Editor’s Note: Suzanne BeDell is Managing Director of Elsevier’s Education and Reference content, which encompasses Elsevier’s books business. Ahead of her retirement, after 10 years at Elsevier and 40 years in the scholarly communications industry, Suzanne speaks with Simon Holt, Publisher at Elsevier, sharing some reflections from her career. You can watch the video here, and read the (lightly edited) transcript below:
Suzanne, my first question is: Why did you think now is the right time for you to retire from your role at Elsevier?
Thanks, Simon, for giving me this opportunity to talk about my career with you and the audience at The Scholarly Kitchen. It is a real honor. So, why now?
I have been thinking about my mom’s advice when I went off to college. She said, “leave the party while you’re having fun.” I am having a good time in my role! But I have accomplished the things that I wanted to when I came to Elsevier 10 years ago. I have been lucky to have the opportunity, not just to run the Science & Technology Books business at Elsevier, but also in 2016 to be charged with bringing together the books businesses at Elsevier into one group. I feel I have accomplished what I set out to do when we started down that road many years ago.
I also feel confident about the leadership of Elsevier under Kumsal Bayazit and Health Markets under Jan Herzhoff. They are both strong leaders. Lastly, it is time for a fresh point of view. We have a lot of strong internal candidates and somebody coming in with fresh thinking is good and helpful for business.
Personally, I am ready to give my attention to my family. They have allowed me to put my career first these past 40 years, and I am ready to give back to them and support them in the many ways that I can. And I am very interested in this idea of a third age. In retirement, how can you spend your time giving back to family and to community?
I have to say, though, that leaving the party when you are having fun is different than bailing when you are not having fun. It is important to stick through the tough times in a job because that is when you learn and grow.
Looking back on your career, what are you proudest of and is there anything that you would change?
I am proud of the industry that we work in and I am proud to have a career in that industry. Lately, in many parts of the world, we are enduring what I think of as “factless truth.” Politicians that put forward ideas supported by a complicit media to exploit people. The spread of these narratives is more disturbing to me than the spread of COVID. As scholarly publishers, we are the custodians and contributors and sometimes arbiters of scientific truth. That is very important, especially in today’s world.
My career has been defined by content and how technology can help to deliver it. The things that I am most proud of in my career have been at the intersection of content and technology. It started in the early 90s at McGraw-Hill when I was a sponsoring editor responsible for the content on the first electronic custom publishing system. And that was in the pre-web days, when we used the Mosaic browser to deliver to deliver the content. We allowed professors to take any of the chapters that we published, combine them with any other and their own content to electronically generate a book, which was new. That experience got me interested in unlocking book content and using metadata and databases to deliver that content.
Several jobs later, at ProQuest, I sponsored the acquisition of a company that had the metadata associated with the holdings of academic libraries and tracked everything that scholarly publishers published as well. That information made possible the first discovery system for libraries that operated at web scale with the ability to search and link across libraries’ own collections.
At Elsevier I am proud of the creation of an authoring platform called Elsa that is designed to allow authors to write and enrich their content with contextual tagging and linked data. And underpinning Elsa is a new data model interchange format designed to replace DTDs that can be used for persistent linking and interchange of content and data not just within Elsevier, but I hope across publishers in support of open science and open linking across different data sets.
And then, anything that you would change?
Most of the time, my next job found me except a couple of times when I had to go out and find a job. If I had to change anything about my career, I would be more intentional about it. I would plan my career goals, and I would look at those on a regular basis.
I recently had the opportunity to listen to a career coach. She said that successful professionals know their value, they know what they want, and they know how to ask for it. Part of knowing your value is knowing your own strengths, what you like to do, what you value and what you want your contribution to be. The one time I got laid off from a job, I ended up in a role that didn’t really align with what I valued and what I wanted to be doing and I think it showed.
Continuing on the theme of change – what changes have you noticed in terms of workplace culture during the course of your career? What’s gotten better and has there been anything that has gotten worse?
I started my career in a small family run publisher in 1981. Everybody had a typewriter and telephone on their desk. That’s how we communicated! There was one computer, it was in the back room, and it was used for billing. Everybody came into the office every day. Everybody dressed a certain way. Most of the managers were men and all of the senior managers were men. It was a small company; it had a very paternal kind of culture and a real family feel. There was a lot of interpersonal interaction, a lot happened face to face.
Fast forward to today’s culture. There is a high value placed, correctly, on creating a diverse workplace. A lot of managers are in two career families, so people understand the importance of trying to juggle family and workplace responsibilities. There is more openness to flexible work. Successful employers are concerned about their employees’ wellbeing and want to understand their employees’ opinions. That was not really the case when I started work. It was much more “top down.”
I think probably the most important thing today is zero tolerance for harassment or bias or bullying. We have been trained over years that sort of behavior is unacceptable in the workplace. Overall these things really are healthy.
One downside of today’s culture compared to when I started working is that, during the 90s, we started to do more with less, not just in publishing, but especially in publicly traded corporations. You also see a rate of change, driven by technology, that we certainly did not have when I began work.
So, these two things coupled together make for a very fast pace that seems more isolating, especially now that so many companies are global, and we interact virtually. There is also less job security and more anxiety in the workplace than I think there was a few decades ago.
At Elsevier, we have championed employee resource groups to help people build community and safe spaces. Leaders have to be very intentional about building connections especially as do more virtual working. It is going to be a challenge and the companies that get it right will have a competitive opportunity.
I find what you just said interesting. One change I would observe, even in the 15 years of my career, is that there are more opportunities earlier, but more is expected of you earlier, as well. I think about when I first started in the workplace in the mid-2000s. I turned up for work, whereas I look at people in a similar role now and a lot more is expected of them. That feeds into a more work-focused and faster culture, which is good for business and good for learning. But at the same time, I think it is maybe slightly less sociable or amenable than it was when I started, and I’m sure even more so when you started.
Thinking about the industry more broadly, what changes within our industry have had the most impact to the book publishing ecosystem? Most specifically, during the 10 years you’ve been at Elsevier and then more broadly over the course of your career?
In the last 10 years at Elsevier, the thing that’s really impacted the books business has been Amazon, both as a channel and then indirectly with innovations like eReaders, audiobooks, and self-publishing, and things that impact us more as scholarly publishers, like subscription pricing. A lot of us subscribe to content now and pay for it monthly as opposed to buying one-off books transactionally. That is a huge shift. Of course, print on-demand is another big shift that has been very important. For the most part, these things have been good, but they have caused us to make a lot of changes.
Now that more people read on devices, we have a window into reader behavior that we did not before. We can see what is being used, what is not being used, this allows us to make more data driven decisions about what we commission. I’ve been really proud of what Elsevier has also been able to do not just around commissioning, but also in using data to shed light on things like the representation of women in research and figuring out how we address these things to ensure that we have equality for women in terms of publication output, citations, award grants and collaboration. You can use data to see who is doing it well, who is not doing as well, and try to figure out how to help “lift all boats” across the industry.
There is a great quote on the site about this research — “if research has blind spots or algorithms discriminate, or medical treatments don’t take into consideration gender dimensions, we cannot truly serve our communities.” Using data is a powerful way to course correct and make sure we are not paving over inequalities.
And I think it helps us make the right first-time decisions, as well.
Say more about that.
Because we are able to use data, we’re able to take a much bigger sample and not just think about the five people we had conversations with last week. We actually look at our customer base or reader base as a whole and think about what their behavior is much more broadly, which means we’re able to serve them a lot better instead of just serving the five people we met at a university last week.
Right. It is very easy to get into an echo chamber on those small samples sizes and data does help for that. This links into the changes that I’ve seen over the course of my career which, without a doubt, the biggest change over the course of my career has been the Internet. It’s really hard to imagine working in a world pre-Internet, but it did happen! And I see the impact of the Internet in so many ways in our business.
When I was at Mosby in the early 90s, I remember there was a market in the U.S. – this is for textbooks, primarily — and then there were other markets outside of the U.S. They were distinct. You could think about publishing a book for a specific market in a specific way at a specific price point. Now with the Internet and global distribution chains, that doesn’t exist anymore.
Last summer, I was at my friend’s home and her daughter, who is studying nursing in Boston, was reading a textbook that had a sticker on it “not for sale outside of Sri Lanka.” You can’t control that anymore as a publisher. We have a global marketplace now, which allows for books to pass through porous boundaries.
The second big impact of the Internet is “Google it.” If you were publishing what I think of as ready reference – dictionaries or general encyclopedias or anything that’s easily found on the web – that business has gone away because people are no longer willing to pay for that content. It seems to me that you have to go very deep and specialized in order to find places to publish and where people are willing to pay.
And then, lastly, the big impact of the Internet is that this plethora of free information means there is less willingness to pay for content. Maybe we are a little insulated from that in books, but it’s still very much an issue. We constantly have to prove the value of the content.
I think that’s so right, and I think one of the biggest changes we’ve seen as a society over the past 10 or 15 years is this assumption of “free” that certainly didn’t used to be the case.
Building on what you were saying about the value of information, what are your observations on how people use our content in different ways now compared to how they did 10 or 20 years ago? What do you think that tells us about society in which we live and how it interacts with data and information now compared to earlier points in your career?
This is a great question. I had the opportunity to hear Nicholas Carr speak about his book The Shallows about 10 years ago, and what he said really resonated with me. Basically, when we were reading books, we developed our muscle to be able to read and retain and make connections across different domains, different content, different authors and build knowledge. But the medium of the Internet allows for this instantaneous gratification. You don’t have to know these things anymore. You can find them very quickly. The wiring of our brains is changing, so instead of being able to read deeply for sustained periods, we’re much better at dipping in an out to get the information we need at that moment.
We are dealing with different types of content consumers than we were 10 or 20 years ago. As publishers, we can’t assume that anybody is reading a book cover to cover. They are dropping in and getting the information they need. So, we have to enrich and deliver this content in a way that provides the answer to people where they are and when they need it.
What you said about people not reading book cover to cover is really key here. What strikes me is you talked about the Internet being one of the biggest changes in your career – and more specifically, online search. The Internet would look like a very different place if we didn’t have these very forensic, highly powered search tools that we have today. That really transforms not just end user behavior, but machine behavior as well, in terms of how we curate and find content.
I agree. I’ll add that to the second impact of “Google it,” the ability to very quickly find that very specific information.
This is where I ask you to get your crystal ball out. Do you expect that this trend will continue in the future, or do you think that things are going to change? That there’s going to be something else big that comes along? When you’re thinking about the next 10 years, how do you think that things will continue to evolve?
I think we will see an acceleration of the trend that we were just talking about. The rate of change is happening so quickly with technology. The connections and associations won’t be made as much by people, but they’ll be made for you by computers. As publishers, we need to think about a world where computers, not people, are the biggest consumer of our content. We need to think about how we structure that content for machine learning, for computers to make connections and associations on our behalf.
That is a scary world, too. Reading was a great democratizer, especially with things like the penny press, which most people could afford to read. You run the risk in this kind of environment of privilege being paved over unwittingly by algorithms, you don’t even realize that your point of view is biased or specific to a certain way of thinking. It’s really important to overcome this as publishers by creating a workforce that is diverse and holding ourselves accountable to overcome this type of unconscious bias.
Absolutely. What you say really resonates. One thing we are learning or have learned to do is not just challenge other people’s biases, but challenge our own biases and preconceptions, as well.
Coming back to the book side of things, looking at the trends that you’re talking about, do you have any specific ideas about how you feel that these trends will impact the scholarly books business and/or the books publishing industry, more generally, over the coming years?
Accessibility is really going to become key – making sure that people with physical impairments have access, but also economic accessibility and affordability. We need to always think about how we can better serve the needs of people who want to get our content. And we have to do a better job at accurately representing the world we live in.
For instance, in medical publishing we are trying to include more diverse skin colors. Diseases can show up differently on Black skin, but we have mostly White skin in our textbooks. We are working with our 3D Anatomy product to build a female model. Most anatomy content uses male models. These things seem so basic, and they show we have a lot of ground to cover to get to an equitable representation of the populations we serve in the content we publish. And I think we do that by, as I said earlier, creating diversity in our workforce.
It’s great to see more women leaders in publishing and more people of color in leadership positions. That helps us get to the future state we are talking about.
Absolutely, I think the challenges that we are going to face and going to be different from the ones we faced in the past. Therefore, diversity gives us different perspectives, which will provide different solutions, and that is clearly what we are going to need as everything continues to evolve.
Finally, as I draw this interview to a close, what’s next for you? Pardon the pun, but what does the next chapter look like, for you?
I need to take my own advice and do some planning – not just career planning, but life planning. This is a special time for me. I have family responsibilities, as we all have responsibilities, but I have a degree of freedom that is very new to me. I really plan to make the most of it. And of course I will continue to track what’s happening in scholarly publishing.
Thank you very much. This was really insightful, and I hope everybody listening to and reading this will enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed this conversation.
Me, too, Simon. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity. I really appreciate it. And thanks to The Scholarly Kitchen for keeping me up to date over these many years of being in the industry.