SSP = recommended for 2014

Reflecting on all that I am thankful for from 2013, I’d say that getting a chance to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP), meeting all the folks I met, and learning all that the SSP is about – and learning all that attending the SSP’s annual meeting entails for an individual scholarly pub professional – is near the very top of the list. Attending the SSP changed my worldview and enhanced my understanding of the industry.

The SSP comprises leading industry consultants from around the world, heads and key staff of libraries, executives from all the major commercial presses, directors and staff of university and other not-for-profit presses, as well as professionals from third-party vendors (B2B providers). Having diverse populations from the communications ecosystem so well represented makes the SSP meeting a richly flavorful melting pot; not only are expert panel sessions informed and thought provoking, but all conversations in the halls, around exhibits, and in receptions are charged with brains and knowledge of multiple perspectives.

Moreover, in keeping with the principles of the founding members, the SSP is compellingly democratic; each professional, regardless of the “rank” of the individual or the focus of the individual’s firm, is able to and indeed expected to contribute to the SSP, to serve on the board of directors, and to participate in keeping up the high standards of networking and the sharing and development of best-practices in scholarly communication. (Deadline this Friday, 12/6.) This democracy of membership emulates (and accelerates) the cross-pollination and cross-strata flow of ideas that is in keeping with today’s best practices for competitive idea generation in successful firms.

My experience in attending this year’s meeting may have given me a uniquely swift and thorough view into what the SSP is all about: I won one of several Student Travel Grants offered by the SSP, and as a first-time attendee, I was paired with a “Meeting Mentor.” I was also grouped with other first-time attendees, for peer-to-peer networking, and as a group we were all under the further wing of the First-time Attendee Coordinator. My Meeting Mentor was Heather Staines, VP of the Stanford-born startup SIPX, past board member of the SSP, and long-time industry pro. My fellow first-time attendees and grant winners were similarly diverse professionals from library sciences and publishing programs across the country and overseas (I was the only MBA in the mix and the first one to participate in the program, thus far.) Our First-time Attendee Coordinator was none other than Will Wakeling, Dean of University Libraries, Northeastern University, founding member of the SSP, and industry/meeting icon.

The SSP meeting is huge, the orgs in attendance cover the globe (and all the walks of life above-mentioned); it might take several years to learn where the ropes are, let alone learn how to use them. Having a meeting mentor and first-time attendee coordinator accelerated the process for all of us and, for me, having a Meeting Mentor so versed and experienced as Heather Staines and a First-time Attendee Coordinator so knowledgeable and widely respected as Will Wakeling meant that I got to chat with international professionals at every level of the ecosystem, meet nearly all the past presidents of the SSP (and a host of the Chefs from the Scholarly Kitchen), and learn about the founding principles and history of the organization.

The sessions and conversations I had at the meeting were amazing; each more informative and eye opening than the last, and I could go on at dizzying length (as is my apparent wont) about the best-practices I learned of and the ideas I came away with – many of which have informed new initiatives I’ve begun since – and I will no doubt post some thoughts born of those takeaways. However, this post is about what I am truly grateful for from this experience, and that is getting to learn what the SSP is about: the people I met.

In the SSP logo, it says: “innovative people advancing scholarly communication.” I can say that the emphasis there is on “innovative people.” I met a dynamic, driven, and welcoming worldly horde of people. I’ve been to a number of meetings and attended some “schooling” here and there. In the first few minutes of the SSP, I met dozens of folks from a host of organizations and backgrounds, all of whom I look forward to seeing again and continuing to learn from, as we advance in our careers.


The wealth and diversity of backgrounds and perspectives (commercial execs, consultants, vendors-as-members!, librarians en masse, and not-for-profits), the democratic nature of the organization (a focus on you as an individual professional), and the generous disposition of the members (founders, Presidents, attendees, mentors, and colleagues) are what distinguishes the SSP at heart; these elements make the SSP exceptionally welcoming and engaging and make discussions at the meeting uniquely generative of new thinking and opportunities.


I am thankful for getting to meet all my fellow grant recipients, and for getting to meet so many of the best and brightest in scholarly communications (the many chefs, heads, and execs). I owe special thanks to Heather and Will and other SSP stalwarts who all took such a personal interest in our experience – I can’t thank you enough! On that broader front, I would be remiss if I didn’t back up and say thank you to the SSP itself for giving me the opportunity to attend this year’s meeting and to everyone I met who made the experience so rewarding.

Given my experience, I would be further remiss if I did not say to all my fellow colleagues in scholarly communication, whom I have not met yet (and likely already talked your ear off in this regard) and who are planning professional development activities for the coming year: I’m renewing my membership in the SSP and making plans for Boston. I recommend, whole-heartedly, that all seeking new ways to advance scholarly communication do the same and join the polyglot discussions at the SSP next year. When you do, I look forward to meeting you there!


How to Spot Ugly Black Ducklings: next competitive frontiers in scholarly publishing

This is a pre-print version of a piece I wrote for the upcoming issue of Learned Publishing, LEARNED PUBLISHING VOL. 26 NO. 4 OCTOBER 2013

[It] reviews events of SSP 2013 and AAUP 2013 within the context of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s notions of Black Swans (unexpected game changers) to anticipate the formation of competitive arenas (i.e., new models and revenue streams) for scholarly communications. It examines Tim O’Reilly’s keynote address at SSP 2013, the advice of Michael Schrage from the opening Plenary at AAUP 2013, and Tim Sullivan’s discussion of Harvard Business Publication’s use of a topical blog network as new publishing platform to access global digital communications networks, in the Reaching the World session at AAUP 2013. The essay extrapolates from the case studies presented in these sessions to overlay the strategies of successful practitioner presses and the advice of sought-after business consultants on the work of academic houses, to imagine the next competitive frontier/s in scholarly publishing.

We are all familiar with a Black Swan (capitalized). A Black Swan is categorically unexpected; contrary to all experience and thought likely not to exist or ever have impact on anything we hold dear—like our business models—but it comes along and has impact: massive impact. Simply put, it is an unexpected game changer. Could be good; could be bad; it depends how close you are to the volcanic vent on the ocean floor when it opens.

So, how do you launch your own Black Swan event—that changes everything for the better/in your favor? More importantly, how do you spot the potential for doing so in the world around you, when, by the very definition, a Black Swan is wholly unexpected and unpredictable?

The short answer is to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book, Antifragile, apply its tenets to your situation, and shape your fate and business model to be improved by all the challenges it faces; i.e., to exist in a state beyond robust and resilient, in a state that actually “feeds” on shocks to the system.

The other answer (hard to say which is longer) is to learn how to spot Ugly Black Ducklings, spare them from the day-to-day ducks, and wrangle and raise them as your own Black Swans. Important to note, however, that a Black Swan can never be anticipated or predicted; so, an Ugly Black Duckling is doubly-unrecognizable. This brief piece is therefore about doing the impossible; assaying the latent outsized potential in the rightfully dismissed.

Suggesting that we can develop aptitude for spotting what might lead to an unpredictable game changer is seemingly irresponsible; but, fielded here for an important reason: Amazon constituted a Black Swan event for brick and mortar bookstores (and later publishers). Importantly, founders of and investors in Amazon had reasons to believe they could reshape the world in their favor, and they were right. So, somewhere amid the noise and chatter, quacks and squawks, someone saw or heard the Black Swan that could be …someone spotted an Ugly Black Duckling.

If I had one of those fancy things called a thesis, it would be very near to some of Taleb’s thinking: namely, that game-changing opportunities (Ugly Black Ducklings) are all around us; the world is lousy with them. (E.g., Amazon found one; Twitter too.) That’s the good news. Bad news, according to Taleb, we are naturally disposed never to notice them.

Two Ugly Black Ducklings for scholarly presses
I was fortunate to have attended two, outstanding, international conferences this summer: SSP 2013 and AAUP 2013. Across both, at least two Ugly Black Ducklings waddled. I’ll discuss the moments in the meetings when I saw them waddle, and latter imagine the Black Swan/s that might come from them. You can draw your own conclusions and see what ducklings you see in each of the following:

1. O’Reilly Media
The first Ugly Black Duckling waddled across both conferences; I will move back and forth across both sightings.

Michael Schrage got backs up in the opening Plenary at AAUP 2013 by saying that university presses were too focused on “publishing,” (e.g., how to publish books better, how to sell more of the books published, and promoting the value of the work of publishing generally); as an organizing principle, “publishing” is limiting, and Schrage felt that university presses should find a new organizing principle. He pointed to a phrase in the mission statement of the AAUP for starters: “…to advance scholarship.” Advancing scholarship, he noted, is broad enough to yield new vistas over old terrain; it would be more likely to lead to new products, services, and profitable moves in the market.

Two weeks earlier, Tim O’Reilly had given the keynote address at SSP 2013. Interestingly, he had similar advice for all scholarly presses. In his address, he stressed innovation and experimentation with new models. He quoted a Silicon Valley investor who said: “only invest in solutions that close the loop;” i.e., that provide complete solutions to a given set of needs. His example of an approach that is working to close a loop: Google’s self-driving car. Organizing need: helping people to get from point A to point B. Example of a publishing solution: a road atlas; specifically, the Rand McNally Road Atlas. Example of the evolution of a more complete solution—of closing the loop: MapQuest and Google maps; mobile GPS with real-time updates and synthetic voice directions; next, a self-driving car. Obvious to all: the obsolescence of the publishing solution.

What Schrage pointed to at the AAUP was just such a broader notion of the set of needs to be addressed; one that might carry a business forward in such an evolutionary progression, to help safeguard it and its products from obsolescence, if not help it to be the one to finally deliver the goods and close the loop.

In the panel sessions at the SSP, we were also reminded by an exec in O’Reilly Media, Allen Noren, of what Tim O’Reilly said to his management team to spur them to innovation: “In five years, if all we are is publishers, we’ll be out of business.” That was decades ago. They became more than publishers and are increasingly innovative and successful today.

I caught Schrage after his talk at AAUP 2013, and told him of O’Reilly’s remarks. He said, “O’Reilly gets it.” He also told me that they had worked together in the past; so, this isn’t too surprising that they agree on everyone targeting being more than just publishers. But, what is it that we should get from this, exactly; what can we make of it in scholarly publishing?

2. Harvard Business Publishing
The second Ugly Black Duckling started waddling back in 2011 (possibly before) and appeared again at AAUP 2013 …not a day older!

Grant McCracken was the lead plenary speaker of AAUP 2011. He spoke on “Innovation and Organizational Change,” summarizing the state of strategy in business today and emphasizing the need for radical creativity in the face of new challenges, especially in scholarly publishing. Then, he offered a modest suggestion: In addition to standard forms of peer-reviewed journals and books, scholarly presses should consider including a new form of publication, a new platform for ideas, without peer review; in this format, presses should base approval on an editor’s sense of the author’s work and the need in the popular discourse for the information it contained alone—and go straight to market with it.

Mayhem ensued; editors armed themselves with pitchforks and throwing-cats, monsters sang show tunes, frogs fell from the ceiling; McCracken barely made it out alive. Things didn’t settle down until champagne was uncorked at the reception.

Tim Sullivan, editorial director at Harvard Business Publishing (HBP), spoke in the Reaching the World panel session at AAUP 2013. The session was inspired by Peter Dougherty’s speech as President of the AAUP in 2012; a later version of which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “The Global University Press.” In it, Dougherty advised university presses two capitalize on “two converging trends: the growth of international scholarship, and expansion of digital communications networks.” Sullivan and others in the session spoke on HBP’s use of the latter.

HBP operates three market groups: Higher Education (coursework), Harvard Business Review (the journal/magazine we know as HBR), and Corporate Learning (management training). HBP and HBR manage a blog network to support all of its publishing programs.

Sullivan stressed that the blogs are not a promotional tool/s; they are one of several, integrated publishing platforms; 100% editorially driven and strategically knit with other offerings. HBP/HBR simply utilizes the web as part of its publishing program. Posts are not peer reviewed and they are not always tied to or inspired by other HBP/HBR publications. Sullivan and other editors acquire content directly for the blogs, from researchers or specialists in interesting areas. The blog network even has its own published submission guidelines, inviting unsolicited submissions to the blog. These posts can develop into articles or book projects, but that is not always the goal; the goal is to publish good blogs.

Of course, the reverse happens as well; authors of articles or books are approached by HBP/HBR editors or offer to write for the blogs on their own. In these cases, posts have links that tie the reader to a HBR article or HBP book (and sometimes to books published by scholarly presses).

Regardless of the content’s origins, Sullivan noted that through the original, topical content of the blog network, HBP/HBR engages the world and culture at large by delivering instant real value in the form of original, shareable insights from leading experts in the field—and then connecting readers through links to more resources/products.

At a glance, three things are unique about the HBP/HBR use case of accessing global digital communications networks, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, via its blogs: 1) as stressed above, the blogs have all original content and are wholly editorially driven, without peer review or exclusive marketing input, 2) because all of HBP/HBR content focuses on management and leadership, the content across the blog network is topically cohesive; i.e., all posts are relevant to the HBP/HBR target audience, and 3) the topical “tags” on the blog tie out to all HBP/HBR content – across all HBP/HBR platforms: e.g., journal articles, books, book chapters, online tools, cases, audio CDs.

How can, and perhaps more importantly why should, the strategies and advice of these largely practitioner presses be applied to the work and business models of the more scholarly presses?

To spot the ugly & black amid the yellow & cute
New product strategy is like hosting a dinner party; specifically, it’s like planning the menu for a dinner party. I have it on good authority that you are an excellent host/hostess; so, you know that what you do NOT do is set out to make the very best dish you are capable of making. This can be expensive and it can kill your guests, and killing your guests, as it turns out, or sending them home with swollen hands and feet, shoes in a sack, and lips and eyelids that look like cooked shrimp, has a deleterious and lasting impact on your reputation as a party thrower.

Of course, you check what’s new in the markets, what’s in season, and maybe what’s on special, if cost is an issue. Of course you think of your best recipes, and what wines you have on hand to pair with everything. You also take into account the likes and dislikes of your guests, if you want them to return. Most of all, however, you make sure to ask if anyone has any food allergies, and if you can’t shift the whole menu to accommodate, you make sure you have something in the works for everyone to enjoy the bash and make it home in good spirits, without recourse to epi-pen or ER room.

The ugly & black duckling (an antifragile business model) takes such things into account.

Scholarly publishing’s guests are displaying an allergy to copyright. Like it or not, folks are using more material more freely and preferring not to pay for it. Downside for publishers: copyright undergirds most all publishing revenue streams. (In a traditional SWOT analysis, this would show up as a W.) Therefore, scholarly presses would not regret having a revenue stream (b-model) that was not copyright-dependent; it would diversify their portfolio/s and decrease aggregate risk.

Further, guest are displaying allergies to peer review, to the protracted periods between completion of their research (submission of new ideas) and our publication of them (sharing of their ideas with the world), and to the burden – especially on junior scholars – of having to generate an instant, wide-reaching, and vibrant blog following, on top of all other research and teaching responsibilities. Scholarly presses would not be unpopular for helping to alleviate the discomfort of these allergies; doing so would further help turn the press’s Ws into Os that could lead to more Ss.

The Black Swan/s

1. O’Reilly Media
One of the first ways O’Reilly Media became more than publishers was by hosting conferences in the subject areas in which they published. Much of their content addressed emerging topics with nascent communities; the conferences provided hubs around which the subject-oriented communities could turn and grow. O’Reilly Media benefitted.

Many scholarly communities (societies) and conferences are long-established. Nevertheless, as a service to societies and the scholars who run and participate in them, scholarly publishers could (and many already do) lend their centralized and highly-specialized organizational strengths to offer conference-hosting services: event planning, post-meeting video, audio, and slide deck posting, registration and project management on down. Just as with journal publishing services, centralized investment in conference hosting services would lead to economies of scale.

This is common practice among commercial houses, but again at least Schrage was addressing university presses, when the Ugly Black Duckling waddled. In their ranks, it is rarer. This subset of scholarly presses could move to offer top-services to the smallest of conferences and, in time, offer to shoulder infrastructural burden for larger conferences.

In fact, a few university presses do already offer such services, having made the investment in doing so many years earlier. So, the true Ugly Black Duckling, and perhaps Uglier and Blacker for it, would be for university presses to partner with one another to offer these services; thus partnered they could hazard scale of nigh-commercial status and achieve greater market penetration.

Though there are many primary and ancillary benefits to such a move in the market, an immediate effect will be to expand revenues beyond content-monetization and to expand the suite of services the organization offers scholars/scholarly societies, thereby expanding the role of the publisher in scholarly communications.

2. Harvard Business Publishing
The suggestion to be inferred from Sullivan’s presentation of the HBP/HBR case study was more direct: If it hasn’t done so already, a scholarly press could move to host a thoroughly integrated and editorially-driven, topically cohesive (disciplinary) blog – with 100% original, directly acquired content that is linked to all other published offerings – as HBR has; however, a few caveats.

- HBP/HBR has a proverbial lock on the practitioner space in management. It certainly is the market leader. More importantly, it doesn’t publish in any other areas; e.g., how to knit is not often a subject of HBR articles. So, the HBR brand is both nigh-synonymous with AND dedicated to one subject area. Presses that publish in several subject areas – or enjoy a less-than-authoritatively-dominant position within a discipline – will either need to publish one or more separate blogs (branded by subject) and/or explore a partnering strategy with other presses to cover one subject persuasively well enough to attract dedicated users and achieve similar results.

- HBP/HBR blogs are clearly editorial, not institutional – and they have been that way for some time. As a result, HBR blogs have independently acquired original content. As with any other publication, the focus of the blog/posts in such a network must not be on the publisher or on the business interests of the publisher (e.g., fund raising, sales, and events); that’s what an institutional blog is for. They also must not be limited to the published authors of one press or another. The focus of a disciplinary blog must rather be purely on ideas and dedicated to the discipline or topics of interest to the community at large. Scholarly presses that have blogs with an institutional focus (i.e., that post promotional announcements or limit themselves to only the ideas of the press’s published authors) will have to reconceive the blogs’ role in the press’s publishing strategy (engaging with the community) and/or launch a separate blog or blogs under topical branding and with the new focus.

- HBP/HBR blog posts are integrated with all other content offerings – the topical tags on HBP/HBR blog posts link to every other “chunk” of HBP/HBR informational products (e.g., journal articles, books, book chapters, online tools, cases, audio CDs). Many beneficial network effects of the HBP/HBR blogs use case stem from the centralized hosting of all HBP/HBR products and content. For similar benefits, scholarly presses with third-party hosting services may have additional planning to do to allow for similar, dynamic access.

Though this move would have many primary and ancillary benefits as well, one immediate effect would be to expand the platforms the publisher offers authors in a given discipline. Perhaps more importantly, such a new dis-intermediated platform would not have the delays associated with peer review and other traditional publishing platforms, thus, shortening the timeline from authorship to publication for the author, and undoing the unflattering correlation, for the publisher, with exclusively slow times to market and under-networked media.

Black Swan effects – inspecting the plumage
For these moves to be part of or give rise to a Black Swan they would have to lead to events that might ultimately change the game; so, what would some related fallout be: How could they be used?

1. To engage: Kathryn Fitzpatrick says in Planned Obsolescence (NYU Press, 2011): "We too often keep our work as scholars hidden away from the cultural mainstream, pointing toward a pervasive anti-intellectualism that disqualifies the public from engaging with our ideas." She urges that scholars seek open forums for their work to engage readers—who are increasingly called upon to fund the research. Such open forums and platforms as blogs would engage not only other scholars and but through sharing and open submission the public as well.

2. To delight: Marketing strategist, and frequent TED talk speaker, Seth Godin points out two things regularly in his work: ideas that spread win, and the best way to get people to spread your ideas is to be remarkable and delight them. Adding such expanded services and dis-intermediated platforms for scholars to work in would be remarkable.

3. To drive sales: Authors the of Spreadable Media (NYU Press, 2013) note that when publishers utilize spreadable forms they, in effect, turn each blogger, retweeter, sharer, reposter, and mashup person of Pinterest into sales reps; blog posts and conference events could be “spreadable” sales channels.

4. To close the loop: O’Reilly endorses “only investing in solutions that close the loop;” i.e., those that more completely address an organizing need or set of needs for your customers. With words like “trending” thriving in contemporary culture, traditional outputs of formal scholarly publication are increasingly over-and-done-with before they see their pub dates; publishers of traditional forms are not wrongly seen as presenting research that “happened,” in preparation for its entering the archival record. That worthy function notwithstanding, each of the above approaches expands the publisher’s role from covering what “happened” (after individual research is complete) to presenting what’s “happening” (in discussion at conferences and in open forums). If hosting the academic discussion, encouraging debate and the spreading and improving of ideas with and to the public, is the organizing need – rather than simply publishing research – than approaches like these could begin to close the loop.

Publishers working on the frontlines of research, in nearer to real time with scholars, and accessing a networked culture on its own terms to engage the public in dis-intermediated forums would constitute a broadening of the traditional role of the publisher in scholarly communications (for the better; W → S) and could therefore be seen as at least elemental of a game changer for scholarly publishers—giving rise to new strengths and new competitive frontiers.

In other words, though other moves and complementary business model components (the right exercise and nutrients) will be needed for maturity to be reached, our Ugly Black Ducklings could grow into a Black Swan for scholarly presses.

The above, is not intended to be an exhaustive explication of the latent potential in any of the conference sessions or business models referenced. It is not intended to prove beyond doubt or alteration that these extrapolations will be part of a looming Black Swan event or that academics are “allergic” to peer review, necessarily – any more than to suggest that scholarly presses are allergic to operating out from under it. Nor is it meant to prove what these speakers were imagining as likely and advisable next moves for scholarly publishers: e.g., it would be hard to say that disciplinary blogs, hosted by scholarly presses, was exactly what McCracken had in mind, back in the summer of 2011. That said; while I’m thinking of it, for any who are interested in McCracken’s work, his new book, Culturematic, came out in May of last year (HBP, 2012). He can be read on his blog (cultureby.com) and on the HBP/HBR Blog network; last seen at the time of this writing posting to the HBP/HBR blog on: “Is Timex Suffering the Early Stages of Disruption?”

Getting back to our Ugly Black Ducklings: their extrapolation into an alternate future for scholarly publishing – that hath such favorable creatures in it – is intended to illustrate and underscore the doubly-unrecognizable nature of what might lead to an unprecedented game changer; i.e., the fact that ideas presented at conferences or in case studies from other industries and markets may not seem fit in with the other ducklings of a publisher’s past strengths and traditional practices, does not disqualify them from the consideration and formation of viable future models. Rather, it qualifies them as potentially being part of game-changing, new revenue sources and platforms, which in turn could lead to more and better models and ultimately to a Black Swan for the home team. Therefore, such odd notions and left-field advice may be worthy of further reflection.

Dougherty, Peter J. (2013). “The Global University Press." Chronicle of Higher Education; (Accessed on July 5, 2013).

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. (2011) Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York, NY. NYU Press

Godin, Seth. (2009).Purple Cow, New Edition: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable. New York, NY. Portfolio Hardcover; Penguin USA.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. (2013) Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (Postmillennial Pop) New York, NY. NYU Press

Harvard Business Publications. Harvard Business Review Magazine, Case Studies, Articles, Books, Pamphlets – Harvard Business Review; (Accessed on July, 5, 2013).

Harvard Business Publications. “GUIDELINES FOR AUTHORS/HBR Blog Network.” (Accessed on July, 5, 2013).

O’Reilly Media, Inc. O’Reilly Media – Technology books, Tech conferences, IT Courses, News. http://oreilly.com/; (Accessed on July 5, 2013).

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. (2010) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: with a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility.” New York, NY. Random House Trade Paperbacks

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. (2012) Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. New York, NY. Random House Inc.


Scholars and Skate Punks: If the Vans Fit...

When refocusing these posts to include b-school coursework and case studies, I mentioned that scholarly press and especially u presses should read the HBR business case Vans: Skating on Air (Harvard Business School, 2002).

Vans (the company) is a great example of the lateral thinking many companies use to develop new businesses (plural) and several-fold new revenue, from a single core expertise/product/brand; the HBR case is a great study of how a discrete brand can be leveraged and expanded to stage a major turnaround and spur new products, new revenue, and new businesses.

Yes, I'm equating scholars with surfers and skate punks. They will be flattered.

And, yes, I'm suggesting u presses have something to learn from what was once a one-model, mono-coastal, skate shoe company, Vans.

THE CASE: A few things will leap out on any reading:

1. Vans was built on the simple model of delivering skate and surf gear for hardcore skaters and surfers: a handful of products for a small, dedicated market. Though Vans moved out to new markets and new models, they maintained that key, strategic commitment (to the best extreme athletes).

2. By the time of the case, Vans grew to finance a major movie (Dogtown and Z-Boys), narrated by Sean Penn, to sponsor extreme sporting events (triple crown of surfing) and other alternative events (concerts), to open their own skate parks, and begin developing video games.

3. A truly tiny percentage of total domestic revenue came from sales of its key product (extreme sports apparel) to its core demographic (extreme athletes), in specialty skate shops: 10%. Most of its apparel revenue came from sales of less-than-professional versions sold to kids in the suburbs, and large amounts of revenue come from the above various "cultural" events or side products.

4. Most importantly, as may be news to some, Vans had been dying. It staged a 540 degree turnaround, fueled mainly by the extensions into new areas beyond the skate shoe market; e.g., the triple-crown sporting events, music concerts.

Vans leveraged its brand (operational license in extreme sports and with the youth market the followed them) to move into new areas, and in turn these new areas led to growth that allowed Vans to stay in business -- and even to grow to serve its original core market better than ever. The wealth and health of all the other business (e.g., skate parks, extreme sporting events, concerts, a record label, film production, video game development) allowed Vans to over-serve the hardcore surfing and skating markets and to sponsor star athletes as they reach new heights in their discipline -- a market so specialized that serving it alone would not generate enough revenue to support the effort.

THE COMPARISON: For years (100+), scholarly publishers have sold books; they grew beyond books (once) to offer journals. Now, with new initiatives like UPPC and Project Muse, u presses are repackaging and delivering these core products differently; but, these initiatives aren't new businesses, just new modes of delivery.

More businesses could be grown alongside the development and delivery of scholarly content, ones that leverage the historic strength/s of u presses and serve new needs not only among the "extreme" market base of academics, but also among those who would be fans and amateurs of culture.

E.g., would it be an unacceptable stretch for presses to publish blogs for scholars and dedicated readers to access (dedicated to a discipline or subject); i.e., not a press blog -- of which there are many (one for each press) -- but a disciplinary or topical blog published by a u press -- of which there are none ...yet.

Much, much more importantly...

What new businesses could u presses build that would be as distant from yet supportive of scholarship as skate parks, surfing tournaments, and a record label are from and of a simple skate shoe?

THE POINT: The point of this extreme comparison is not to make a recommendation/s -- we'll save that for another post or two -- the point is to note that in many industries, especially where growth and increasing revenue are needed, considerable lateral thinking and experimentation is put forth to build new business units, entirely new business units, and these new units are often what keep the company and the brand alive.

Scholarly publishers are doing great things to monetize content; but, even if it were enough to support scholarship -- which it currently is not -- why stop there? Why not explore growth into new arenas?


R. Barthes on branding the u press network - conclusion

One path to branding is:

attributes -> points of difference (PODs) -> sustainable competitive distinctiveness.

...with generous amounts of narrative and myth-making thrown in.

This series of posts reviewed a number of attributes of u presses:

Arm’s length = tied to research institutions but not beholden to them
Ameliorative = increasing the communicative power (impact) of texts
Multidisciplinary = rendering arguments across the disciplines
Premium (and Open) Access = impact-driven; market-facing
Active in the marketplace = impact-driven; market-facing

Let's add two to these that may seem obvious, aspirational or historic:

Future-facing = being the source of forthcoming, original work
Not for profit = non-commercial
Hosting the academic discussion = res ipsa loquitur; however, less loudly than res used to

Let's also add a salient, unique asset that is nearly a corollary of some attributes above:

University and faculty-facing = on a collegial basis with most scholarly authors and their institutions

Choosing from among these attributes or adding to them further to make up a list of leverage-able points of difference (PODs) -- on which to position or brand -- can be complicated. You'd have to decide which strategic Other (category of competitor) was the most important to position against; PODs might change for each, and if you choose more than one strategic Other, you'd have to select varying attributes for different reasons.

For example:

A) To position against Commercial publishing houses, u presses could stress/leverage their Not-for-profit status and their being on a collegial basis with most scholarly authors and their institutions, University and faculty-facing.

B) To position against (or as complementary to) Libraries, u presses should stress/leverage their being Future-facing and Active in the marketplace (public facing).

C) To position against Amazon/Google, u presses should stress/leverage their being on a collegial basis with most scholarly authors and their institutions, University and faculty-facing and further stress and leverage their Not-for-profit status.

D) To position against (or as complementary to) Authors, u presses might stress/leverage their being Multidisciplinary and their Hosting the academic discussion.

Who should u presses position against (or seek to complement) in the changing landscape? Commercial publishing houses? Amazon/Google? Libraries? Authors? Each of these strategic Others has increasing publishing resources at its disposal and together (in aggregate, not conspiracy) they can and will wipe out large swaths of demand for publishing services, unless u presses can assert a brand with sustainable competitive distinctiveness -- in the eyes of the beholder.

The answer, of course, is: E ) All of the above.

The best play for the u press network will be to brand on all of the attributes and assets listed in competitive examples A through D: they need to leverage their Not-for-profit status and their being on a collegial basis with most scholarly authors and their institutions or University and faculty-facing; their being Future-facing and Active in the marketplace (public facing); and their being Multidisciplinary and their Hosting the academic discussion to strategically align with Authors and Libraries and even Google/Amazon and position against Commercial publishing houses.

Many of these potential brand attributes go without saying; e.g., Not-for-profit and Multidisciplinary . However, they are strategically moribund; they provide strategic upsides that could be leveraged to significant and lasting advantage.

The most important attributes for u presses to successfully project going forward (i.e., the things that u presses will benefit most from being seen as unimpeachably owning in the eyes of the beholder in the next few decades) will be Future-facing and Hosting the academic discussion -- i.e., what's happening now everywhere, rather than what has happened here and there of note. The u press network's ownership of these characteristics (operational license) is often questioned. If the network can shore up its collective brand in these two key areas, it will improve/secure its sustainable competitive distinctiveness into the future and therefore the lot of all u presses.


The SWOT that Roared — The 3 Strategic Business Units of a Scholarly Book Publisher

An academic press has three main customer-facing business centers—where goods or services are traded with an external party for a return. 1. Acquisitions (acquiring rights to authored content — B2C), 2. Channel Sales and Licensing (deriving revenue from authored content through third parties — B2B), and 3. Direct-to-consumer Sales (deriving revenue from authored content and rights to authored content through direct sales to an end user; e.g., author events, conferences, via “mail order,” fax, telephone, and on the web — B2C). These 3 Strategic Business Units (SBUs) are unique; they have different answers to fundamental questions such as: What do they sell? To whom? And how do they sell it?

It’s important to hold units with separate customers, markets, and approaches to markets apart (at least sometimes in our thinking). Each will have separate Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT). Each will have separate Points of Difference (PODs) and Points of Parity (POPs) with its competitors in its category. Each will have its own changing landscape — meaning that the SWOT, POPs, and PODs are changing in different ways and at different rates for each. Most importantly: Large SBUs will eclipse the needs of smaller SBUs — resulting in lost opportunities for the org.

Since new opportunities and threats emerge at “times of their own choosing,” successful orgs continually review SWOT, POPs, and PODs for each unit to defend against and capitalize on threats and opportunities before (and/or in step with) the competition.

Acquisitions – SWOT Events

The Acquisitions SBU trades developmental, publishing, and/or distribution services for rights to authored content. Customers are authors and other publishing houses (e.g., co-publishing, translation, and distribution agreements). A salient change in the Acquisitions landscape is the explosion of alternatives. Authors can publish in a huge number of new journals — mostly at commercial houses; they can publish in an increasing number of OA platforms; and, they can publish themselves through Social Media (SM) platforms, or directly with prior channel partners (E.g., Amazon). This explosion changes the game, it isn’t going away, it is growing and certain competitors (Amazon and SM) are accelerating in their offerings of alternative publishing solutions.

Acquisitions SBUs need to position against these alternatives as competitively distinct and as “a better choice,” for at least some segment of the market. In the past, Scholarly Publishers only had to position against Commercial Houses. PODs were clear and, more importantly, they were static. Now, with the changing landscape, houses must protect against both the explosion of alternatives and the future.

A publishing program itself (the titles under contract and those that have gone before) is its own best representative—followed by a publisher’s presence at conferences, in the world (author events and traditional media), and on the web. The website is key “storefront” for the Acquisitions SBU to tout its publishing services and past accomplishments. The “online bookstore” is a display of both of its marketing efforts (on behalf of its authors) and the breadth of past, current, and future titles. The blog is a vital new tool for drawing attention to all of the above with past and potential Acquisitions customers (would-be authors).

Acquisitions – Consortia Solutions

In the university press ranks, we have examples of whole presses merging to form consortia publishing houses: sharing resources and markets to achieve economies of scale. e.g., U.P.N.E. and Colorado University Press.

More recently, and more intriguingly, ad hoc collaborative publishing projects (Mellon-funded) have also been explored between several groups of autonomous houses. Examples include: South Asia Across the Disciplines, First Peoples, Early American Places, and the American Literatures Initiative. Herein, a new series of book projects was fielded by a group of houses working together to form an ad hoc virtual consortium.

In each of the Mellon-funded projects, houses committed to working on one series, in an underserved area of the humanities—specifically, in areas where the houses weren’t receiving enough projects separately to field a list on their own. In effect, they took on a new list and partnered on marketing and design. Acquisitions were carried out separately.

These Mellon-funded virtual consortia have benefited scholarship greatly; the series would likely not have been started without the seed money form Mellon and collaborative support from partner presses. In the end, these underserved areas of the Humanities were given world-class publishing support. But, did the houses benefit?

Partner houses were able to take on something they wouldn’t have been able to take on otherwise, but it brought with it many new challenges and did not lighten their existing editorial load. One wonders if “a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B” might also be worth a try.

Could existing segments of Acquisitions programs at a number of houses, all serving the same market segment (discipline) but at a less-than-dominant position, partner to present themselves to that market segment in similar fashion, to achieve a greater presence and greater returns (while in fact lightening their fiscal load)?

Channel Sales and Licensing – SWOT Events

The Channel Sales and Licensing SBU brokers relationships with vendors, aggregators, agents, distributors, other publishers (e.g., electronic publishing, reprints, and course packs) for the ongoing distribution of finished content or rights and permission to use content through their platforms, channels, and services in exchange for a reduced rate (discount), royalty, fee, or permission to add fees to later sales. A major change here is the collapse of the vendors and channel partners market for print sales. The number of individual book stores has dropped significantly, and major players have consolidated. Additionally, total sales of books across the sector have dropped, just as journals subscriptions collapsed in years prior.

Channel Sales and Licensing must do its best to expand remaining network and replace lost channels. As above, presence at trade shows (sales conferences), use of the Publisher’s website, “online bookstore,” and blog are all key communication tools. However, the decreasing number of vendors calls for more than communications can offer.

Channel Sales and Licensing – Consortia Solutions

Several consortia solutions have been fielded here to respond to changes in the Channel Sales and Licensing SBU landscape, primarily in the licensing and aggregation space. Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) was an early-moving third-party solution that stepped in to provide the stone for the stone soup of centralized rights and permissions clearance for presses and authors alike. In similar fashion, JHUP stepped in to build Project Muse for scholarly presses, aggregating journals content into topical “bundles” for libraries to buy under a subscription model — simplifying acquisitions and payments for libraries and returning lost revenue from many years of declining journal subscriptions to publishers. UPCC is a new consortia-based solution, built by JHUP and others, to provide similar aggregation and ease to the sale of electronic university-press-based book content to libraries (and hopefully lost revenue from many years of declining book sales to publishers). No attempt has been made to reclaim lost channel sales, from the collapse in the number of book stores (online and brick and mortar), with a consortia solution, as of yet.

The Tiniest of SBUs: Direct-to-consumer Sales – SWOT Events

Direct-to-consumer Sales include sales of print and electronic copies of books and rights (translations and course packs) to individual end users. These sales at author events, conferences, via “mail order,” fax, and telephone (later email and Skype), wouldn’t really have been profitably isolated and considered as an SBU, traditionally speaking, as most all events were ad hoc: intermittent, short-lived and limited to a tiny minority of the org’s offerings. With the advent of the web, however, presses put out their full-list sales shingles for all print and electronic copies and all rights 24/7—all around the world.

This is a fascinating development.

A) Since the offerings are comprehensive and supported by ongoing operations, it must be considered a sustaining unit of the org and can’t be left out of strategic thinking. So, the move represents the birth of a new SBU! (That is a sizable development, for what some consider a traditionally-minded industry.) B) What’s it for exactly? C) Way more importantly …what could it be?

There’s a lot happening on an academic publisher’s website. Both other SBUs have a presence on it. As mentioned: For Acquisitions, it’s a major storefront for touting its publishing services and showcasing the results of its wares, in the “online bookstore.” For Channel Sales and Licensing, likewise, it’s a showcase and source of contact information for potential vendors, agents, and partners.

Holding Acquisitions and Channel Sales units apart (from other publishers' websites) on an isolated single-publisher or dedicated website makes some sense—for the larger and older SBUs—but, does it make optimal or really any kind of sense for the new kid on the block, Direct-to-consumer Sales?

SWOT analysis for the Direct-to-consumer Sales SBU with respect to the web is one word long: Amazon. By comparison, that word describes the potential Strengths and Opportunities as well as the current Weakness and Threats of, for, and to online Direct-to-consumer Sales for scholarly presses.

We know from the success of Amazon and our own experiences as online shoppers, browsers, and researchers that end users want more to choose from, rather than less; they want platforms that approach one-stop shopping. Aggregate websites enjoy many times the traffic of balkanized sites. Academic presses have participated in consortia solutions, to offer content to libraries, for the same reasons: customers prefer more choice and greater access. We also know, by comparison to Amazon and Barnes & Nobles, academic publishers’ websites are not small; they are microscopic.

Holding Direct-to-consumer Sales sites apart, exclusively as one-publisher’s wares websites, restricts exposure to the market and therefore restricts revenue for the Direct-to-consumer Sales SBU and publisher. To answer the Q above: What is it for exactly? A: The online bookstore on a publisher’s website, as it stands, is mainly functioning as showcase for the publishing-services wares of acquisitions (to encourage folks to submit new projects) and to entice vendors to contact a press representative: it’s a visual aide for the other two SBUs.

Direct-to-consumer Sales – Consortia Solutions

To answer the other Q above: What could it be? A: It could be more. New SBUs need time to grow and mature to support their other SBUs in new ways. Simply replicating the Direct-to-consumer Sales portions of scholarly publishers’ websites together on one dedicated site (though there are many better things that can and would be done with it) would give the publishers’ Direct-to-consumer Sales unit access to far greater traffic and allow them to give growth a try.

As Joe Esposito well notes in his frequent supports for such a move, it would yield access to valuable data among other things. It would also provide a well-trafficked, shared platform for value-added services and new business opportunities (new models). I’d also point out that for the Channel Sales and Licensing SBU, which has lost so many major partners (e.g., Borders), it would provide a major new, freestanding vendor for the their titles — which is no small matter. And for the Acquisitions SBUs, across all participating scholarly publishing houses, that are facing an explosion of alternatives to the publishing services they offer, it would provide the single most comprehensive showcase of the strength, breadth, and depth of their collective publishing programs.

It would be like a year-round University Press week, highlighting what it means to publish with established and laurelled academic houses. It is all about the company you keep.

As mentioned above, the event of scholarly presses moving out onto the web to host their own, individual online “bookstore” sites was and is a fascinating development. Technically, when this happened, they forward integrated into the marketplace to compete with their own partners and other online retailers (most notably, Amazon). To reiterate: each academic publisher’s standalone “bookstore” website currently completes for sales and customers with Amazon.

Now that the ground has been taken and held, the move begs at least two questions: why would you do such a thing, and why stop there?

Way back in 2005, Seth Godin described what he called the “local max” and the “big max.” These notions could provide some explanation; big maxes are much bigger but further away from local maxes and often across a span of risky ground that is lower than the local max. Many firms stay put at local maxes because they’re currently-held ground and familiar. His point brings a Russian proverb to mind: “He, who doesn't risk, never gets to drink champagne.” They serve champagne at the big max.


Firms review SBUs out of context from one another, from time to time, to examine each unit’s opportunities and threats on their own merits; to be sure each unit is taking best advantage of the terrain. As terrains are always changing, it’s important to “make the rounds” regularly to imagine and discover new opportunities and later to exploit them in the order of greatest strategic value — especially important to make moves that give or will likely give rise to new opportunities. Only then can you be sure that a firm’s SBUs are working in concert with one another to the greatest collective advantage of the organization.

University Presses are hotbeds of experimentation these days. Scholarly publishers are moving smartly to explore consortia (scale-able) solutions for each of their longstanding SBUs. The relatively new Direct-to-consumer Sales SBU has yet to be tested at scale and is well positioned, perhaps best of the three, for life on the web (where scale lives).

As examples of what scale can do: Mashable and Pinterst and Twitter didn’t exist a few years ago (Amazon ‘didn’t exist’ a few years before that). Each has many millions of users now fulfilling needs they didn’t know they had in ways they never knew they would.

It's easy to imagine strategic investment in consortia solutions for the tiniest SBU of a scholarly publisher resulting in similar upticks in exposure to university press-developed books, journals, and accomplishments.


Traditional focus on the larger SBUs at a scholarly publishing house is holding the customer-facing, Direct-to-consumer Sales SBU back from its potential by keeping it tied to an individuated site. This is especially true for university presses; most of which will not draw enough traffic for this unit to be independently viable. The growth potential for a consortium-based solution for the customer-facing SBU is better than that of an average press site.

We would expect university presses to expand their reach and profits through an investment in a consortia based customer-facing website.


Managerial Accounting thru the I's of the Other

In addition to deeply thought provoking and insightful, Jacques Lacan is hilarious. If you haven’t spent some time with his works, I highly recommend it! He’s constantly cracking inside jokes of language and is wonderfully obsessed with Freud. He’s the Woody Allen of French theorists.

Freud was a systemic thinker. His theories were rigid, interdependent, and all had to add up to the bottom line of his overarching thinking — usually tying out to your mother and/or father in some rigidly unpleasant way.

Lacan was a Freudian, but what he did with and for Freud was, in a way, anti-Freudian. Lacan reclaimed Freud’s work by treating it as metaphorical rather than literal. The rapport of elements within the system was more important than their absolute value or nominative location. To reference the thinking of another noted Frenchman, it was as if he said there’s “truthiness” to Freud’s thinking; so, let’s not dismiss it entirely without first taking another look at it — looking at it sideways and in broad stokes (letting lines blur to the abstract) might yield new structures and give rise to alternate understanding, and indeed it did.

Lacan reified Freud’s truthiness. His work yielded insights well beyond superficial readings of story and character (of the subject and her family) to the deeper structures of the making of meaning in society: the very building blocks of understanding.

Lacan : Freud : : Managerial Accounting : Financial Accounting

Financial Accounting (FA) is what we all grew up with (and what many believe is the full story of accounting) with debits and credits and everything adding up to the red or the black bottom line. FA = Bean Counting. There are two versions of FA in an organization, Tax Accounting (for for-profits forms) and Balance Sheet Accounting (for everyone). One version breaks down financial transactions to assess the taxable change/s in value over a period. The other version breaks down financial transactions to assess change/s in overall value over the period. Both are purely interested in …financial transactions.

Managerial Accounting (MA) may be the best kept secret in modern bidness. It is strategic and it is not at all interested in counting beans. It is metaphorical, subjunctive (i.e., future-facing and what if…? in nature), and as a result IMHO Humanities Majors probably have a greater ability to grasp the thinking behind it than most CPA-style accountants — which is pretty huge.

One downside – the results of MA are useless to FA purposes, so it must be undertaken adjunct to FA duties. The upside/s – MA tools, once built, are brilliantly useful to managers!!!

The contextual recipe for profitability

It’s a shame, but understandable, that accountants often get a bum rap in the humanities. Many loss-leaders are needed to find one gem. Humanities majors (who probably dated painters, poets, and band members in college) will get this. A Financial Accountant will blow a gasket when multiple loss-leaders (financial losers) hit the books. This alone will set many humanities and FA folks at odds.

MA, on the other hand, can take loss-leaders and almost any “fuzzy logic” that you can describe into account — in fact, creative application of MA tools such as Activity Based Costing analysis can reveal not only what prices would support projects of a certain type and maintain success for a firm (or describe and defend needs for subventions), but with the help of a little FA and modeling it can also reveal how many must be undertaken in the next season specifically (of each type, selling at varying rates, and into uncertain markets, and given the ongoing performance of the last several lists, back- and mid-) to give rise to the increasing overarching success of the firm — with that success being defined as progress toward any number goals (financial and/or missionary).

In a word, Managerial Accounting reifies bean-counting's truthiness. It yields insights beyond superficial readings of the bottom line (of debits and credits with respect to the budget) of what happened yesterday in the business to the deeper structures of creating and adding value in society, how the firm can contribute more to the top line in a meaningful and lasting way on into the future: the very building blocks of profitability.

Perhaps most importantly, MA tools can be used to illustrate (to the more FA-minded members of staff) that the firm is in fact right on track and making the desired progress toward its broadly agreed-upon goals when that next wave loss-leaders or seasonal slumps in sales hits the books — so those discussions don’t have to begin again.

Admittedly, though they are pretty simple to master, Lacan’s concepts can seem complicated to get a hold of the first time you see them. Likewise, MA tools can seem complicated to build when you look them over, though in the end, as with most things, they’re not.

Lacan is hilarious and highly recommended, but I've found MA reading thoroughly enlightening as well. I'd say add some to your wish list, and even if you don't ever get to it, it's worth keeping in mind that there is another kind of accounting out there, a future-facing accounting, for measuring the strategic potential for the creation of value (financial and/or missionary) by a firm beyond the typical postmortem approach of an FA breakdown of how value was destroyed (and should rather be destroyed less--duh) in the comparisons of budgets with debits and credits.