Kings and queens

One of the most exciting things about being in publishing is how much change the industry enjoys (or endures) as we attempt to keep pace with our market’s and customers’ needs.

I’m often interested to compare academic publishing (my world) with trade publishing. We have much in common, but one obvious difference is the challenge Higher Education publishers face: of appealing to our gatekeeper (a lecturer considering which textbook to adopt), while ensuring our texts are relevant to the core end user (the students who buy the book). Success depends on grabbing the attention of both, and serving their different needs. Understanding and responding to changes in HE adds new dimensions to how and what we publish. Technology is driving innovation in ways publishers cannot ignore; for instance, personalised adaptive learning, competency-based education or the flipped classroom.

In our sector the world has been shaken a few times recently. It was “the year of the Massive Open Online Course” in 2012; Open Access (OA) debates have kept bubbling along; and academic publishers have had to engage with new mandates and expectations for OA publishing. How do we as publishers look to the future and ensure that we are keeping pace with the most relevant changes?

Understanding the impact of changing technology involves listening to faculty (how their teaching styles and resources are changing), to students (how their own expectations of their education are changing), and also the wider institution (with its moving models, especially in the UK with changes to student fees and institutional funding).

The challenge is to intelligently respond to changing dynamics swiftly, but without being zugzwanged by hype or fad. Like many other publishers, at SAGE we have spent time ensuring we can retain textbook “stickiness” by engaging students across all the different media and content formats they need, including the interactive e-book.

But one big adventure we have been on at SAGE this year is launching a new strand of our publishing portfolio which is not text-based: video products in each of our core social science disciplines, aimed at faculty and students for use in the classroom or in personal study. “Students today are all about video,” said one of our editorial advisory board members, and indeed it is staggering how video has become such a key aspect of many people’s learning preferences. Academic Simon Lindgren made a salutary point with his research data, showing that the equivalent of 500 years of YouTube videos are watched through Facebook every day. Furthermore, we know that a key route to learning involves engaging learners emotionally, and that is something video can certainly do well.

So we are seeing that student expectations for use of video within the classroom are high. In our study of over 1,000 students, 68% reported that they currently watch videos in their classes and, interestingly, 79% of respondents claimed to voluntarily seek videos if looking to better understand a topic or material introduced in class.

New challenges have come our way as we have been building video products alongside our traditional portfolios. For instance, contributors in videos can immediately be judged on whether they are suitably charismatic or engaging, so we need to consider the quality of presentation as well as the usual content coverage, level and style.

We are adapting to the changing environment in which learning takes place in Higher Education. With a mix of age ranges and learning styles, and with a similar diversity of classroom types (synchronous and asynchronous, in person and virtual), students’ expectations for videos—including how their faculty will employ them—are incredibly varied.

But among the myriad issues to keep in mind in this new venture, the core principle we have held on to has been the focus on strong content, and selecting the right contributors to represent their subject areas. On this ground we have felt at home, drawing on our expertise within the disciplines we publish—such as education, research methods, sociology—and engaging with our author and wider academic networks to consider what content students and their faculty will find most useful and engaging.

Ultimately, as publishers we remember that “content is king”. But content must be delivered in suitable forms if it is to reach its mark. Staying true to our mission of careful selection, expert development and the rigorous amplification and transfer of ideas, means appreciating that “context is queen”, and it must sit purposefully alongside.


Kiren Shoman is executive director, books editorial for SAGE. She will be speaking at The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference 2015 on 4th December in London.