At #FutureBook15: New prominence for academic publishing

At #FutureBook15: New prominence for academic publishing

In "considering the hard-won lessons of the academic publishing journey," our FutureBook 2015 programme this month was organised by Bookseller editor Philip Jones to place new and robust emphasis on the scholarly sector. Today, Taylor & Francis' Michael Strang surveys this in a thoughtful look back at the day's high points. He notes that "In that context, it was disappointing perhaps to see (SAGE excepted) so few representatives of the large commercial academic presses at the conference." We, too, would like to see more come along with us next year to join us in what Strang describes as "the opportunity to breathe the oxygen of fresh ideas and external perspectives."—Porter Anderson

An expanding presence in the 'electric sense of opportunity' 

“This is a pivotal FutureBook”, reflected Kobo president Michael Tamblyn during his entertaining manifesto address, because it marks “the end of the beginning”.  Expressed in a variety of ways across the day, this was a recurring sub-theme of last week’s event: a pause for breath and taking stock, a space for relieved retrospection within the future-gazing, and a sense of landfall safely achieved. 

“Phew—we survived!” was keynote speaker Akala’s pithy summary.

And yet, as CUP’s Alastair Horne reminded everyone, the view from the academic publishing sector next door can look very different. Contrasting digital’s 17-percent share of the consumer book market with its 79-percent dominance of the journals business, Horne employed the analogy of “the peninsula that thought it was an island” to enjoin his trade cousins to spend a little more time considering the hard-won lessons of the academic publishing journey, and a little less time gazing out to sea. 

Horne was obliged to concede that the persuasiveness of his analogy was somewhat undermined by the significant and welcome expansion of academic voices on the FutureBook program this year, symbolised by the opening address from Annette Thomas of Springer Nature. Kicking off a series of stimulatingly diverse keynotes, Thomas underlined the massive opportunity represented by open access, a model that embraces publication, research data, and workflows: “power is no longer in the proprietary”. She noted the common need for both academic and consumer publishers to be data-driven and customer-centric, but also highlighted the uniqueness of the academic publishing ecosystem’s reliance on the person of the researcher.  The researcher drives the entire value chain, and she must be the focus of the savvy academic publisher’s customer-centricity—or what Thomas referred to as “the new pampering”.

This business need to pamper was visible throughout the "Content Unbound" sessions in the morning and there was rich food for thought on offer for all delegates, of all publishing backgrounds. From an academic direction, Kiren Shoman’s introduction to the SAGE video initiative provided a successful illustration of some of the key themes of the day: customized multi-platform content, meeting a demonstrable market need, providing value to users, and monetizing that value for creators and publishers. Shoman also pointed out that “we make video to make students read more”, echoing another of FutureBook’s headline messages: in the competition for consumer time, the industry must be maximally open-minded and proactive about earning space for reading.

The most prominent academic element of the conference program was a session devoted to the “Academic Book of the Future”, chaired by Samantha Rayner, Principal Investigator of the AHRC/British Library-funded project of the same name, and Director of the UCL Centre for Publishing. The session functioned as progress report, call to action, and a signpost to future developments. Richard Fisher began with the observation that academic book publishing was not at present a world where mobile plays a role, leaving aside the question of what kind of role it might play in the future. He also emphasized again the relative stability within this sector and the overlooked and evolving role of intermediaries, whose 25-50 percent share of industry revenue should complicate any discussion about present and future.

'Border skirmishes in a great ground war to come'

Evidence for the incipient revitalization of the university press sector abounds, and we heard from two publishers who have embraced the possibilities of OA to positive effect.  Lara Speicher is Publishing Manager at UCL Press, an imprint rescued from the Taylor & Francis discard pile and relaunched earlier this year as the UK’s first fully open access university press.   Next year they will supplement their expanding free-to-download portfolio with the launch of a BOOC (Book as Open Online Content) focused, appropriately enough, on the book of the future. 

Anthony Cond, MD of much-garlanded Liverpool University Press, defined his organisation’s role as that of service provider to the academic community and gave details of their developing open access e-textbook project.  Cond situated this program in the context of an increasingly large, diverse, and parsimonious (in book-buying terms) student population.  Indeed, according to Kieron Smith of Blackwell's, even in the most book-friendly of disciplines, a majority of the student cohort will not spend a single penny on books over the course of their degree. There were parallels again here with the trade imprint’s battle for reluctant consumer time, and the potential for smart, accessible, and personalized content to make inroads into that reluctance.

As members of the panel noted, these OA book publishing experiments are significant but small-scale: border skirmishes in a great ground war to come. In that context, it was disappointing perhaps to see (SAGE excepted) so few representatives of the large commercial academic presses at the conference. 

Aside from the obvious contribution they could make to the academic publishing debate, the real value in an event like FutureBook is the opportunity to breathe the oxygen of fresh ideas and external perspectives, to hear alternative voices that spark the imagination. 

Delegates who gave themselves to the conference will have departed wiser and well-briefed, possessed of a sense of realism, but also attuned to what Stephen Page described as the “electric sense of opportunity” crackling through the industry at present. 

A quick roundup of more coverage of FutureBook 2015 is here.

Main image: Mark Guest