In the reputation economy

How will an independent publishing company flourish in years to come, as we see dramatic changes alter the very landscape of research and education? One answer is that in a time of such change, with a blizzard of information competing for attention, readers need to know which well-curated sources to trust. So it is crucial for any such publisher to maintain a good reputation.

That said, there are various challenges to the reputation of our industry these days, which I cluster under two broad headings. The first is that we are bad actors—misaligned with academic values, in pursuit of short-term self-interest and impeding the free flow of ideas—who can, in the words of George Monbiot, “make Rupert Murdoch look like a socialist”. The second is that we are dumb actors rendered irrelevant by technological change, pithily summed up by Clay Shirky, for whom “publishing is a button”.

Each publisher must take these critiques seriously and answer the charge convincingly. On the first charge independence is a real asset. We at SAGE are in the fortunate position of retaining that independence and so we are free to act with a longer-term view than many, with an explicit and devoted commitment to pursuing the interests of scholars and educators and the dissemination of their ideas. Whether in our advocacy of the social sciences, our willingness to enable green self-archiving of all the articles we publish, our defence of free expression or our commitment to charitable causes that promote social and educational justice, the test we face in our boardroom is whether we still retain the values that propelled Sara Miller McCune to found this company 50 years ago. Unlike those who are accountable to stock markets and investors, we literally have no one else to impress. It is an extraordinary fact that this independence will continue after Sara’s lifetime through her Estate Plan, through which SAGE will be owned by a charitable trust.

The other reputation-threatening critique of publishers today is that even if they are good actors, they may not be sufficiently skilled actors to keep up. I might trust someone’s intentions, but I also need to trust their capacity if I am to have true confidence in them. And here the challenge is reflected through the sheer scale of technological transformation in a digital age, one in which Apple, Google and Amazon—to name the three most obvious—are seeking to innovate and disrupt the entire mechanism through which information is conveyed. Every publisher needs a compelling answer to this critique too.

Feeling sociable

Here independence can be a limiting factor. If large scale and deep pockets are increasingly required, one can understand a move to consolidation. At the heart of SAGE’s answer to this question is the issue of being optimally rather than maximally innovative. We have to be able to invest, but in a disciplined manner that resists “me too” and “something must be done” thinking. The way we do that is by placing high-quality content at the heart of our publishing. There are so many bells and whistles that can distract from our core purpose that we use this “content first” guiding principle as a way to narrow down the indefinitely large decision space of innovation. 

While disruptive new entrants (and some publishers) have focused on providing tools and services, and relegated “content” to a fungible commodity, we continue to believe that there is a difference between information and knowledge, and that our role is to help convert one into the other through filtering, shaping, curating, certifying and rewarding the work of researchers and educators. So where we innovate—from new video collections to databases of business or methods cases or innovative Open Access titles—it is our aim to ensure that the tools and services we create are designed to be in the service of distinctive, high-quality content, rather than the other way around. We eschew “featuritis” and hype cycles, with the inflated expectations that accompany the progress of new technologies from conception to maturity.

Publishing has never been so interesting or complicated and yet it seems that these two principles have abiding force. Through ensuring that we are perceived as skilled actors as well as good ones, independent publishers can hope to secure the kind of reputation that will continue to be sought out by our key audiences in years to come. If we can align with the values of the audiences we serve, as well as expert guides with the capacity to shape and transmit ideas from the minds of those who create into the minds of those seeking knowledge and understanding, we have every reason to believe we will flourish in the reputation economy of the future.