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The Changing Dynamics of the Publishing Business

There is no greater cliché in business than to emphasize that change is constant. In the world of academia, it is comparably hackneyed to speak of“the crisis in scholarly publishing.”

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There is no greater cliché in business than to emphasize that change is constant. In the world of academia, it is comparably hackneyed to speak of“the crisis in scholarly publishing.”Scholarly publishers, especially university presses, have existed in a state of perpetual crisis—at times self-proclaimed, at times media-imposed—for decades. In a world of ever-greater entertainment options, contracting or flat library budgets, escalating infrastructure costs associated with digital dissemination, and shrinking retail outlets,crisis is the language of the realm, a constant companion.Today, the responses tend to consist of a commiserative sentiment (“things must be hard, yes?”) and an animated recounting of how they read. This most often takes the form of: 

  1. A vigorous defense of the printed book as eternal and/or a great technology in its own right;
  2. A surprised confession that they find themselves regularly reading on their mobile phone;
  3.  An enthusiastic endorsement of their e-reader (primarily in the US); 
  4. A detailed description of how their children or grand-children read, and a conviction that this tiny sample is somehow broadly representative of the future of reading 

(Confession: we have ourselves engaged in all of these activities.)However common, that dinner-party conversation covers only one small aspect of the many changes trans-forming scholarly communication and publishing.

SO WHAT THEN HAS CHANGED?

  • Printing technology has become democratized. For half a lakh, authors can have several hundred copies of an attractive book printed and made available for purchase. This has been singularly positive development.
  • As we all know, the internet provides a digital pathway for anyone to publish their work online at virtually no cost. It also provides a perfect mechanism for the wholesale dissemination of copyrighted content in a manner that undermines the publishing business model. (Who, after all, hasn’t bumped into a paywall, muttered in frustration, and pondered alternatives? But let’s leave this aside for now.)
  • The internet also contains a vast trove of information, much of it free and much of it quite good. Take Wikipedia. Certain entries are unreliable and spotty. Many of them are excellent and useful.
  • We are now also able to track how readers and scholars actually conduct research and how readers read.
  • Ebook readers and mobile phones enable technology companies to track reading habits.
  • Point-of-sales software enables retail outlets to present their display wares in a manner most likely to enhance sales
  • Usage statistics enable librarians to tailor their purchasing habits to better reflect the needs of their constituents. The various manifestations of this demand-driven, evidence-based shift in the ordering behavior of libraries alone has been the subject of much research and commentary but suffice it to say that it both enhances the ability of librarians to spend their money more effectively, while potentially threatening the business model that has enabled scholars in some disciplines to continue to publish as in the past.

It might be helpful to expand the lens a bit to focus on the structures that underpin the scholarly publishing ecosystem. The foundational building block of academic publishing is quality control and authority.

In scholarship, authority results from quality, which relies on a combination of sound research methodologies, hard work, and quality control. And all these require investment. Methodologies must be learned and well-executed. Research must be funded. Hard work must be sponsored (as research is not an inherently commercial or sustainable enterprise). Quality control is expensive.


And herein lies a key difference between the technology-enabled means of dissemination that has fueled the self-publishing industry and the blogosphere on the one hand and the more conventional world of academic publishing on the other. Author-services publishers (what used to be dismissively referred to as “vanity publishing”) rely on a “pay as you go” menu of services they offer authors, whereby the publisher is not investing in a copyright, per se, but rather drawing on the author to pay their way (and, it should be noted, receive a larger portion of the revenues downstream). Conventional publishers are more akin to angel investors: each book is in effect a start-up, with draws on the seed money and resources the publisher invests in the book, as well as the reputational capital of the publisher’s imprint to stand out in a world in which tens of millions of books are being published every year.

(In the world of scholarly journals, the advent of open access publishing has usefully blurred this dichotomy, but the basic necessity of start-up funding—in the form of a publication fee, or author processing charge, applies here as well.)

This is an opportune moment to comment briefly on one aspect of academic publishing that has changed remarkably little, namely the relationship between author and editor. The resilience of this author/editor dynamic remains one of the cornerstones of the industry.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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