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What we’ve learned and what we missed

A ten-year anniversary seems an opportune time to take stock. Much has been said already about Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) as it moves into its second decade, and let’s cast the net a bit wider and focus not on OSO, per se, but on what the academic publishing industry has gotten right and what we’ve missed since OSO was in its infancy.

The biggest change, of which OSO has been a central component at Oxford University Press, has of course been the transition from a print-centric, manufacturing-based industry to a print-and-online, service-oriented industry.

Drawing on that general context, below then are two lists: (1) what publishers have learned in this age of online publishing, and (2) what we took too long to learn or didn’t see coming.

10 things we’ve learned

1.  The Long Tail. While the long tail is a familiar concept in statistical circles, it became a cultural conceit owing to Chris Anderson’s influential 2004 article in Wired magazine, which subsequently became a bestselling book. The lesson publishers took from this article/book was that, rather than endlessly pursuing new and different audiences and markets, you need to make sure you’re doing a good job of providing your goods — no matter how old — to the people — no matter how few in number — who have already demonstrated a desire for it. Too many publishers were terrible at keeping their books in stock, owing to the constraints imposed by the economies of scale associated with traditional offset printing. The ability to print books digitally and in very small batches or even one at a time in response to demand had a revolutionary effect on academic publishing, the very definition of a long-tail industry.

2.  The E-book Revolution. E-books have taught us a great deal about consumer behavior, specifically what prompts people to make the decision to buy. E-books have proven to be an effective way to draw readers to overlooked books or to reinvigorate proven backlist titles. And, to the surprise of many, the massive glut of self-published work has had relatively little impact on the high-quality vetted non-fiction published by university presses.

3.  Discoverability. Invest in the digital infrastructure necessary to draw attention to your offerings. Period.

1024px-EBook_between_paper_books (1)
E-book between paper books by Maximilian Schönherr. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Get the basics right. Populated by people who are better with metaphors than spreadsheets, publishing has historically been an inefficient industry, with more attention devoted to ideas than to execution. The valuable skills of demand planners, of project managers, of efficiency experts can, when properly incorporated into a publishing environment, greatly enhance the ability of a press to fulfill its mission.

5. Mistrust the theologians. Whether it’s open access evangelists, Wikipedia detractors, print-will-never-die bibliophiles, print-is-dead technophiles, there’s generally little other than provocative headlines in absolutist prognostications about the future. The truth almost always lies in the messy, complicated middle. We are powerfully drawn to binaries and oppositional dichotomies but that’s rarely the way things play out.

6. Authors still want to be edited and advised. That’s really all there is to say. Even as many things about publishing have changed, the intellectual bond between author and editor — and often publicist or marketer — is paramount. Furthermore, in a world where the lingua franca of the academy and of business is now irrefutably English, and where one in three people is either Indian or Chinese, there are a lot of researchers and scholars who could use our editing and translational skills.

7. We’re a hardier industry than we give ourselves credit for. What seemed very scary just a few short years ago seems a bit less scary now. We’ve weathered the decline of independent stores, the rise of the chains, the demise of Borders, the rise of Amazon and Apple, the arrival of e-readers, and the unexpected flattening of e-book sales once the initial “load-up-your-e-reader” euphoria had subsided. The ubiquity of the web, and the transition from an information-scarcity economy to an information-glutted world in under 20 years, has highlighted the need for filters, which is, after all, a defining characteristic of publishers.

8. University presses are hard to run, but they’re even harder to kill. “Hard to kill” isn’t a business model but it does speak to the value that our regional communities place on the work we do. Numerous attempts to shutter or trim university presses have been met with howls of protest, often resulting in a reversal or tempering of the original decision.

9. The difference between extractive research and immersive reading. The web has highlighted the different ways in which people use books. Most bluntly, people read fiction but consume much non-fiction in an extractive, “dip-in-and-dip-out” manner. We may have presumed as much ten years ago but we can now trace the “user journey” of researchers and readers forensically via usage reporting.

10. The value of the physical book. A great many articles and books have appeared in the last decade extolling the virtues and utility and durability of the printed book. The emotional intensity of these affirmations of the physical book has surprised even some publishers. And, as we now know in a way we only presumed a decade ago, the physical book has an appeal that can happily run side-by-side with its digital and online cousins.

5 things we took too long to learn or didn’t see coming

1. POD and digital printing changed the world while we were nattering on about e-books, long before the market for them matured. See #1 above. We prognosticate endlessly about the future because we don’t want to seem anachronistic or Luddite (a historian recently said to me that she thought a great deal of innovation in business was driven by middle-aged people not wanting to appear old), but too often we focus too much on what will happen, rather than when it will happen, which is frequently the real question.

Trough of Disillusionment
Trough of Disillusionment

2. Things tend to happen more slowly than we think, and then they happen suddenly and fast. Exhibit A: E-book sales. Exhibit B: Social media relevance. If there is one tendency with which publishers have become very familiar since the onset of online publishing, it’s the phenomenon known in business-speak as Gartner’s Hype Cycle, depicted in the graph. In a sentence, new technologies are often met with wildly inflated expectations in the early days, resulting in inevitable disappointment, and then gradually gain a foothold and become established. Others, of course, never emerge from the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

Examples of technology-driven phenomena that have spent some time on the hype cycle, or remain there, are:

  • Print on Demand book manufacturing (which took years to become viable, both from a cost and a quality standpoint)
  • E-books (in the early days)
  • Apps (especially apps that aren’t free)
  • Websites for individual books (not useful now, if they ever were)
  • Book trailers for all but a very few books
  • Augmented e-book rights (about which there was a great fuss a few years ago)
  • Sales of individual book chapters
  • College textbook e-readers
  • And, perhaps most conspicuously, MOOCs

3. Back-office technology. Many publishers have underestimated the back-office technology challenges presented by the fragmenting media and sales landscape: the changing revenue streams, the multi-format sales models, the double running costs.

4. The potential perils of “secular stagnation”. The early years of digital publishing were typified by “retroconversion” efforts, in other words the digitizing of legacy backlist. Is there a risk that the one-time bumps granted publishers from the maturation of e-books, of POD efficiencies, of sales from journals back issues has concealed a slowdown or even a hollowing out of core markets? This is an unanswerable question when posed broadly but it’s a question all publishers should be asking themselves as they weigh their futures.

5. Access, access, access. Discussions about online publishing often focus on all the new and different things authors, educators, and publishers can do in an online environment. What has been relatively overlooked is the great promise of online publishing when it comes to access. Online delivery has the potential — already being realized in a number of ways — to enable authors and publishers to reach more people more efficiently and quickly, and at a lower cost, than ever before.

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