those working for non-anglophone imprints based in continental Europe, and this in turn has had a powerful impact on publisher list-building (and thus the shape of disciplines — something also discussed in footnote I below). The potential post-COVID contraction of such markets thus presents a massive challenge, perhaps especially to the current industrial model of monographic production and publication.
In response to such contraction, and to conclude this two-part essay with reference back to my original listing of functional publisher services, I suspect that we may collectively end up emphasizing four functions, rather than seven; filtration, curation, presentation, and discoverability. That said I still think we are missing something very important if we neglect, going forward, the very first piece of my publisher purpose jigsaw, creation.
So much of academic publishing discourse has become concentrated around fundamentally operational questions that the creative aspect of what the best publishers could and should do is nowadays rather easily dismissed. Of course academic book publishing is a service. But it can be much more than that too, helping to provide shape, structure and trajectory to differing areas of intellectual enquiry.
To take one example from one of the commercial book imprints resoundingly and wrongly absent from discussions of this kind, it is very hard to envisage the development of the overall field of cultural studies without considering the enormous creative contribution made by Bill Germano and his Routledge colleagues during the 1980s and 1990s. That sense of disciplinary shaping is not one I personally would want to lose, and would indeed regard as profoundly mission-centric to any academic book publisher, of whatever stamp: indeed it is arguable that in a context of exponential knowledge expansion, the curatorial and definitional function of the best academic book publishers is now needed more than ever, not less.
Part 1 of this essay began by quoting Scott Fitzgerald and it seems appropriate to end with him, and specifically his famous invocation that he, Fitzgerald would help make Charles Scribner’s a great publisher and it was up to Scribner’s to make him a great author. Whatever comes next, we shouldn’t lose sight of that aspiration. Otherwise, why would anyone really bother?
This piece is written in an entirely personal capacity and was prompted by initial exchanges with Rick Anderson and Rupert Gatti: Richard is very grateful for comments and criticism to Mark Allin, Anthony Cond, Margot Finn, Peter Mandler, Alison Shaw, Lara Speicher, Jane Winters and Chris Wickham, all of whom have engaged very helpfully with the arguments made here (without necessarily agreeing with them!).
[i] In this context it is worth perhaps stressing that one vital thing that the sales-driven book publishing model does do very effectively and much more effectively than any Book Publishing Charge (BPC) Gold OA model is split the overall costs of publication up. For domestic-led imprints like the majority of US University Presses, this may not matter very much but for a territory like the UK (a very significant net exporter of academic knowledge), this particular consequence matters greatly. One reason why the UK has pursued the long-form research trajectories it has over the past fifty years is precisely because it (the UK) has become much more important as a source of academic supply than of academic demand and I would argue (admittedly in a slightly Mandy Rice-Davies-esque sort of way) that the global strength of the UK monographic publication sector has been a very important part of that transition.
For UK research agencies now to pay the entirety of a BPC, rather than for UK-based customers to provide about 20% of the overall monographic sales revenue (as on average they do, for the larger imprints) is emphatically not a financial calculation favorable to UK PLC overall, although it may conceivably be the price such agencies would be prepared to pay to ensure unrestricted access to the research that they have sponsored. Whether in a post-COVID world they still can, I am not remotely convinced, and nor in fairness have those bodies (including Universities UK) who have modeled such scenarios in the past. The money question, certainly in the UK, remains utterly unresolved. Which remains one major reason why OA monograph publishing has proved such a huge challenge, compared to which OA serial publishing is a (relatively) straightforward proposition…
[ii] Anthony Cond, MD of Liverpool UP, posits a very interesting post-COVID scenario here, whereby direct B2C paperback consumption becomes much more the monographic print norm, as institutional channels accelerate their e-preferences across all acquisitions.
[iii] Mark Allin, former CEO of Wiley-Blackwell and, like the author a Non-Executive Director of Edinburgh UP, makes the point in this context that ‘Publishers used to create synergies in distribution (pushing multiple products through limited channels). Content drove differentiation supported by marketing, but the model as a whole created large and often diverse portfolios. If the machine worked, then put more through it (whether serials or books). Now a combination of technology, consumer behavior, funding patterns and OA has disrupted this’, a disruption amplified by the impacts of COVID 19. ‘In an emerging B2C world, the primary differentiator is service and access, with no particular reward for portfolio breadth, and focus is supreme’.