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How Not to Be an Absentee Landlord: Tales of #alpspdisruption

24th March 2015
By Phill Jones
Being a landlord has always been an unpopular yet profitable position (until it isn’t)

Last week, I chaired and also spoke at a seminar called Disruption, Development and Divestment, that was organized by ALPSP in London. The purpose of the seminar was to explore issues in both technology and business innovation, to ask if the industry is currently fit for purpose and discuss how we might future-proof it.

Academic publishers have been worried about being disrupted for some time now. The dueling fears that open access is not sustainable and that there may no longer be potential for growth in subscription revenue keep publishers awake at night (the latter has been a worry since even before the Big Deal was developed). The slow, lingering death of print news media and the repeated shake-ups in the music industry have driven many to wonder if academic publishing is next. Despite these fears, the industry seems remarkably robust. Mark Ware (@mrkwr), who gave the second presentation of the day, pointed out that the size of the academic publishing industry continues to grow by 2-3% per year and that even the recent great recession caused only a temporary slowing.

In such an apparently recession-proof industry, it would be easy to become complacent. That would be a mistake. Many learned societies are struggling with loss of revenue from falling memberships and increasingly tough competition in the subscription market, with ongoing industry consolidation continuing to threaten to push smaller players out of the market. The question then becomes not whether the industry itself will survive but what will be the characteristics of the companies that continue to thrive?

Richard Padley(@rd_pad), who is the CEO of Semantico, was the first speaker last week and set the question up. Referring to an article from the MIT school of management, Padley offered a framework (shown in figure 2 of the article) for looking at business models. According to this model, there are individual combinations of 4 asset types (financial, physical, intangible and human), with 4 sets of rights for sale (creator, distributor, landlord and broker). It’s all a bit academic but the upshot is that the traditional publishing business model is a combination of intangible asset and landlord, a square that is called IP landlord on the grid. Long standing market trends are making sales of licensed content increasingly challenging; collections budgets remain flat, while the total amount of content continues to rise. The obvious response is to explore neighboring squares for ways to diversify and build revenue.

The challenge with being a landlord is that as anybody who has ever rented an apartment will atest, landlords aren’t under a lot of pressure to offer a good user experience. As if in response to that observation, much of the rest of disruption seminar was focused on how to get to grips with end-user needs and turn those needs into new products and services.

Marlo Harris presented a case study describing how Wiley had integrated end-user feedback into the design of their anywhere article product. Wiley wanted to make the full-text html page more attractive to end-users, keep them on-platform, and better present the tools and features that Wiley have developed. Wiley took the time to really listen to the reasons that users give for abandoning the HTML page, starting with this thread on Quora. Wiley stripped out all the clutter and added functionality that users actually wanted based on real feedback. The project was a success and end-users see anywhere article as a huge improvement. One of the things that Wiley learned, however, was that although some end-users wanted a cleaner, more functional HTML, many also wanted a PDF version as well. In response, Wiley partnered with ReadCube to enable the PDF version to offer similar functionality to the HTML, essentially attacking the problem from both sides. If there was something that Harris thought that they could have done better, it was to find a way to quickly iterate designs before too much effort had been invested. 

Enter Alex Humphreys (@abhumphreys), head of JSTOR labs, who showed us how to do just that. JSTOR’s fiercely lean, flash-build approach is based on rapid prototyping followed by direct feedback from potential users. How rapid is rapid? Well Humphreys and his team were demoing prototypes, in a campus coffee shop, the day after they’d been put together.

So where does that leave us? The scholarly publishing industry seems remarkably secure, but as the events of last year make painfully clear, that doesn’t mean that everybody in it is. The companies that will thrive in the new digital economy will not rely on being an absentee information landlord, as Padley says, but will actively innovate to better serve the needs of their users. Many companies are already doing just that, learning how to listen to end-users and provide the types of innovation and value that they need. It is the innovative companies that are prepared to throw out old assumptions and adapt to new market needs that will thrive.

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