Balancing money and mission

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After a career at Oxford University Press, Mandy Hill has "switched sides", and is now managing director for academic publishing at Cambridge University Press. We caught up with her at Frankfurt Book Fair

What trends have you observed during your time in publishing?

After nearly 16 years at Oxford University Press – and six years with Elsevier before that – I can safely say that the one constant I’ve experienced is that things are in a perpetual state of change.

In this industry, that fact really needs to be embedded into people’s psyches. When people take a job in publishing, the one thing that they need to accept is that it soon won’t be the same as it is now!

Things move on; when I started out in journals we used to copy edit with a pen and paper, and used envelopes to send things to each other. Occasionally a disk might even turn up in the post. Who knew how things would change so much?

The rate of change has been very rapid in some areas, and much slower in others. When everything was in print, and publishers were generally dealing with agents, you really didn’t have any reliable way of knowing whether you were doing a good job, or whether you needed to develop new areas. You had to rely on the feedback of a small editorial team; sometimes the first time you knew you were doing something wrong was when your overseas subscriptions dropped off!

Nowadays, of course, we have much higher-quality data coming through – and people these days are generally much more happy to tell you what they think of your products, whether that be good or bad. We have much better market research tools and much better contact with readers.

Globalisation is the other really big trend. Just 10 years ago, how many of my counterparts would be going to China? None of them, really. Nowadays all the big publishers have people going backwards and forwards to China all the time. China itself has changed so fast that you can’t really describe it as a developing country any more.

How do you feel about the transition to having much greater insight within the industry?

We have been using usage stats for 10 years or more. Sometimes they can force quite difficult conversations – we often run reports looking at article type; which types have been well used and cited, and which haven’t. When you go and talk to an editorial team to discuss which subjects are performing well and getting good citations – and which haven’t – it’s not always a popular topic of conversation. Of course, there are journals out there that are dealing with niche subjects and are never going to be particularly well-read or well-cited – but they can still be high-quality journals, and that is a really compelling argument.

What about libraries having access to usage statistics?

For university presses, with our monographs being perceived as high-quality and trusted, it is a good steady business for us and also a good safe business for librarians, because they know that they are getting a high-quality product. One of the challenges with monograph publishing is that, even if a particular monograph hasn’t been read for a few years, it still might need to be read in 15 years’ time – they need to have a long shelf-life. It will be interesting to see how libraries deal with this situation in the coming years.

One of the exciting things about publishing at the moment is that there has been a real shake-up, with different business models and different ways for libraries to discover and access content. The whole dynamic has shifted, and it’s a very exciting time.

How do you see the role of university presses changing?

The role of the university press is an interesting one. For commercial publishers it’s straightforward – they are there to make money. University presses are there to serve two masters – money and mission. That balance can be achieved in different ways. The American university presses are very much mission-based; they care less about the money.

For Cambridge the balance is now shifting; while we are very much mission-based, there is a recognition that we have to make money to invest in the business. Cambridge University cannot just throw money at the press – so, if we are to continue to invest and innovate, and continue to support researchers’ needs, we have to help ourselves. That is part of what is driving the changes at Cambridge University Press. As a press we are 450 years old – if we want to be here for another 450 years we need to keep innovating, and we will need money to be able to do that. 

About the author

Tim Gillett is the editor for Research Information and contributor to Fibre Systems.

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