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The importance of publisher partnerships in digital monograph publishing

February 5, 2013


Authored by Niko Pfund - President, OUP USA

The recent past has forced university presses to confront some basic truths that may be uncomfortable for academic publishers:

  • Relatively few readers are much concerned with the publisher of a book. The subject matters, the author matters, the writing and presentation matters, but the publisher doesn’t matter to many. Presses of course develop identities in specific scholarly communities and so imprints *do* matter in specific disciplines but this is a distinction lost on most general readers and on students.
  • Many academic publishers serve their mission in similar ways. The work university presses do tends not to vary dramatically from press to press. Our review processes are similar in that we solicit anonymous pre-publication reviews from academic experts to help guide our decision-making. We are beholden to a board of scholars who help us assess individual projects and guide our overall strategy. We market in similar ways, to overlapping constituencies. We approach the same review outlets for publicity attention. We sell to the same accounts. This is in no way to diminish the distinctive contributions of the attentive editor or the creative marketer or the imaginative designer. They are all key aspects of a press’s identity. But overall our general approach and our tactics as university press publishers have a lot in common with one another.
  • We’ve all struggled with the transition from being print publishers to being mixed-media, print and digital publishers: Where should we invest? With whom should we partner? How can we best position ourselves vis-à-vis non-traditional competitors? Do we possess the necessary skillsets? How can we best develop these? How can we invest in all the backoffice systems our increasingly fragmented sales and distribution universe demands? How can we keep doing all the things we’ve always done—and which our authors and readers tell us they continue to value, greatly—while also finding the resources to position ourselves for the future? These are questions publishers face every day.
  • In order to do all that we are now asked to do, we need to find efficiencies, to do our jobs and fulfill our mission more economically.

When Oxford University Press was anticipating its possible digital futures in 2001 and 2002, we concluded that Oxford was one of the few university presses of sufficient size and breadth to merit an investment in a single-publisher scholarly monograph platform. And so, in late 2003, after many debates, well over a year of development, and with great anticipation, we launched Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO). 

The reviews were strong from its launch but OSO took about 18 months to catch on. Australia, with its technophilic library community, embraced the platform first, while the American market resisted our initial subscription model and demanded more diversified purchasing options. Working closely with our library partners, we adjusted the OSO offering, and soon it thrived. Today it is one of our most successful online undertakings, with over 1,000 subscribers ranging from Further and Higher Education institutions, public libraries, and schools worldwide.

The next decade saw both a Cambrian explosion of new enterprises and models in higher education and simultaneously a great consolidation in three arenas:  book retail, commercial publishing, and online search.  During that time, the competitive business landscape for academic publishers changed dramatically, even as the basic parameters of our work have remained the same: we work with authors to help them publish the best possible work to the widest possible audience.   And the struggle to keep up, to do more while running in place as fast as we can, has only become more challenging, one of the many things academic librarians and university presses have in common.

By 2010, it was becoming increasingly evident that OSO was so well-established that it made sense to open up the platform to other presses.  And so University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO) was born. By sharing with our university press partners not only the OSO platform but also the processes and workflows that it took years to develop and perfect, we wanted simultaneously to offer a concentration of the highest-quality university press content and also to give university presses a leg up as they set about transforming themselves.

While there are of course an ever-growing number of information portals for scholars, librarians, and students these days, UPSO’s vetted scholarship, consistent quality, abstracts-and-keyword supplements, and user-friendly platform set it apart. Whereas once there were a relative paucity of online distribution options for university presses, today there are several digital aggregators and multi-publisher platforms via which presses can reach their readers. Few, if any, however offer the librarian support, the functionality, the dynamism, and the customer service that University Press Scholarship Online provides.
 


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