Why would academic publishing houses be any less profit-driven than JK Rowling’s publishing house?
In an era of continuous digital innovation, even pre-COVID-19, the relationship between academic authors and publishers were already metamorphosing. Then, the global pandemic rapidly changed significant elements of the conversation between the parties.
The Elephant in the Room: Commercial Sustainability
The most important person in the author-publisher relationship is never in the room: the reader, and their ability to pay for research information. In the academic community, the university library has always acted as an important interface with the reader, and the commercial interests of both the author and the publishing house are closely tied to library budgets. Pre-COVID, libraries were starting to switch to:
- Virtual services
- Digital resources
- Selection of e-books over print
- Introduction of streaming media
The pandemic will have a long-lasting effect on university budgets, and libraries will not escape expected cuts. A recent survey shows that at least 75% of US university libraries in the sample had already experienced cuts, or were anticipating them.
Added to this commercial tightening, the urgency of a response to the pandemic has seen a growth in free and open collaboration between scholarly communities. Research findings that previously may have reached their audience through revenue-earning commercial publishing channels are now shared freely across scholarly collaboration networks. This is not to suggest that the role of a good editor has in any way been diminished, but the urgency of sharing pandemic-related research has temporarily made the trade-off between speed and substantive editing somewhat more acceptable.
Under such conditions, one should expect publishing houses, a key partner in the dissemination of important information, to become not only more exacting when taking on new manuscripts but also for forging closer relationships with authors highly focused in the niches they serve best.
With the tectonic shift in research focus and changing attitudes, publishers who have been long reliant upon their experience in understanding their audience have become more vulnerable when trying to thread the needle as they did in the past – namely being a vital partner in social knowledge networks while keeping above water commercially. In short, this is not the season where one would expect publishers to take huge risks or move too far from the mainstream. One of the accepted strategies to manage risk is developing trust; hence, the emphasis on closer relationships with authors.
Nature of the Conversation: Partners in Innovation
The surest way to avoid risk is to do nothing. However, that is not an option for the academic publishing house grappling with the fast-changing world. For some perspective, 2016 research at Indiana University shows that the upfront cost on a single academic monograph may set a publisher back by $41,526 before a single copy is sold.
The best alternative is a frank relationship with potential authors, both in terms of where the interest of the audience is shifting and about how best to innovate with low-risk, high-return strategies that serve the interests of publisher and author alike.
There was a time when it may have seemed marginally vulgar for publishers to mention the commercial aspects of their presence in the academic ambit. People would much rather emphasise their necessary role as distributor of society’s future solutions. With the latter function under real threat, if not economically sustainable, it has become imperative to acknowledge the high risk and financial interests publishers need to consider to stay by academics’ side.
Value in the publishing process is ultimately rewarded by the financial commitments of the reader community, so publishers and authors need to become professional partners on a joint project, seeking innovative ways to optimise value. This involves:
- Consideration of how the world of research funding in their field is shaping a new conversation: Apart from the slashing of university budgets, government-funded research in many areas had to fall in line behind pandemic-related research. External funding from NGOs and public funding went the same way. As they say, “Follow the money.” Authors and publishers must take this cue; the audience and its interests may have changed.
- Exploring low-cost channels: Print publishing has always represented high risk for the publishing house. Yet, it offered something with which digital could never fully compete – indelible proof of authenticity, meticulous review and editing. When a collaboration between a publishing house, and author can find the golden mean, the low-cost benefits of avoiding print, with distribution through credible digital channels, a win-win can be achieved.
- Maximising digital and social for promotion of the project: The success of any title no longer rests with the publisher alone. Put yourself in their shoes. If given a choice between two manuscripts, where one author is reclusive and the other has a marked social media following, an active podcast, a regular lecturing circuit and several institutional affiliations, on which manuscript should they bank?
Urgency of the Conversation: Speed to Market
The initial global lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic had one effect many remarked upon: it felt as if the world had slowed down a bit. It was a time to reset, to give the environment a chance to breathe clean air and for people to reprioritise.
That initial calm belied the fact that emerging research agendas related to the pandemic took on a massive urgency and that speed to market with relevant information suddenly became a feature of the publishing process.
For smaller, more bespoke publishers, who are more adaptable in the way they work, the pandemic offered a huge opportunity to revisit their processes and to work closely with their authors to accelerate without compromising quality. The most significant shift was the fast-tracking of peer review, a process only possible where established journals and editors are well-respected within their field and where these demands could be comfortably placed on trusted collaborators.
There is no turning back. The pandemic is reshaping the academic enterprise and the publisher’s role in disseminating information. As with every major shift, it will be the publishing houses who are quicker to react, who pay the closest attention to their authors, and who engage their readers that will forge a new era in the author-publisher relationship.
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