Q&A with Barbara Meyers Part 2: The Future of Scholarly Publishing – Changes, Challenges, and Advice
Below is the second instalment to a Q&A I did with long-standing friend and industry stalwart Barbara Meyers Ford.
In the first part of Barbara Meyers Ford’s Q&A, we learnt about her passion for science and communication and her career trajectory which includes vast experience in the publishing arena. We heard about her early experiences of how computers began to change working practices, and how new technologies gradually became applied to the publishing process. We also found out how she became one of the early organizing founders of the SSP (the Society for Scholarly Publishing).
In Part 2, we’ll learn more about her career and hear her expert thoughts on the future of scholarly publishing, including valuable advice for new people coming into the industry.
The part of my career of which I am most proud is the fact that since consulting on an independent basis (Meyers Consulting Services celebrates its 33rd anniversary this coming September) I have been able to provide learned societies, research institutes, and university presses with extended professional bandwidth. Certainly I’ve been delighted to have worked as well with commercial publishers and companies serving the publishing community. But, as you read in Part 1, my roots are with the not-for-profit organizations in this world. They often need expertise or an extra set of experienced hands to reach marketing, new product development, or strategic goals. Whenever I work with clients (of any type) I work towards making them self-reliant, teaching staff about the why’s behind what we are doing not just the how’s.
What are your thoughts about the future of scholarly publishing and the biggest challenges it faces?
There are two distinct sets of challenges we need to recognize: challenges that exist from as far back as when we first started using computers as tools in the publishing process and challenges that have come about in the last decade or so.
“I think one of the biggest challenges publishing faces is the need to recognize it is no longer the center of the information universe”
At the risk of bruising a few egos among those who consider themselves industry leaders, I think one of the biggest challenges publishing faces is the need to recognize it is no longer the center of the information universe. It means changing our mindsets from being the lead to a supporting role in a larger production. And this is true not just for scholarly publishing, but all types of publishing. As Holly Peterson noted in a recent article about the closing of the Four Seasons restaurant in NYC: “The ‘70s and ‘80s were heavy on publishing … In the ‘90s it was Wall Street that commandeered the best tables. In this century, as the Internet took hold, there were fewer editors and more captains of industry and glad-handing politicians.” (Source: “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Place Again” Town & Country May 2016)
We see this change all around us with movements such as self-publishing, changes in copyright (with CC licenses developing a variety of flavors and international rights organizations becoming more collaborative), open access, open science, along with access issues addressed through technical means such as CHORUS, the CrossRef family of services, DOIs, and ORCID to name a few in alphabetical order.
But more than anything, I make this observation based on seeing how our publishing world has become more populated as technology’s role on a global scale becomes more ubiquitous. Each time I open my email there are names I haven’t seen before from companies that are either new, have launched in the last decade, or are the offspring of M&As. New technologies are a part of the young professional’s landscape … but even they have to keep up or are at risk of being left behind.
“publishers need to get over losing good people once they are trained”
Recognizing that people will have several jobs (if not careers) in their lives, publishers need to get over losing good people once they are trained. If publishers can match or better a new job offer that’s great. They might keep someone an extra few years. I came on board at the ACS planning a two-year stint to develop the User Studies Program. I ended up staying five years because of the challenges before moving on to become Research Manager at the Chamber of Commerce of the US. But the days of people joining an organization and staying for decades are waning. *Unless* a few basic concepts are put in place: a definite career ladder that means more than just title changes; an opportunity to grow with new responsibilities and at the right time the authority necessary to carry them out; a well-funded innovative professional development program; and senior managers with backgrounds not just to do their jobs but having solid knowledge of the jobs of staff they supervise. Promoting from within will serve publishers well, versus drawing in folks from outside to take over top spots.
Sure, there are times when *old wood* needs to be jettisoned, but don’t count out the young birch that has been growing so well in your own backyard. Fully developed trees can be costly and they don’t always survive transplanting.
Can you tell me a little about the George Washington University publishing course you helped run, and type of people you have seen come through the program?
First of all, many will remember that George Washington University (GWU) had a certificate program in desktop publishing roughly 25 years ago. Our current degree program dates back to only 2005 and came about when the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (UVA) decided to end its certificate program in book publishing. There was a movement in many universities at that time to end certificate programs and focus on formal graduate degree programs.
Beverly Jane Loo, founder and director of the UVA certificate program in book publishing, moved her program into the GWU College of Professional Studies as a Masters in Publishing in 2005. Dr. Arnold Grossblat took over as director with Cohort 3 and has evolved a core curriculum that according to the program’s homepage, “integrates traditional print with electronic publishing topics, including editorial acquisitions, production and design, copyright law in print and cyberspace, marketing, distribution, management, and business.” Graduate programs in less-than-traditional disciplines take more than a decade to find their place and I think GWU’s is no exception.
I have been an adjunct professor (along with many others) in the program and have taught a series of different courses which students take in their second year of the program. This is when they select an area of specialization (Cohorts 1-3) or a track (Cohorts 4-10). In the beginning I taught courses in:
- Professional & Scholarly Publishing (all disciplines/all formats),
- Professional & STM Journal Publishing, and
- STM Publishing Online.
Since Cohort 4 I have taught students in the Editorial Track: my courses included Managing Editorial Staff (taught with Judy Holoviak), Editing Books and Journals (taught with Philippa Benson), and for the last three years Editing Books, Journals, and Electronic Products (solo, covering all types of publishers and disciplines). I have been guest lecturer in the Year 1 course Introduction to Book and Journal Publishing, first for Dean Smith and then David Sampson, and look forward to continuing that for years to come.
Listening to the career goals of students entering the second year of their masters program, I find that more than half come into the program with a rather narrow perspective on publishing. Many want to be trade book acquisition editors; not surprising when that is probably the most visible type of publishing to readers. And they all cite their love of reading as being the impetus for their desire to work in publishing. But going through an academic degree program in our profession a significant number find their interests, skills, and talents often align with other opportunities they hardly knew existed. Learning about journals, magazines, reference works, and specialized digital information sources as well as society and commercial publishers plus university presses shines a light on areas such as professional and scholarly publishing they might never have noticed. It is especially exciting when students comment that they think copy editing or marketing or management might be an area they want to pursue after graduation and they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so before entering the program.
Do you have any advice for new people coming into the industry (I still recall the great advice you gave me to get involved with SSP’s volunteer annual meeting committee)
I would recommend embracing these 9 key concepts (plus 1 invitation):
1. Be open to every opportunity to learn a new part of your organization …don’t say no to anything you are asked to do.
For many raised on the concept of a relatively equal work/life balance saying yes to new tasks might upset that goal just a bit. But it’s not going to be that way your entire career. Soon enough you’ll be more focused within the industry and opportunities to experience a variety of activities and learn several parts of the process won’t be as frequent.
2. Use your “honeymoon” period in every new job to ask questions, lots of questions.
Take advantage of being the new kid on the block to learn about all sorts of things and most importantly being able to ask “why.”
3. Be an eclectic reader in publishing.
Don’t just focus on things immediately applicable to what you do. If you are in trade books don’t miss good articles about what university press book folks are doing. Explore what’s going on in conference proceedings, handbooks, and the STEAM book world. [Aside: STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics.] And don’t just stick to your step in the process …. Editors should read about marketing and vice versa. See how you can engage and contribute to other parts of the process.
4. Be an even more eclectic reader in everything else.
Are you on course for a supervisory, middle or senior management position? Read articles from Inc.com, HBR, and other great sources of information regarding not just how to be a good manager, but a manager who is a good team player.
5. Think about the hamlet you now live in. Always think of ways to give back. Place #1: Associations’ and Societies’ committees and task forces.
Recognizing that publishing relies on intellectual property as its cornerstone, you need to have more going for you than just a love of reading. Subject knowledge, analytical skills, specialized expertise, technology experience are the kinds of critical attributes required to make a place for yourself in publishing. Publishing as a whole, but most especially non-trade publishing, isn’t a big place like other industries on the planet. In fact, I often refer to scholarly publishing as a hamlet (the smallest unit of government in England … yes, even smaller than a village). As Adrian commented, you can be competing with someone in one decade and working closely with that person in the next. Therefore relationships matter a great deal. We tend to make professional friendships that last lifetimes. Recognizing this early in your career is important.
Given how important relationships are, you would do yourself well to examine all the various organizations that serve our industry and start with one closest to your current area. It’s important to remember that if you “take from the land, give back to the land.” And the best way to do that is through service via one of the several associations and societies. I hesitate to provide a list here for fear I’ll leave out one and be quite chagrined.
6. Network everywhere.
Join several LinkedIn groups and connect to as many individuals as you are able, follow good folks on Facebook and Twitter, keep watch for the next big way to network professionally.
7. Be a lifelong learner.
There are many opportunities for free educational events, especially vendor-sponsored webinars. Be sure to have as part of your hiring conditions the support from your employer to attend at least one annual meeting each year or at least one live seminar or workshop in addition to appropriate webinars.
8. Enjoy what you do.
I often say to clients and colleagues, “If it ain’t fun, we don’t do it.” Part of that is in jest, of course (especially when we are dealing with very serious and far-reaching objectives like strategic planning or contract negotiations) but having the ability to keep things in perspective is very important. Publishing isn’t rocket science (or brain surgery or insert the hardest thing you can think of) … but it’s filled to overflowing with details in every part of its process. It’s our job to keep all the moving parts working but that doesn’t mean we can’t smile and occasionally laugh while we do so. For fellow Disney fans imagine the scene from Snow White when the little guys are singing “Whistle While You Work.”
9. Just ask. The worse that can happen is someone will say no and nothing will change.
Most people in publishing are very willing to lend a hand whether to a coworker or colleague or younger professional. Don’t be afraid to ask even a big mucky-mucky for advice or information that you need for a project. You may find yourself one fantastic mentor in the process.