A manifesto for trade publishing

A manifesto for trade publishing

"Trade publishing seems mostly to have forgotten it even has a neighbour," says Alastair Horne in his #FutureBook15 manifesto. "Unlike the music and trade publishing industries, scholarly publishing went digital of its own volition, and kept control of its routes to market." Horne admonishes, "Trade publishing could learn a lot" from its educational counterparts. He's here to recommend that trade publishing reacquaint itself with its collegiate cousins and "take your eye away from the telescope through which you’ve been looking anxiously overseas for signs of distant empires falling."—Porter Anderson 


The peninsula that thought it was an island

When trade publishing started getting to grips with digital around the turn of the decade, it hastily abandoned its previous insularity. That was smart: it may be sensible to learn from one’s mistakes, but it is less painful to learn from other people’s. It therefore began to look towards other industries which had already made the switch to digital. And so, around 2010, the stages at publishing conferences started to fill with executives from the music, television, and newspaper industries, explaining how the move to digital had devastated their business models.

For a while, educational and scholarly publishing took their place alongside these luminaries. Indeed, a whole session at FutureBook 2010 was devoted to ‘Learning from the Academic Market’s Pioneering Work’, with speakers from Wiley, Blackwell, and Cambridge University Press. (Full disclosure: I was one of those speakers.)

Today, though, trade publishing seems mostly to have forgotten it even has a neighbour. Even the editor of The Bookseller admits that for most of each year, it acts as though trade ‘is … the only game in town’.

This myopia is particularly puzzling because if any industry demonstrates how to make the move to digital successfully, it’s academic publishing. As The Bookseller’s roundup of the Publishers Association 2014 Statistics Yearbook noted, electronic-only revenues in the academic journals market last year accounted for ‘a 79-percent share of subscription income’. (The same report has digital accounting for a mere 17 percent of trade book revenues.) And this has been achieved alongside a rise in revenues: digital revenues for journals were up 6 percent last year, while sales in ‘academic and professional markets … have risen consistently by a double-digit number.’

Moreover, unlike the music and trade publishing industries, scholarly publishing went digital of its own volition, and kept control of its routes to market: the multinational conglomerates that dominate scholarly publishing are not Apple or Amazon, but Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley. Meanwhile, the university press sector remains healthy and diverse, with the traditional powerhouses of Oxford and Cambridge increasingly complemented by the likes of Liverpool University Press—Academic and Professional publisher of the year according to both The Bookseller and the IPG.

All of which would seem to suggest that trade publishing could learn a lot from its neighbour.

And yet perhaps the most interesting thing about scholarly publishing is the new set of challenges it faces. Foremost among these is the Open Access movement, whose most popular business model shifts the cost of publication from reader to author, and many of whose proponents decry the profits being made by the likes of Elsevier and Springer. And as it adapts to these challenges, the industry continues to innovate, with new publishers like the Public Library of Science springing up to match new needs, moods, and models.

These challenges may seem very different from those faced by trade publishers, but at the heart they remain the same: making the economics work while satisfying a diverse audience of both authors and readers.

So, trade publishers, take your eye away from the telescope through which you’ve been looking anxiously overseas for signs of distant empires falling, and start talking to your nearer neighbours—there’s much to discuss!


This is another in our series of "Five-Minute Manifesto" for The Future of the Book Business. In his article Those magnificent manifestos, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones reiterated his call for the FutureBook community to reflect on five years of the digital dynamic, "to challenge the customs we have begun to adopt." The response has been robust, and we offer a big thanks to all our manifesto writers. As we add more in this series, you can see them all here.

Please plan to join us on 4th December at The Mermaid in London for the fifth-anniversary FutureBook Conference

And we'd also like you to consider participating in our inaugural Author Day (#AuthorDay) in central London, 30th November, the kick-off to a week of #FutureBook15 events.

#FutureBook15 manifestos:

Main image - iStockphoto: Michael Jung