Editorial May 2012
TRADING PRINT DOLLARS FOR ONLINE PENNIES
One of the nice things about being a HighWire Press publisher, or, in the case of Choice, a soon-to-be HighWire Press publisher, is the opportunity to attend HighWire publisher meetings. There are two of these most years, a spring meeting, usually held on the campus of HighWire’s parent institution, Stanford University, and a fall meeting, typically held in Washington, DC, where many HighWire publishers are located.
If you’re a scholarly publishing type--and if you aren’t you probably wouldn’t be there in the first place--a HighWire publisher meeting is one of the more interesting and lively conferences you’re likely to attend. Whether your primary area of interest is editorial, production, product development, marketing, or business management, you’re almost certain to discover something of value at a HighWire publisher meeting.
But HighWire publisher meetings, like other similar gatherings, do not occur in a vacuum. Today they take place amidst a dispiriting milieu of continuing concern about the future of scholarly publishing. For some time now, a combination of increasing costs coupled with flat or declining library budgets, declining subscriptions for serials, and a shrinking market for scholarly monographs have generated a perfect storm for university presses, scholarly association publishing programs, and even many commercial scholarly publishers. And as if coping with a depressed economic environment were not enough of a challenge, publishers have also been struggling with another proven revenue suppressor, an artifact of the transition from print to digital so familiar and so pervasive it has acquired a shorthand label, “trading print dollars for online pennies.”
The dollars for pennies trade-off is most clearly seen in the ad sales arena, where online advertising revenues are typically a fraction of the total once achieved in print. The newspaper industry, where print ad revenues fell from $60 billion annually in the late 1990s to $20 billion in 2011, even as online readership soared to levels far exceeding anything achieved in print, offers a particularly stark example of a trend that has also affected scholarly publishing. It can also be seen in publication sales, where the virtual elimination of multiple subscriptions to electronic serials at most academic libraries and increased sharing of electronic resources, including e-books, have reduced publishers’ unit sales and revenues.
The lament over the “dollars for pennies” trade-off is hardly a new one. A painful reality for at least a decade, it often dominates the agenda at gatherings of scholarly publishers. But not, I am happy to report, the agenda at the most recent HighWire Press publisher meeting. To be sure, there was a session on online advertising, which acknowledged the challenges but also pointed out the opportunities. The overall focus of the meeting, however, wasn’t about the future. It was about new services, new initiatives, and new opportunities, things like mini-sites, specialist portals, data deposits and analytics, ecommerce, and mobile, all of which hardly left time for worrying about the future.
In the end, it was all a bit exhausting but also a bit exhilarating. Maybe the sky is falling on scholarly publishing, but that doesn’t mean you have to stand there and wait for it to hit you.—IER