Last week, David Crotty wrote about “Market Consolidation and the Demise of the Independently Publishing Research Society” in which he described the quickly converging landscape of society publishers. These societies are not merging together, per se, but rather merging with a very small group of commercial publishers.
David argues that these partnerships have accelerated in the last few years over pressures felt by society publishers to comply with complicated requirements of Plan S and other funder policies. This was well predicted and really astounding given the underwhelming number of signatories to Plan S.
Since Plan S was announced, there were predictions that it would embolden and make larger the biggest of commercial publishers. Whether this was a feature or a bug is still being debated.
As David pointed out in his post, smaller publishers and society publishers worry about complying, but also the move, particularly in Europe, toward so-called transformative agreements (TAs). Much like when “The Big Deals” started rolling out to market, independently published societies are afraid of being locked out. How do they get a seat at the table? What happens if a society with similar content is included in a TA and you can’t even get in the door?
These concerns, coupled with issues around society finances, uncertainty around open access, and general market volatility work in concert to push self-published societies into the arms of a commercial partner.
One of the benefits of moving to a commercial publisher is that you no longer have to manage (or directly pay for) vendor services — typesetting, copyediting, online hosting, enhancement features, metadata maintenance, printing, distribution, manuscript submission and review systems, sales support, etc. Further, due to the efficiencies of scale, the commercial publishers are paying less for these services than independent societies. Having recently transitioned a program from self-published to commercially published, I can tell you that this is 100% the case.
What does all of this mean for the vendor landscape? We have seen several examples of consolidation or the outright purchase of vendors and services by commercial publishers:
- Atypon to Wiley
- Aries to Elsevier
- eJournalPress to Wiley
- J&J Editorial to Wiley
I am sure there are others that I am forgetting about. I have written before about the implications to a society publisher when your vendors are all owned by commercial publishers. But what happens to the industry in general when choices are slim and getting slimmer, particularly when this comes to platforms and peer review systems — all huge expenses for society and small publishers.
One likely response is that innovation will suffer. In today’s landscape, would HighWire ever have been born? HighWire (now owned by MPS) was built in response to society publishers needing an online home for their journals. Unencumbered by the needs of a Wiley or an Elsevier, HighWire was an early partner with Google and had tight relationships with the library community. HighWire was exactly why many society publishers could stay independent during the tumultuous move to online journals.
But again, is there space for a new “HighWire”? What are the incentives of innovation when more and more journals are consolidated under very few publishing houses? Without a customer base, there is no investment. A new entrant will find it very difficult to build enough support to justify financial investors. And without that growth, likelihood of being acquired is low.
Even if you build a better mousetrap, if there are no customers, you won’t get very far. The barrier to entry for any new player seems nearly impossible. This is not good for any industry and makes us particularly vulnerable to disruptors outside our space.
Speaking of vulnerable, there are still a handful of companies that cater specifically to small publishers and independent society publishers. When a society’s journals move to a commercial publisher, it’s not likely that the commercial publisher will need to add sales staff. And their use of vendors for sales support shrinks as they get bigger.
Likewise, the many consulting services that cater to our industry will facilitate fewer and fewer RFPs and find fewer societies that want help to stay out of the hands of commercial publishers.
Typesetters that cater to smaller publishers are likewise vulnerable as the large publishers use the largest of vendors almost exclusively. If you are having trouble following the name game these past few years, you are not alone.
- Sheridan and related companies announced they would be under the parent company CJK. Then they bought Cenveo (also a mashup of publishing companies of the past, namely Cadmus and Mack), all under the name of KGL. Recently they acquired Kaufman Wills Fusting (KWF), provider of consulting and editorial services.
- The company formerly known as SPi Global is now called Straive, which acquired Scope e-Knowledge and Scientific Publication Services (from Springer Nature Group).
Clearly the name of the game is survival of the fittest. Many of these companies are also serving industries outside of scholarly publishing, which helps in diversifying their revenue streams.
It has become less and less certain that medium and small societies will continue to benefit from being self-published in the medium-to-short term. Their options for vendor services are shrinking and becoming even more dependent on commercial publishers — as a partner or a vendor.
As more independent societies make the move to commercial partnership, the smaller our industry will get, which is ironic given the massive increase in scholarly content being produced.