Springer Nature to set 'targets high'

Springer Nature to set 'targets high'

Derk Haank, the genial chief executive officer of newly formed publishing house Springer Nature, was in what he called “a jubilation mood” at the Frankfurt Book Fair last week, where the company was exhibiting for the first time following the completion of its merger with Macmillan Science & Education (MSE) in May.

“We thought this was a nice point to let the world know that we see the merger as being completed, a reality,” he says. “I am very proud of how far we have got already. Not only do we have a new name and a new house style [Springer Nature’s branding was on display, inset], we have the complete organisational structure. So I would like to think, as of now, each one of our 13,000 employees knows what he or she is supposed to do and who they report to. Which is not to be underestimated; it is a job to get there.”

The creation of the new science publishing powerhouse through the merger of the bulk of MSE with Springer Science + Business Media, with Holtzbrinck taking 53% and BC Partners, the private equity firm behind Springer, taking 47%, surprised many who had predicted that Taylor & Francis would be the Springer partner. Haank reveals he had worked on the merger for 12 years before it finally came off, with unsuccessful earlier bids failing because “the stars were never completely aligned”.

“From the beginning, when I started in Springer [in 2004], I thought the perfect end game would be if it got together with Nature,” he says. “Why am I so excited? One reason is there is hardly any overlap in products: we are really making each other stronger, in offering each other a complete package of volume journals, more research-oriented titles, etc. So this broadens our offering—to bring us more in line with market leader Reed Elsevier, to be blunt about it. Secondly, I was so keen because this is not only a strategic merger, it’s also the definitive solution to where Springer will end up after private equity. Because although private equity is still in, the majority as of day one is owned by the family firm Holtzbrinck: it is our long-term owner.

“In the previous ownership, in the next round [of financing] we could have been bought by another private equity firm, or any kind of strategic buyer. So the uncertainty—for the management, for the market, for our employees—is now gone.”

One important condition for the merger was the 50–50 status between the two companies, he says: “This is clearly not a takeover of one by the other, this is a real merger of equals— because if one is doing really poorly and the other really well, you know who will be calling the shots. In this case, both have something to offer and both are successful. This means one should not dominate the other: we have been very careful in that process. We want to learn from each other and, excuse the awful phrase, we want to keep the best of both worlds.”

The reshaping of departments for the unified company follows a matrix structure, with three region-specific hubs covering the Americas, Asia Pacific and EMEA partnering with teams that have an overview of the global strategy on specific business areas. Haank denies that there have been “any major job losses” as a result. “This merger is not about efficiency and job cuts, it’s about finding a home for Springer and embarking on an aggressive development programme for new products,” he insists. “Will there be job losses? Yes, because we only need one head of IT, we need one head of book-keeping. But not in the editorial fields. So the total job losses will be on the infrastructure side and a few per cent [of the total]—but that’s not what’s driving this.”

“The basis for getting together is really that Springer is the volume publisher: we select articles on what is sound science and everything that is sound science we publish; Nature has a different publishing philosophy, it selects not by volume, but [by asking] ‘Is this article a real breakthrough, does this move the scientific debate forward?’ So we want to use the new editorial focus from Nature for Springer, and we want to leverage the much bigger Springer infrastructure to get a more efficient organisation.”

An example is in production. Pre-merger, Springer published 10,000 new titles a year; with the MSE input came a further 2,500. Haank says: “We have, and I am personally very proud of it, invested over the past 10 years to get a seamless production flow for books; this is a system used by everybody in the company in the 60 countries we are active in, and that enables us to scale. So there is one book production system and in the end we have two files: one goes to the editorial platform and the other goes to the printer. There are a few printers spread over the world who can print the books on demand that we want printed. But it’s completely integrated, so the production process is identical. That means for us it is not a big effort to make 12,500 books rather than 10,000.”

E-books are also being integrated, with the Palgrave Connect online platform set to be phased out and its e-book collections integrated into SpringerLink’s collections from 2016.

Annette Thomas, former c.e.o. of MSE and now chief scientific officer of Springer Nature, will spearhead new product development. Haank says: “It’s early days, but that’s what really excites us. The new management consists of four people, three from the former Springer [Haank, c.o.o. Martin Mos and c.f.o. Ulrich Vest] and Annette Thomas. The three of us were managers in publishing, whereas Annette is a scientist who ended up in publishing. We have different backgrounds and skill sets. We think the combination should enable us to do great things.

“Annette has responsibility for the whole programme, not just former Nature. That’s not to say we are going to re-base all the Springer titles to the Nature way of doing things, but it is good she is taking responsibility for further product development.” Plans are “still a secret”, but he reveals: “We are likely to be launching new Nature-named titles in disciplines where Springer originally was very strong.”

Springer Nature will also have access to the cutting-edge technology of the Digital Science business. When the new company was formed, MSE’s Digital Science—home of Altmetric, Overleaf and Figshare—was left out of the deal. But Haank says the relationship will remain close. “It was easier to leave Digital Science out because it is all at the venture capital stage and very difficult to value—but we keep on working together as we did in the past. There is no change there.”

Haank adds: “I would be very disappointed if in five years’ time we couldn’t show you a list of new initiatives that couldn’t have been done by us individually. The whole reason for us getting together is, ‘let’s set our targets high’. We want to be leading the scientific debate, we want to be influential in the science community and we want to be influential in the role science publishing plays in society.

“My job is to get our house in order first. At Springer we have SpringerLink as a platform, while [MSE] has Nature.com. You can say, ‘How difficult can it be to integrate them?’ but believe me, it’s a hell of a job. It will take until the middle of next year until it’s really complete. And some ideas you can only carry out when you have an integrated platform, because everything is linked to everything else.”