Profile: Sally Morris 'A one-person dynamo'

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John Murphy profiles Sally Morris, chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers

It is sometimes said that the big commercial publishing companies have too much power in the information industry. But the smaller companies and the smaller learned societies have their own secret weapon too - Sally Morris, chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP).

Since joining this trade association for 'not-for-profit' publishers five years ago, she has seen its membership double from about 120 to around 280 societies and companies. She has raised its profile, together with the profile of the smaller publishers, so that she has become a prominent speaker on the conference circuit. She has also introduced and developed its programme of services to the members, while always fighting for a fair deal for not-for-profit publishers, big and small.

ALPSP Chair, Andrea Powell from CAB International, said: 'She is a very driven individual, a one-person dynamo. When I came back from Christmas holidays nearly all the e-mails waiting for me were from Sally, so she doesn't take much time off.

'Membership has doubled since she has been chief executive. That is partly because people need the support of a trade association more than ever, but you could attribute 75 per cent of the growth to Sally's personal efforts. She has made it her business to get involved in some of the key issues facing the industry, and has really put us on the map. She attracts new members, largely though her reputation and her activities. She is good at cajoling too, but she is good at putting things into a good context so that the Government contacts her when they want informed comment on issues.

'She played a major role in a situation in 2002, when one of the largest subscription agents went bust. There has been a year-long battle to sort this out, and Sally has been one of the key drivers. That activity got her name known in the US publishing community, and raised our profile enormously. She is very good at putting forward all the facts, and not grinding axes; she is an objective and respected voice. People turn to her for a balanced and sensible approach.'

Morris was born in Bristol into a family of printers and publishers of medical books, so she could claim to have printer's ink in her veins. She spent much of her youth in the print shop, and got used to the deafening noise of the linotype machines. Her main interest was reading so, when she came to go to Cambridge University, a natural choice for her studies was English literature.

She said: 'I had always been keen on reading, and I think what made me decide ultimately to go into publishing was that I thought reading was such an astonishing phenomenon. It never ceases to amaze me that you have these squiggly marks on a page or a computer screen and they make things happen inside people's heads.'

After completing her first degree, Morris went on to York University to study medieval studies - following another of her interests. She said: 'The course at York is partly taught, and partly writing a dissertation. I had become intrigued by the combination of medieval literature and art, and the idea of paradise. So I really did it because I wanted to get to the bottom of this particular idea that bugged me. I spent a year digging around reference sources, trying to work out where the idea of paradise came from. It's largely a Middle Eastern idea and means a 'walled garden'. It seems to have developed in countries where water is scarce and so a garden with water is a very precious place.'

After completing her dissertation, Morris answered an advertisement for an assistant editor in the music department of Oxford University Press. She rose to become a commissioning editor and got a thorough grounding in publishing.

After five years, she decided she needed to try something new. She said: 'I am a keen amateur musician, and I found I was doing music all day and music all night. I play the Viola da Gamba and I sing in an early music choir. I thought I needed some variety in my life.'

She moved to the educational division of Castle which, at the time, was part of the US Macmillan empire, as a senior editor of books in humanities for schools and colleges. During her two years at Castle, Morris got married and her husband had to move to Scotland for work, so she decided to follow him. She worked for Castle in Scotland for a while, but eventually moved to Holmes McDougall, in Edinburgh. The company was an educational publisher, and Morris was brought in as a managing editor to set up a trade-publishing list. The two areas she developed were 'Scottish subjects', such as books on Scottish castles and gardens, and 'outdoor pursuits', dealing with sports.

After two years, Holmes McDougall sold its trade-publishing list, which meant Morris had to find a new job. She spent a brief period working with the Scottish Publishers Association before joining a small independent literary printer and publisher called MacDonald. In 1984 she was made redundant and moved to Churchill Livingstone which, at the time, was the medical division of the Longman Group, where she came to stay for the next 11 years, rising to be journals director and then development director.

She said: 'I loved the job. Journals were something I really clicked with. You can manage a journal much more closely, because a journal goes on; it's published every month or three months. You can keep correcting the course, if you think the customers want something different, or you can do something more economically or better; you can change it and monitor the effect. With a book, you have to get it all right at once, and then correct it three years later if you reprint.'

In 1995, Morris was headhunted to join John Wiley, in Chichester, as director of copyright and licensing. Her husband had retired early, so there was no problem moving south.

Morris had been headhunted because she had become heavily involved in industry bodies that dealt with copyright. At the time, Wiley was formulating plans for online services, so it felt it needed someone aboard who knew all the issues.

She said: 'Wiley, very sensibly, were not one of the first to launch an electronic service. They waited for other people to make mistakes and spent the time in planning.'

Morris was again made redundant in 1998, largely as a result of the move to online publishing. Wiley had decided to group all its journals under one international banner in preparation for an electronic service, and decided that, for one group of journals, it did not need a director of copyright and licensing for the UK as well as the US.

Morris said: 'It worked out quite well. I had realised what was going to happen and, just at the same time, the job I do now was advertised.'

According to Andrea Powell, who was on the interviewing panel, it was clear from the outset that she was a very strong candidate, and she believes the Association was lucky that Morris was looking around at the same time that it was.

Morris now runs the Association from home. She said: 'People ask me if it's lonely working from home, but I have never been in contact with so many people in my life. Having contact across the full spectrum of the industry is very interesting. When you are working for one company, you are very focused on the issues of that one company. I find being able to take a helicopter view enormously liberating. I also like the perspective of the non-profit publishers that I represent; it's very refreshing after a career in very profitable commercial publishers.'

In her five years so far, she has overseen a huge growth, both in members and services provided. The Society now runs 18 training courses, and publishes its own journal and newsletter. One important development has been the Learned Journal Collection, which is a scheme under which a large number of titles are marketed to large libraries under a single licence. This gives economies of scale to both libraries and publishers, and puts smaller publishers on a level playing field with the majors.

Morris believes that small publishers have an important role to play, as they are quite often the most innovative and, therefore, good for the whole industry. She said that many are having problems keeping up with the new customer-service demands that the online world has thrown up.

She said: 'Nobody ever used to phone you at 2 am and say they can't open this book, and want you to answer them in Chinese. So we are looking at ways that one organisation can handle these problems on behalf of a number of publishers.

One of the most serious problems academic publishing is facing is that the money spent on information is not rising at the same rate as the output of publications.

She said: 'Research output is continuing to grow because research funding is growing, and output keeps pace with funding. But library budgets are not growing at the same rate, so the proportion of the available literature they can afford to buy is going down. One of the key problems for libraries is that journals are getting bigger, because more articles are being published in them. Therefore the prices are going up, and it's a vicious circle because, if you charge more, you lose customers, and if you put the price up to replace lost customers, you end up disappearing up your own fundament.

'Some people are experimenting with new models where the author pays for publication and then the articles are distributed free. They argue that the costs of publishing should be included in the research funding.'

Her priority for the next few years is to make the Association more international. She said: 'We have been doing a lot of lobbying activity in the UK, and we are looking at ways of doing more of that in other countries. We are also looking at ways to deliver services in other countries, either putting on events, or at least webcasts, of our UK events.'

So those in the publishing industry who were enjoying a quiet life can stand by; the human dynamo is coming to a town near you very soon.


1967-70 Cambridge University, BA English
1970-71 York University, MA Medieval Studies

1971-76 Oxford University Press, London, Assistant Editor, rising to Editor
1977-79 Senior Editor, Cassell education department, London/Edinburgh
1980-81 Holmes McDougall, Edinburgh, Managing Editor, Trade list
1982 Scottish Publishers' Association, Administrative Executive
1982-83 MacDonald Publishers, Edinburgh, Managing Editor
1984-95 Churchill Livingstone, Journals Director then Development Director
1995-98 John Wiley & Sons, Chichester. Director of Copyright and Licensing
1998-date Chief Executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers.