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.