v27 #6 The Scholarly Publishing Scene

by | Feb 22, 2016 | 0 comments

Necessary Balancing Acts

Column Editor:  Myer Kutz  (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.)

Early this fall a senior editor at one of the houses that publishes engineering handbooks of mine wrote to tell me that he wouldn’t have as much time to deal with me as previously because the company where he works was going through a reorganization and a “great many people” would be laid-off in a month or so.  The news took me aback and I responded with concern about him and his colleagues.  But not about myself.  That I saved for another time.

Nevertheless, I have more to say, but my purpose in this column is not to analyze that particular decision.  I’m in no position to do so thoroughly and fairly, for the simple reason that I’m not privy to any of the factors that went into the decision and I’m not about to attempt to interview company executives and members of its board, none of who would talk to me anyway, I’d guess.  I’m just the editor of some handbooks the company publishes, after all, even though one of them is a bestseller for its type of publication.  So why would anyone in power think they needed to share management information with me?  I’d expect an expression of some concern about the welfare of my handbooks, albeit carefully hedged (they might be planning to eventually divest the lists containing my handbooks and wouldn’t want to give that information away), but nothing more than that.

The news brought to mind an encounter when I’d been appointed general manager of the scientific and technical division at Wiley thirty years ago.  There were over a hundred and thirty people working for me, which was one way of putting it.  One of the senior production managers congratulated me and then said, “we’re counting on you.”  As she saw it, I surmised, all those people weren’t only working for me, they were also in some measure depending on me.  So I’m sure that I said something that was meant to be reassuring.  But that wasn’t the whole story, of course.  It never is.

A few years before that encounter, I’d been present at a discussion between my predecessor and his second-in-command.  It was just after a board meeting.  I listened to the two of them agreeing with satisfaction that the most important job of a corporate executive was to increase shareholder value.

While I would agree that increasing a for-profit company’s stock price over a sustained period (not for a quarter or two) is the prime measure of how well a chief executive and his or her reports and other executives perform, there are, it seems to me, constituencies other than shareholders to whom attention ought to be paid.

Take the example of a publishing company and the concern expressed by that production manager three decades ago.  Was it my prime responsibility to maintain the production department as it was in terms of the number of jobs within the department and not to make working conditions for the staff any harsher that they were?  Or was it my responsibility to embrace new technology when it made sense and to look to outsource production functions both internally and externally, no matter how many departmental jobs were lost?  Do you run roughshod over a staff and institute a reign of terror to force them to work harder?

Look at the issue in another, more personal, way:  I remember my financial manager, who was well versed on staff reduction issues, telling me that other executives whom she and others in similar positions had  worked for had attempted to placate their bosses and save their own jobs by letting people go — and that while the bosses accepted the layoffs, the strategy didn’t help an executive save his own job.

In the final analysis, I knew that no matter what cost control strategy I adopted, I had to maintain quality and enough of a personal touch among editorial and production staff to keep book authors and journal editors satisfied.  You wouldn’t want them decamping for a smaller publisher, say, who promised to be more nurturing.  Nor could you consider them nothing more than prima donnas whom you could treat dismissively because of the reputation your company had for publishing works of great scientific and technological value over a considerable period of time.

Not that that reputation wasn’t extremely important.  We executives considered ourselves stewards of the company’s intellectual property and reputation for publishing excellence.  It was our job to maintain the logo’s significance and relevance.  And what the company published was greater than any one of us.  Or all of us, for that matter.

Which brings me to another important constituency — the public with its perception of your company and other publishing companies.  The public I speak of includes many in academia and in government and funding agencies who believe it borders on the immoral to profit from journal articles reporting on publically funded research, as well as many in the broader public who subscribe to the bromide that “information wants to be free.”  So when, as has happened in the case of STM publishing, that the public determines that your company is in journal publishing only for the money — only for the enrichment of shareholders and corporate fat cats — there’s a crisis.  Leading academics have taken up arms, so to speak, and have established their own publishing entities, with journals, for example, that publish top-drawer papers that news organizations run to for the latest relevant scientific and medical information.  Governments and funding agencies take steps that threaten the health of your lucrative business model.

The STM publishing industry and individual houses have taken steps to deal with these threats — calling for shutting down Internet privacy sites, for example — and to bolster their image as stewards of STM knowledge and information.  Readers of this magazine are doubtlessly familiar with most or all of the new journal publishing business models, as well as the industry givebacks and concessions made to the STM academic and professional communities.

Say what you will about whether the industry and its eight-hundred-pound gorillas have been dragged kicking and screaming into this state of affairs.  Suffice it to say that shareholders’ pockets can no longer be the sole concern of STM publishing executives.  Not if they want to survive — and want their companies to prosper.  Their primary concern can no longer focus solely on profits that will translate into shareholder value.  Publishing executives also have to perform the necessary balancing acts I’ve been alluding to.  So long as revenues and profits don’t head south, of course, and desperate measures are required.

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