#AcBookWeek 2015: Publisher Workshop at Stationers Hall

To celebrate the recent announcement of the next Academic Book Week (23-28 January 2017), we’re revisiting some highlights from last year’s #AcBookWeek! The first post considers the gathering of academic publishers at the historic Stationers Hall to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. There were 25 individuals representing seven academic publishers, all of which publish books in print and/or digital format. The participants were asked to work in groups and address some of the core questions first posed at the launch of The Academic Book of the Future project. Project co-investigator Nick Canty (UCL) reflects back on this event.

The questions and issues we put to the assembled publishers spanned three main areas, as follows:

 

1. Changes in the nature of research, the research environment and the research process

What do academic books do?

We started off by asking publishers for their views of what purposes they think academic books fulfil. Answers were varied, with some participants asking how we define which books relate to research and which are for reference. This point was picked up by another participant who argued that publishers’ categories (reference or textbook) don’t matter – what matters is the prestige of where you find your content and being providing with trusted credible content. There is a glut of information today with undergraduate students and researchers drawing on a broader pool of resources than in the past (including Wikipedia), which has partly been enabled by digital technologies, although it was questioned whether the structures were in place for interdisciplinary research.

Additional purposes for the academic book were offered, for instance: for academics to achieve tenure, or to publish their PhD thesis; while another participant observed that academic books are now required as a tool for metrics to help define impact, as well as working for libraries to gauge interest through bibliographic data. A more apt starting point might be to ask what the book is doing: proving a hypothesis, making an argument, or communicating an idea – but this doesn’t answer whether textbooks, reference, and professional books should be considered academic books, too. Our seemingly simple question clearly has several possible complex and multi-faceted answers.

 

What changes have taken place in the research environment?

Moving on, we looked at how research is changing in academia. This shook out some fascinating points. As well as comments about the REF (Research Excellence Framework), several participants mentioned the pressure to produce research outputs and the ‘need for speed’, which was pushing researchers to journals and away from books (presumably because of their longer production times). The pressure to publish quickly has had big changes on the production process and there has been advances on this side of publishing. However the sales cycle with library wholesalers hasn’t moved as quickly, and advance notice to market is still at least six months. As someone else said, the rate of change is quite slow.

Alternative ways of research were picked up, including real-time feedback and peer review, crowdfunding and the Knowledge Unlatched publishing model and a question about whether Amazon’s classifications are becoming more important – presumably for discoverability.

 

New forms of books

We wanted to find how books might change because of new technologies and Open Access (OA). There was agreement that OA is having the greatest influence on journals, with books following more slowly behind. Several participants remarked that OA and new media offer more opportunity for collaboration with peer-adopted books with extra resources such as data and video. Shorter book formats, such as Palgrave’s Pivot series, are also a response to a changing environment. New media might herald new virtual collections, such as chapters and articles which are led by XML and metrics, although other participants sounded a note of caution: books are still books and they are not changing – they are still driven by market demand and the activity of publishers is still the traditional model of print with some digital offerings.

There were observations that with booksellers increasingly resistant to stock niche books and the academic book more challenged in terms of sales it was hard to find books in bookstores now and they are mostly just in libraries, although book authors still want print copies. This reflects broader concerns about the visibility of books in brick and mortar stores as the online space expands.

 

2. How are the processes through which books are commissioned, approved or accepted, edited, produced, published, marketed, distributed, made accessible, and preserved changing, and what are the implications for the following?

Publishers

Needless to say this elicited lots of responses, with publishers seen as moving from B2B operations to B2C, and more functions outsourced to attempt to lower costs. While some participants didn’t think marketing had changed much over the last decade, others saw changes to staff recruitment as new skillsets are needed as consumer marketing becomes more important. Clearly there are differences between publishers here. There was a comment that nowadays publishers have to do more direct marketing and rely less on channel marketing.

Authors were seen as becoming more ‘savvy’, more demanding, and more knowledgeable on all aspects of publishing – but particularly in marketing, where for example, they understand the importance of Amazon profiles. However there was very little change to the commissioning process, which was still based on a conversation, a campus visit, or a meeting at a conference. Academics are therefore still ‘student intermediaries’. There is a need to make books available everywhere but it is difficult to push every channel and there is therefore more pressure on authors to help with marketing via their profile in academia. The publishing industry increasingly values media skills and as a consequence there is a convergence of academic and trade publishing at this point.

The publisher brand and the website are important but editors still need to actively reach out in the commissioning process. Editors need usage data to inform commissioning decisions but they aren’t getting this at the moment.

In terms of the publishing process as well as new distribution formats (XML, video) reference works can published in stages with no single publication date, raising the question: what is ‘enough’ content to launch with? Finally, there was general agreement that while there are experiments with peer review it is ‘here to stay’ and ‘still central’ to academic publishing.

 

Aggregators

Pressures and tensions were noted here. These revolve around asking how sustainable the aggregator business model is, with publishers improving discoverability and free searches from Google. There is also tension in that libraries still want aggregators and value their services and small publishers need aggregators (‘in thrall to them’), but publishers are selling complete books – not bits of content. The situation is made more complicated by centralisation and mergers in the sector.

 

Booksellers

In addition to the points about booksellers above, participants noted the disappearance of campus bookstores and the emphasis on stocking high sales books rather than niche ones, therefore questioning the value of bookstores to publishers today.

 

Libraries 

The issue of preservation came through here, in addition to comments about squeezed library budgets (although new models such as just-in-time purchasing and PDA were mentioned as solutions). There was concern about what happens when publishers merge, and features of online access are no longer available with the new company (the example cited was in relation of viewing PDFs after a merger). Further concerns were that although libraries keep digital archives, what happens when formats change? This has implications for future access and preservation.

 

How might the relationships between the different kinds of agents in the publishing supply chain develop in the future?

The last question looked at the supply chain and how publishers and other intermediaries might work together in the future. Once again, some tensions were noted. Libraries are concerned about the power of aggregators, but they choose to work with them rather than with individual publishers. This makes it hard to resolve problems, as it is unclear who is ultimately responsible for problems: the aggregator or the publisher? One group suggested we need to ask what an intermediary is in the supply chain; can we consider the library as an aggregator today? Another group defined intermediaries as ‘anyone/thing that intervenes between point of production and point of use/reading.’

Publishers increasingly want direct access to end-user data from aggregators to drive usage to their online collections to improve renewals, but this desire to drive users to their sites puts them in conflict with aggregators, who provide little information to publishers. Open Access is a possible way to sidestep aggregators, but it then needs something like Amazon or Google for users to discover the books.

 

Conclusion

The workshop was an opportunity for the publishing industry to address some key issues the project has sought to address. While there were bound to be contradictions among participants, what came through were questions about the future role of aggregators in the supply chain, changes in the research environment and perhaps as a consequence, changes in how authors work with publishers, and changes in the way publishers operate. There was agreement however that the book, whether print or digital, was here to stay.

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