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.