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The enduring value of academic publishers
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Posted by IPG
These are interesting times for academic book publishers in the social sciences, business and law. In the modern research environment, many universities and national bodies do not recognise books as a research output. Squeezed between various research assessment frameworks on the one hand and the opening up of the self-publishing market on the other, we must justify what value we add to scholarly research or else disappear entirely.

As if this were not enough, fast-advancing technology means that the print book market is sharply declining and the emerging e-book market is far from just a straight swap in format. Publishers now have the opportunity to set up their own e-book platforms, sell bundles of books and segment markets, but they also need to keep an eye on piracy and fast technology and distribution changes.

As a result of these pressures, academic publishers have become smarter, leaner, faster and more innovative in their products. Books have got better, are more stringently reviewed and live more at the cutting-edge of new research. Book review and production times are far shorter than those of quality journals, so there is an opportunity to get a message out there in a quality, reviewed publication in a timely way.

In various disciplines, such as economics and law, there have been moves to recognize the value of the long-form presentation of new research. There is some hope that in the coming years, the book will again find itself alongside the journal article as a recognized and valued contribution to research. Even absent that, though, there remain compelling reasons why scholars may want to write a book, and we as publishers strive to offer them a worthy outlet for this work.

My colleagues and I have elsewhere produced a list of things an author or editor should expect a high quality academic book publisher to do to help disseminate good research, maximise citations and protect their authors’ work and interests. Here, I would like to summarize this list and offer a condensed version.

There is no denying that a well-established publisher adds a good deal of value in both the physical presentation of a book and the wide distribution required to make an impact. A publisher makes a significant upfront investment and assumes the commercial risk for every book it publishes. This includes maintaining a network of experienced and trusted copyeditors, typesetters, proofreaders, jacket designers and indexers, ensuring that the final product will be more readable and consistent than is typically possible when self-publishing. This maximises the potential for positive reviews of the book and improves the experience of the reader. The publisher will also be able to produce the book in a variety of formats, print and digital, to meet the needs of the maximum number of readers. Additionally, publishers are committed to investing in new technologies such as online platforms, various e-book formats and distribution methods.

Publishers want authors’ books to be read and to be recognized as a new and unique contribution to their field of study. To do so, they must actively, and often ruthlessly, weed out ideas that may not work and encourage those that will. They must also guide the author in developing their work in a way that will maximise readership and impact. Done right, this establishes the publisher as a brand that emphasizes the content and focus of the author’s book and immediately signals that it is worth considering. The publisher establishes and cultivates a good reputation (through, for example, a rigorous peer review process), assuring potential readers that a book meets a certain academic standard. Once released, the book will have a much better chance of being read and cited if it is reviewed and discussed. The publisher maintains relationships with key periodicals, journals and trade publications and approaches book review editors, pressing the case for including a review of the book. A publisher will also send details of the book to bloggers and key commentators to influence and create word-of-mouth marketing for the book.

As the publisher is knowledgeable about the potential market for their books, it can sell the book internationally, utilising its network of sales forces and agents. It will also negotiate commercial terms and manage ongoing relationships with these agents across the world. A publisher engages and deals with multi-channel distributors for the book and will also make authors’ books available through e-book aggregators such as ebrary, EBL, and EBSCO to academic libraries. Social networking is also becoming increasingly important, and a publisher will use its resources to reach into niche areas and key demographics.

As the field of academic publishing evolves, the role of a well-established publisher will only become more important in the wide dissemination of new research. Authors and publishers working together can reach a far wider audience and have a far greater impact on their field.

Alan Sturmer and Francine O'Sullivan are executive editor and publisher respectively at Edward Elgar Publishing, winner of the Frankfurt Book Fair Academic & Professional Publisher of the Year at this year’s IPG Independent Publishing Awards. Visit the Edward Elgar Publishing website or follow the company on Twitter @elgarpublishing.

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