Posted by: bluesyemre | September 1, 2020

What are Academic Book Publishers for? Part 1

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 first of a two-part post, the second to follow tomorrow.

An introduction to a (very) resonant question

In my younger and more vulnerable years I used to believe that academic book publishers were responsible, or at least ought to be responsible, for seven fundamental things viz.

  • Creation (an editorial idea for a publication template or specific project)
  • Filtration (quality assurance, peer review, title-selection)
  • Curation (editorial intervention, effective apparatus, archiving)
  • Presentation (accessible design of formats appropriate to maximize global exposure) and Production, in both print and electronic forms
  • Content-marketing and Title-discovery (by both individuals and institutions)
  • Differentiation (why this particular content matters, over and above other contents, which may be more cheaply or even freely available) and Celebration (marking the fundamental intellectual and pedagogic quality and scholarly importance of the published content)
  • Selling and distributing the books through a multiplicity of international sales channels

Some of these functions overlap, and self-evidently different imprints have always emphasized different things, with the proportion of relative internal resource committed to different functions reflecting overall company priorities – not least around profitability (where the larger commercial publishers may spend more on the marketing and sales elements and perhaps less, relatively, on the editorial and production functions) – but nonetheless this was the broad menu from which individual academic authors could make some choices, depending upon their own sense of publishing priority in which an additional dimension, often forgotten nowadays – that of time taken – was also very significant.

This question of ‘what are academic book publishers for?’ is a resonant one, and has become notably moreso in these troubled times, with massive financial challenges confronting both universities and research agencies as the longer-term implications of COVID begin to bite. ‘What are academic book publishers for’ is also (importantly) not quite the same question as ‘what do academic book publishers do?’, let alone ‘what are academic book publishers good for?’ In discussions of this kind mission and role ought to be better differentiated than they often are.

I don’t want to replicate here Kent Anderson’s influential and extended listing for the serials domain of What Publishers Do. Instead I want in this essay to concentrate rather more on purpose, an interestingly (and increasingly) contested sphere.

In recent weeks there have been several important interventions in this debate, notably from senior advocates for open access (OA), in particular perhaps Martin Eve on his own blog and Rupert Gatti and Lucy Barnes on their Open Book Publishers blog as well as an interesting set of interviews with Lara Speicher of UCL Press and Erich van Rijn of U California Press on Digital Science.

In different ways these statements have all prompted me (and I am sure others) to think through some of my own long-standing assumptions and presumptions about publisher purpose, in ways that seem (I hope) worth rehearsing in public.

Stakeholders and formats

First and foremost we need to remember that there are several actors in addition to authors and their readers who might legitimately have their own responses to this question of fundamental publisher purpose. Those publishing intermediaries and academic libraries trying to bring authors and readers together emphatically have a place in the discussion. That this network of sometimes conflictual interests has been under palpable strain for many years, and is now being subjected to still greater pressure by the current COVID crisis, is hardly a novel insight.

In his acclaimed HEFCE report of January 2015 on Monographs & OA, Geoffrey Crossick was very careful not to adopt the well-worn phrase ‘monographic crisis’, instead asking some penetrating questions about inadequacies (both technical and systemic) in the current networks of monographic dissemination, as unit sales on a title-by-title basis continued to fall in most, although not all academic markets of the world.

In the years that have followed, Professor Crossick’s call for a much-improved online long-form reading experience has not been met, and the printed academic monograph has resolutely refused to go away: prior to 2020, no major publisher of academic monographs in the arts and social sciences was reporting print sales as less than 60% of the monographic whole, with the working norm at a ratio of perhaps 75% print to 25% electronic and even in 2020 no major imprint has yet tipped into majoritarian e-monograph sales globally, even if certain major library markets (including the North American and British) are moving in one direction only.

In this context it is also worth re-stating that, contrary to what is all too often assumed, not least by central policy-makers, monograph dissemination is not and never has been purely an issue for academic libraries. Individual customers still matter, and in disciplines like classics and medieval studies they continue to matter a great deal.

The survival of print is significant both for itself, and for the costs of the whole exercise, which really forms the nub of this article and about which the COVID crisis will force all participants to think really, really hard. Going forward, what will seem legitimate functional expenditure, and what, sometimes regretfully, will academic authors and readers decide that they can no longer afford and will live without?

Costs, sales, and the cost of sales and access

Cost transparency has been a major plank of OA advocacy for the past twenty years, and in the blog post of the 28th May cited above, Rupert Gatti and Lucy Barnes have written powerfully about what they consider to be ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ costs – with their associated resource implications – arising in this domain. Open Book Publishers (OBP) have always prided themselves on a very lean publishing operation, stressing author-focused activity like peer review and curation but spending minimally on areas like inventory and distribution. In one of the most interesting passages in the blog, Dr Gatti and Ms Barnes go on to say that what is perhaps best shorthanded as ‘competitive acquisitions behavior’ is likewise not, in the OA context, a legitimate and expenditure-warranted activity.

Given that for many legacy academic book publishers, whether not-for-profit (NFP) university presses or commercial undertakings, such ‘competitive acquisitions behavior’ is an absolutely central editorial function, integral to the overall brand proposition, this is a powerful challenge: indeed the overt contrast is made between the working assumptions of the OBP model and those enshrined in the Ithaka S&R report on The Costs of Publishing Monographs of 2016, which looked in detail at the costs of publishing 382 individual titles across 20 American university presses during FY2014.

Many of us otherwise very sympathetic to the legacy university press cause did, I know, raise at least one eyebrow at some of the (frankly astonishing) five- and six-figure title-costs quoted in the Ithaka survey, mainly derived (it would) seem from the cost of acquisitions and brand development in specific disciplinary areas. But how much should we all be spending on list development and brand creation? Given how much institutional academic book purchasing is very largely determined by brand (something of course compounded by library approval plans, still very much alive, despite many confident predictions of their demise), and that publisher brands clearly matter greatly to authors and librarians, if less so to readers, it could be argued that there is a fierce rationality to this activity.

Whether this particular rationality is one that we can collectively afford, going forward, is another matter. All participants need to recognize that the sales-driven book publishing model is itself expensive (a much greater general cost, I would argue, than the activities around ‘brand acquisition’): up to 60% of the revenues from a given monograph will go to sales intermediaries and the internal publisher costs of running a properly international sales and marketing operation. This is, famously, the largest single reason why academic book publishing is so much less profitable an activity than serial publishing, whether paywalled or OA, where the equivalent proportion is rarely in excess of 20%. Given that declining unit sales (and perceived impact) has been one powerful driver of OA advocacy, the efficacy of this expenditure is a major challenge for all legacy publishers.

In addition, and this is very significant to the external profile of academic book publishing, much of this marketing and sales activity and expenditure (and especially the intermediary element) is in practice invisible, both to authors and to readers, if not to libraries.

That said, the close relationship between these sales and intermediary models and both library and individual consumption channels has proved a rather expensive challenge for start-up OA book publishers to address: the latter have often found sustained global traction (not least for authors) rather difficult to achieve, despite very impressive individual examples of international title ‘reach’. OA and Public Impact are not, of themselves, synonymous, and I maintain that there exists an unresolved tension between these two goals, a tension that can only ultimately be resolved with very significant marketing resource.

Some of the presumptions aired in, say, the July 2017 report of JISC in the UK into the ‘new British university presses’ may seem, with the benefit of hindsight, innocent, not to say naïve, but the fundamental lack of interest in rigorous marketing or sales methodologies and lack of engagement with library supply agencies was a distinct weakness for many author-community-centric emergent presses identified in the JISC report. Over the past few years, new relationships between (say) JSTOR and emerging OA presses like UCL Press have been a very important and positive development on both sides. At the same time, these developments have also emphasized how much of the traction of these new publishing initiatives remains within the academy: for some community imprints, like the Language Science Press, such peer-to-peer exposure was absolutely central to the founding proposition. As so often in this domain, better metrics to an agreed international standard would help us all to understand different impacts in a much more sophisticated way than we currently do. Such metrics of course are not necessarily helped by the persistence (pre-COVID anyway) of the historic reader-preference for print…

Legitimating and differentiating functions

One further, very powerful part of the academic book publisher proposition, which links at least three of those foundational publishing activities cited above, is Credentialism. Now clearly this is a secondary function, derived from Filtration, Curation, Differentiation, and Celebration, but it seems to me unarguable that the attribution to certain imprints of very particular, indeed elevated credentialist functions (with profound professional and career implications for their published authors) has been a fundamental consequence of the massive global expansion of monographic outputs over the past half-century. It is also an increasingly contested one, in which arguments about book imprint soft (hard?) power resemble, albeit in rather gentler tones, recurrent arguments about Impact Factors and journal brands within the serials sphere.

I distinctly recall about 25 years ago a senior British politics professor, subsequently a vice-chancellor, saying that his Research Excellence Assessment (RAE) panel, as it then was, took as its gold standard for book publication the Cambridge University Press (CUP) monograph, and benchmarked other long-form research publications against that. Now as the then Publishing Director for the Social Sciences at CUP this was pleasing intelligence, and a palpable sign that whilst we doubtless got many things wrong, our processes of filtration and curation were pretty robust (as they were, not least because of the powerful sign-off presence of the academic-led Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge). Further validation of this sort was provided by the publisher-reputation league-tables regularly generated by major American academic societies, including the American Political Science Association (APSA).

To those outside this charmed circle, the privileged position of imprints like CUP can seem highly exclusionary. Such privileging can also reinforce certain disciplinary practices and modes of research. On the other hand, the importance (and convenience) of such a publisher hierarchy for libraries and institutions around the world trying to make sense of the astonishing flood of book-length academic research published every week, without necessarily subject-specific first-hand knowledge to bring to bear in selecting titles, remains very powerful.

It’s also worth stating, quietly, that the fact that most academic book publishers perform the same basic functions doesn’t mean that each performs each of them equally well: the pressures on certain imprints to ‘deliver the numbers’ inevitably drives down the level of functional attention, of whatever sort, given to each title published. And so when I hear research agencies articulate the presumption that ‘all publishers are really the same and that it’s only the content that matters’ I do sometimes wonder how many contrasting publisher curatorial regimes they have been exposed to, let alone how many librarians from key academic territories like (say) Japan or Korea they (and indeed the majority of western ‘schol comm’ commentators, of whatever perspective) have ever spoken to…

The COPIM project

The COPIM project currently underway in the UK has already provided some fascinating reflections on these issues of hierarchy, discipline, workflow, ownership and, indeed, money. COPIM has received funding from Research England and the Arcadia Fund of £3m, by UK standards a very significant sum indeed, and COPIM (which stands for Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs) is an ‘international partnership of researchers, universities, librarians, OA book publishers and infrastructure providers. It is building community-owned, open systems and infrastructures to enable OA book publishing to flourish.’

What I might, not I think unfairly, encapsulate as a ‘critical theoretical’ and interdisciplinary approach to intellectual life and the spaces in which it is performed seems central to the COPIM project, certainly as explored in its various, and commendably transparent, public statements. There are evident generational differences at play too, as well as the recurrent tensions of academic casualization, and I am acutely conscious that the intellectual and cultural worlds inhabited by several of the COPIM adherents are very different indeed from the ‘craftist’ impulses of many of the research historians and political scientists who were the mainstays of my own professional publishing activities for over thirty years.[i]

Importantly in the context of this article, members of the COPIM project have explicitly rejected ‘scale’ of publisher agents as something an OA book publishing world should seek to replicate – hence the primary emphasis upon infrastructural experiment and design, upon which can be serviced a large number of new community-owned publishing agents. In so doing the COPIM project is bringing welcome new perspectives on some core questions of publisher value and publisher purpose, not least in challenging whether all seven of the publisher functions I identified at the outset of this essay necessarily have a legitimate, valued place at all times.

Where will all of this lead? Tomorrow’s Part 2 of this essay will look at what the future might hold.

[i] Not for nothing is perhaps the most celebrated reflection on being a historian published in the twentieth century, Le Métier de l’Historien by Marc Bloch, always known in English as The Historians’ Craft


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