Today, I want to introduce a scenario that I believe should be modeled out by strategists, both in the publishing and library communities. In introducing this scenario, I want to underscore that I do not believe it to be inevitable, nor do I wish to advocate for it. But part of my job is to wonder about the future and to identify some scenarios that can inform planning in our sector. One of the scenarios that I have been considering more and more is a major consolidation among humanities and social sciences (HSS) publishers.
In this piece, I focus primarily on consolidation among the US, UK, and EU commercial primary publishers. In this segment, consolidation is pursued largely through market-driven acquisitions and strategic partnerships. The same market factors that I discuss below will equally impact not-for-profit HSS publishers, but they may not wish, or may find it difficult, to consolidate in the same fashion. In some ways, though, this analysis may be of greatest importance for those that will find it most difficult to lead.
As open access has snowballed, particularly in Europe, academics and publishers have raised substantial questions about whether the HSS fields, and the humanities in particular, have a mechanism to keep up. Here at the Kitchen, we’ve published a number of commentaries on this issue over the course of time, including from such leading lights as Jasmin Lange and Karin Wulf. HSS fields are more book focused, and in general they remain more reliant on fees to read, as compared with STEM. There is no sense of clear market leaders in HSS, like an Elsevier or Springer Nature, nor is there a major innovator that is proving disruptive like MDPI.
Among the major commercial houses, the flight to scale has already largely been completed, certainly for STEM lists. A series of major acquisitions and mergers, such as of Academic Press and Cell Press by Elsevier, of Blackwell by Wiley, and between Springer and Nature, resulted in the large publishing houses we know today. The largest publishers have STEM lists of a magnitude that, on their own, support the kind of global sales footprint that is needed today to negotiate transformative agreements and future models for publishing services, as well as to support a technology infrastructure and roadmap they control themselves. In addition, many of them have extended their umbrella to smaller publishers, in particular societies, which benefit from their scale while further contributing to it, albeit at the risk of various forms of lock-in. While several primarily STEM or diversified commercial houses have achieved this scale, as of yet, no primary HSS publisher has followed suit.
If the HSS marketplace experiences further consolidation, then, depending on market structure and conditions, a number of scenarios may emerge. For example, we could see the disappearance of largely HSS-focused publishers as they seek to diversify their portfolios — or become subsumed within more diversified publishing houses. Or several HSS publishers could combine in an effort to drive to the scale necessary to compete effectively in the emerging marketplace. Whatever the specifics, a consolidation scenario would result in fewer independent HSS publishers.
Consolidation may not yet be inevitable, but it is also not entirely theoretical either. There are some early signals that we may be entering into a period of greater consolidation for the HSS fields, and recent examples in the last year or so bear scrutiny.
Several midsized commercial HSS publishers have completed acquisitions that signal an interest in bolstering their STEM lists and/or building their open access portfolios. Towards this end, the publicly listed Brill last year acquired Wageningen Academic Publishers, which strengthened its portfolio in several scientific fields and added EUR 1 million in revenues. Unfortunately, Brill today seems to be experiencing an unplanned executive leadership transition, which might suggest a strategic pause or redirection.
The privately held DeGruyter has also been in an acquisitive mode. This fall, DeGruyter acquired the open access publisher and publishing services provider Ubiquity Press, which strengthened its ability to engage with the university press sector. And, just a few weeks ago, DeGruyter acquired Mercury Learning and Information, part of a “strategic growth initiative in North America” that also strengthens its STEM portfolio.
While these Brill and DeGruyter acquisitions have yet to receive very much attention given that each is comparatively minor from an overall market perspective, together they represent an important pattern. Each represents an effort to bulk up and diversify, on a quest to pass the threshold that will allow them to remain independent in the long run. To succeed on this quest, these companies will require further acquisitive activity.
A larger purchase, albeit one that has attracted scarcely more community attention, is CIG’s acquisition of Emerald last summer. CIG, or the Cambridge Information Group, is the family-driven investment vehicle that built up ProQuest over the course of many years through a combination of organic and inorganic investment (and more recently sold ProQuest to Clarivate). The acquisition of Emerald represents a new strategic direction for CIG, which now for the first time owns a primary publisher, in this case one with a portfolio that emphasizes business and the social sciences. It should not come as a surprise if CIG approaches its management of Emerald with a willingness to make fairly major long-run strategic investments. If it does so, will CIG take the path of adding additional primary HSS publishing to the Emerald portfolio or will it instead seek to add STEM publishing — or for that matter various types of platforms and services?
SAGE Publishing, with its important social sciences lists, also has the capital resources to fuel acquisitions. It has recently been reorganized into a trust, which is important to a discussion about consolidation, because the intention of introducing the trust structure is “ensuring SAGE remains an independent company.” It is in parallel pursuing an acquisitions strategy of its own, one focused beyond primary publishing.
There are also diversified major houses, which publish a combination of STEM and HSS. These publishers have invested major strategic bandwidth in recent years into incorporating open access into their STEM portfolio strategies. Some of them may see a future in maintaining a diversified model, at least for journal publishing, if they can successfully transition HSS publishing to a business model suitable to an open access environment. Of them, Taylor & Francis is notable, because it also has a major HSS books business, under the Routledge imprint, which may indicate some distinctive considerations. None of the major diversified houses, however, has made any major acquisitions in the HSS primary publishing space of late, nor has SAGE. It is perhaps telling that none of them, if they bid for Emerald, did so successfully.
If acquisitions activity continues and an HSS primary publishing landscape consolidation scenario comes to pass, it will produce a very different market structure, with a clear leader or leaders for this sector. In considering how such a scenario could develop and what some of its implications might be, we can forecast a number of marketplace opportunities and concerns. Here are some of those that I believe would merit scrutiny:
- Some HSS houses could be available for purchase, but there are complexities associated with family and trust ownership as well as public listings. It may be that thinking beyond a traditional M&A mindset and towards other kinds of strategic partnerships would be fruitful. If this were to be the case, who could lead them?
- Few and possibly none of the not-for-profit organizations that focus on HSS primary publishing have the scale and associated access to capital resources necessary to lead on consolidation. Put another way, they are unlikely to be the buyers of for-profit firms. That said, both Oxford and Cambridge have a level of scale that has allowed them to think as platforms and service providers to others. What are the possible impacts on, and responses from, the not-for-profit HSS publishers, both from the broader market dynamics as well as the consolidation scenario itself? Is it possible to imagine deep enough strategic partnerships across not-for-profit HSS publishers (including university presses and scholarly societies) to achieve meaningful sales and technology scale?
- Given the book-focused nature of many of the HSS fields, distribution is an important consideration and there is an argument to be made that certain kinds of consolidation have already taken place, including through GOBI and Amazon, a topic that fellow Chef Joe Esposito and I have examined (along with co-authors) in previous work. Are other forms of consolidation therefore less relevant — or perhaps more needed? And, would consolidators prefer acquisition or partnership targets based on their format emphasis?
- What would the implications of this scenario be for other active participants in the HSS scholarly communications sector that are not themselves primary publishers, for example aggregators and infrastructure providers like EBSCO, Clarivate’s ProQuest businesses, Project Muse, or JSTOR (the latter of which is a service of my employer, ITHAKA)?
- Finally, given the largely reactive concerns in academia and academic libraries to consolidation in STEM scholarly communication and infrastructure segments, is there any form of strategic investment or advocacy that can, from advocates’ perspective, constructively shape the HSS market before the consolidation scenario develops any further?
Are you already engaging in planning for this scenario or interested in doing so? Please drop a note in the comments or feel free to reach out to me directly.
22 Thoughts on "Will Humanities and Social Sciences Publishing Consolidate?"
Roger, I think you raise an important and understudied question. I see the consolidation you describe especially appearing in the area of open access. While the recent DeltaThink analysis of the most-represented publishers in DOAB suffers from inconsistent classification in DOAB of what counts as a “book” (vs. a journal special issue, for example), the picture of first mover advantage they illustrate is intimidating (https://deltathink.com/news-views-open-access-books-2/). The emphasis on supporting book chapters over books from OSTP and UKRI and the likely imminent expansion of commercial transformative agreements to include books further advantage large entities able to handle complexity at scale. Is there still time for libraries and other funders to protect bibliodiversity in HSS? Yes, but I think the window is rapidly closing as the non-profit sector drifts. I am a university press publisher, and I see plenty of evidence that our sector is outsourcing its digital destiny to commercial publishers. Your point about the consolidation of platforms being as significant as the consolidation of brands feels particularly significant to me.
I agree that open access is an important factor — a driver, really — in all this. I really appreciate your observation about chapterization, transformative agreements, and the ways that these factors can drive the flight to scale for the humanities.
The platform and distribution side of the humanities is not nearly well enough understood. The GOBI/Amazon dynamics are fascinating (as are the digital institutional distribution through ProQuest/EBSCO in particular). Somewhat relatedly: I found it remarkable that Turpin’s failure last fall could have such a material impact on Brill, for example. https://brill.com/newsitem/392
Your question “Is there still time for libraries and other funders to protect bibliodiversity in HSS?” has me wondering if the right vehicles/structures are organized effectively to undertake this work. Perhaps some do and others are yet needed?
Thanks, Roger. Yes, I think there are clear opportunities for libraries interested in supporting bibliodiversity. There are a number of publisher-specific programs, of course. But at a system level, I think of https://www.openingthefuture.net/ and https://about.jstor.org/path-to-open/ for presses that have a longer track record of publishing and https://openbookcollective.org/ for those more newly formed. Then groups like https://subscribetoopencommunity.org/ for journals.
So pleased to see this (very unusual) scrutiny of the commercial AHSS sector, and I would concur warmly with Charles W’s comments above. At the same time one important issue that isn’t mentioned but perhaps ought to be is that of language: AHSS remains robustly multilingual and both (e.g) Brill and De Gruyter have had long traditions of monograph publication in languages other than English. Would this be something mitigating against further consolidation? To my mind the worst outcome would be for any of these actors to cease to publish in German, or Dutch, or whatever the language might be. That would arguably be much more serious than any consolidation that might impact anglophone imprints, whether commercial or non-profit.
I’m so happy that you raised the imperative of language diversity. In the sciences, we’ve seen so many national scientific systems migrate to English as their default for reaching a global audience. There are factors driving this trend, at least in some national systems, in the humanities as well. Is it possible for us to better help scholars establish global reach and impact (and their publishers maximize global sales revenue) without forcing them to adopt a single language for scholarly communication?
Thanks Roger. I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious that in the harder social sciences, where publication cultures are more article-driven and research workflows more ‘scientistic’, linguistic diversity is already dying. But that’s not the case in the humanities. It’s also very important that various global EDI agendas for schol comm are finally taking the issue of language seriously, despite the counter-pull of westernised metrics and impact tools that don’t seem capable of working with any languages at all other than English…
As a researcher in the Humanities, within the Caribbean, the consolidation trajectory identified re Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) publishing within the context of the US, UK and EU, compels me to consider its implications on HSS publishing on a global scale.
Yes, I agree. I think that some of Richard Fisher’s observations above about language diversity are relevant. I would like to learn more specifically in other geographies as well and would love to be able to cover that here in the Kitchen.
in Croatia there’s no such consolidation in HSS publishing since it’s simply not profitable and most publishers pretty much rely on govt subsidies and EU grants to basically break even and survive. i suspect it’s similar for any language with a small no. of speakers / readers (let’s say less than 5-10M) and i wonder if consolidation can ever happen in such small-market low-income circumstances?
there was a notable example of consolidation in trade publishing some 10ish years ago though, when three large publishers / bookstores merged but that failed spectacularly within a year i think
Hi Saša, Yes, I think the pressure on any language with a small number of speakers comes from several sources — the pressure on sales/profits as you mention and also the pressure on impact/influence. Both these pressures (and probably others) pull in the direction of moving towards a global “lingua franca”. That’s a different kind of flight to scale but also influences the market (and possibly consolidation I think), at least in some geographies.
Thanks, Roger, for the provocative and possibly prescient article. One must ask, what are the factors that could drive the consolidation of HSS publishers? Looking closely at the impact on HSS publishing from COVID, we have seen the following since 2020: a rapid rise in demand for HSS eBooks from libraries, the proliferation of demand-driven models (JSTOR/Gobi, JSTOR/Rialto), evidence-based models (GOBi, Project Muse) and “flexible acquisition models” where in all three, you have access to everything, but purchase little, to university presses publishing less content – 70% of De Gruyter’s university press partners (13) published on average 12% fewer titles in 2022 vs. 2019. The combination of these factors with the absence of a proprietary platform to generate revenue for most HSS publishers (notably in contrast to the consolidated STM publishers you mentioned) highlights a possible obstacle to long-term viability that could accelerate consolidation. If this is true, then how do we prevent it? What is the role of each stakeholder? Let’s have that conversation.
Hi Steve, Thanks so much for adding your voice to the discussion here. I do want to pick up in particular on your observation about declining monographic outputs, at least among one set of publishers, as I think that can have substantial implications for the HSS publishers, as well as the state of the fields themselves.
Roger, thank you! I will follow Sage to put MDPI ownership to a trust. I launched many HSS journals. My sustainability is that the western tradition and western civilization continue, and if my family stays in a western country my offsprings will not die of hunger. I do not like any political correctness things and I believe they are really evil (HSS researchers may prove I am wrong). That is why I am a great fan of Elon Musk. I put some of my opinions into my editorial to start MDPI journal Merits.
Thanks Shu-Kun. For the ease of others who may be interested, the article you reference is available here: https://doi.org/10.3390/merits1010001
Can you share anything more about your plans to put MDPI ownership in a trust? I would be interested to interview you on this and related topics.
Many thanks！Thank you for contacting MDPI Support. Very busy to run a company of almost 7000 employees and to improve further our editorial and publishing services. Perhaps we are already the second largest, see: https://app.scilit.net/rankings/publishers?year=2023&db=1 our statistics. I have fun but too much responsibility to be the owner. We will do the same or similar as Sage announced: https://group.sagepub.com/press-releases/sage-publishing-founder-sara-miller-mccune-passes-control-of-sage-to-the-sage-smm-trust and we have been planning.
Thankyou Roger and contributors, an interesting debate of AHSS trends. My thoughts include whether the role of books and journals (and wonderful long scale digital products) in the humanities as distinct from the role of journals and books in STEM and Social Sciences has been considered fully? The rapid consolidation of predominantly journal [owners] in STEM is unlikely to follow in the same way through social science and into humanities because of the incentives, publication mix, funding and timescale differences. Simply put, humanities publication points are complex disciplines to align, hence the high commitment, editorial passion and language resilience of humanities led presses (for and non profit alike). My other point is that service providers are evolving [particularly tech] and have done for many years to support excellence in editorial for journals and book publishing. It is not just the challenges of full OA that is causing healthy disruption, but where you identify consolidation, I would argue the service provider scene needs also to be analysed. Often ownership is not changing hands, arguably the face value consolidation you identify is actually publishers working together in a service led ecosystem approach, because reach or business support is missing to stay healthy. The reality could be that new ways of collaboration are occurring in AHSS pockets, when technology, policy and funding models in the market are typically dominated by scale up STEM fields supporting faster and more replicable research almost exclusively via journal articles and scientific data.
Hi Tom, Thanks for these observations. I agree broadly about the factors you emphasize that distinguish HSS from STEM. I also agree that there is a growing and changing service/platform ecosystem and that this is very important — in HSS and in STEM alike — one that is driven both by organic and inorganic investments. And I did reference, perhaps a little obliquely, scaled up sales, technology,, distribution, and other kinds of strategic partnerships as other ways of understanding consolidation vs. actual M&A. That said, I was trying in this piece to focus on a topic that has received relatively little coverage, on the question of actual corporate acquisitions — where I do see a trend but we shall see what develops next. Thanks so much, and I look forward to continuing to chew over the topics together.
To add to Steve’s point above, I am fairly sure that it’s not the case that monographic outputs from the larger commercial AHSS publishers are in long-term decline. Looking at Routledge, Springer, Bloomsbury, de G etc etc I don’t detect any contraction there – indeed the opposite (with ever-increasing BPC-funded OA monographic outputs to bolster the numbers). That de Gruyter basket of UPs is an important but relatively specific market subset. Or does anybody have properly global (underlined) data to the contrary?
Measuring publishing output by copyright year can be misleading for university presses that publish by season. However, even when averaging the three copyright years pre-COVID and post-COVID for our partners, there is still a declining trend in publishing output. Furthermore, there are specific examples at the press level over the past three years where there has been a deliberate approach to publishing fewer titles.
Regarding DG’s HSS publishing output, measured by copyright year, there was still a negative impact from COVID in 2022, despite increased BPC-funded OA monographs.
Publishing output is just one symptom, which will vary by publisher. In a post-COVID market, it is essential to consider what changes HSS publishers have made to sustain market share in the academic library market.
I see many variables that vary per publisher, including changes to output, institutional pricing, more accessible DRM, and, finally, due to the sole reliance on third-party platforms (both commercial and non-commercial), participation in acquisition models that most commercial publishers would not.
Is the academic library market shrinking for HSS publishers in a post-Covid market? I suspect that if that is true, then consolidation is inevitable for those publishers that heavily rely on it.
Many thanks Steve, Can we define ‘the academic library market’ a bit more? The historic rough sales ratios for Routledge, Palgrave, OUP and CUP (the Big Four Monograph Producers in terms of annual output, now probably joined by Bloomsbury) in this domain were classically 40% Europe (incl the UK), 40% North America and 20% RoW (incl importantly Asia), which is why a global perspective (as you and De G obviously have!) is so important.
What is of course true almost everywhere is that the relative proportion of library expenditure devoted to AHSS has been in decline since (about) 1975: indeed some would say that the AHSS monograph, like both the Habsburg Monarchy and copy-editorial standards, has always been in decline…
Thanks, Richard. I see two markets in a post-COVID library acquisition ecosystem with a demonstrative rise in eBook demand.
One is for large AHSS publishers like DG and the Big Four you mention with global sales teams, proprietary platforms, direct-to-library business models, and then . . . supplemental income from library aggregator platforms. The publishers are in control of their global market for eBooks.
And the other is for AHSS publishers with little to no commercial infrastructure for the academic library market and, therefore, rely predominantly upon third parties for their “digital destiny.”
For clarity, these “third parties” are global and regional library aggregators (commercial and not-for-profit). How big is the academic library+ market? JSTOR’s base is “more than 10,000 institutions” – https://about.jstor.org/5things/. I suspect other global library aggregator platforms, like EbscoHost, eBook Central, and Project Muse, have a smaller to similar institutional base.
My opinion on the “shrinking market for [A]HSS publishers in a post-Covid” library acquisition ecosystem is aimed at unsustainable business models, namely the proliferation of on-demand models since COVID, for publishers solely reliant on aggregators for digital distribution to academic libraries.
Here is a list of developments since March 2020:
Full disclosure: De Gruyter has offered DDA in Europe and Asia Pacific since 2017 for our 33 publisher partners.
Significant amounts of eBooks are accessed by the libraries participating in these models, but they are only purchased based on automatic usage triggers in the model (DDA) or library choice based on usage and other metrics (EBA).
For AHSS publishers reliant on the academic library market for sustainability, how do mission-driven or the aptly termed “low-use scholarly monographs” survive in a demand-driven environment? How do foreign language titles compete in these models?
I think we need to pay attention to the tea leaves to avoid consolidation. How large is the DDA/EBA market for library aggregators? What percentage of the net revenue for AHSS publishers comes from these models? What is the proportion of net income to the number of titles accessed? How are AHSS publishers managing this environment? What impact do demand-driven models eventually have on AHSS publishers’ print sales, historical backlist sales, institutional eBook pricing, publishing output, publishing type, and DRM strategy if these models are one of the most significant revenue streams for library aggregators?
And if I may, there were earlier comments about libraries supporting bibliodiversity. One of the DDA programs here boasts 121,000+ titles in 35 languages from over 275+ publishers (predominantly AHSS). If you are a library participating in this complete DDA model, you can access 17,000+ foreign language (non-English) titles. Based on the offering, your library catalog is full of digital bibliodiversity, and not just from older content. This model has over 5,300 titles from the copyright year 2022 alone, of which 24% are in foreign languages. It’s happening. As I see it, the problem is that these bibliodiverse titles are “low-use” titles, and libraries don’t have to buy them unless they meet a specific trigger. How publisher-friendly or library-friendly are these triggers? Is it sustainable for AHSS publishers? For libraries?
@Roger and Richard, further evidence to my earlier points about UPs publishing fewer titles per annum and the impact of demand-driven models on UP sustainability in the Alan Harvey piece in TSK today. With limited tools, SUP does a fantastic job managing its exposure to cannibalized revenue streams while creating demand and securing market share. DG is just one channel – what is happening in the other sales channels is just as impressive!